Worcestershire Source

Worcester waterways (13) (1)

After 23 years living in Manchester, singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar moved back to Worcestershire, where he grew up. His relocation inspired him to write a concept album, Return of the Native – a brilliant collection of witty, reflective and deeply personal songs, featuring a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, including a burnt-out rock star, the ghost of a Civil War re-enactment enthusiast, Eminem hopelessly lost in Droitwich, ’70s M.O.R. singer Clifford T.Ward, DJ Tony Blackburn and comedian Rik Mayall.

Musically, the album takes the listener on a journey through Worcestershire that’s soundtracked by glam-rock, jangle-pop, psych, Pet Shop Boys-style electro and New Order-esque, Northern melancholy.

In an exclusive interview, I ask Vinny to give me a track by track guide to the record.  “It was a learning curve and cathartic,” he tells me. “I was putting some old demons to bed…”

Q & A

Hi Vinny. Let’s talk about your new album. The songs were inspired by you moving from Manchester back to Worcestershire, where you grew up. How and why did relocating inspire you when it came to writing songs and making this album, which is the follow-up to 2016’s Silver Meadows?

Vinny Peculiar: Hi Sean – good to speak with you. Moving back has been cathartic. Return of the Native was inspired by the changes, reflections and, up to a point, the memories I have of former times here. The ideas seemed to ebb and flow into songs soon after the move. I suppose, in some ways, I was writing to make sense of the changes, the end of a long-term relationship, the start of a new chapter…

How are you finding it living in Worcestershire? Is it good to be back?

VP: I’m settling in. It feels good, but it’s taken longer than I expected to connect. I still seem to spend a lot of time on the M6 – the lure of the North is never far away.

Is Return of the Native the first Worcestershire concept album? I can’t think of any others, can you?

VP: I’m not aware of any, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some obscure folk singer got there before me…

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Picture of Vinny Peculiar by Trust A Fox Photography

Where did you make the record and who worked on it with you?

VP: The recording of the drums and bass and some of the noisier guitars was done in Whitby Studios, Ellesmere Port, with my Liverpool band Paul Tsanos [drums] , Bobby Kewley [bass, cello] and Rob Steadman [ex-Parlour Flames] on keys. The vocals were recorded and edited at home, as were the acoustic guitars, percussion and keyboards.

The serious sheen was added in UNIT 31, in Pershore, by co-producer Dave Draper, who turned a half- decent record into a great sounding one, I like to think.   

Was it an easy album to make? 

VP: It was something of a learning curve for me at times – the challenge of mic placements, street noise and the neighbours’ dog were all sent to test me – but it felt emotionally cathartic, like I was putting old demons to bed, especially in the more intimate, confessional songs.

I thought it would be fun to do a track-by-track guide to the new record. Let’s talk about each of the songs individually – I’ll throw in a few of my own thoughts and you can tell me more about the tracks and what inspired them. Here we go…

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Track By Track Guide to Return of the Native

The Grove and The Ditch 

This is a glam-rocking start to the record. We’re taken back to teenage street gangs of the ’70s. What was the inspiration? It’s quite possibly the only pop song to name check Tony Blackburn…

VP: When I was at school, my Bromsgrove friends and I were routinely terrorised by the Redditch Mob – they’d come over to Bromsgrove and pick a fight with us after school. We weren’t very hard and got regularly chased – it became the norm, they’d accuse us of being in the Bromsgrove Gang and we’d leg it!  The song is set in 1974, when Tony Blackburn was dumped by his girlfriend and famously cried in public on Radio 1 – he really was in bits.  Many of the other references in the song are from that time – The Rocky Horror Show, winters of discontent were everywhere. Glam rock was just about alive and kicking, but punk rock was about to confine it to history…

Malvern Winter Gardener

I think this is one of the best songs you’ve ever written. It’s beautiful, wistful jangle-pop and is about an eccentric local character – a once famous rock star, who’s reflecting on the gigs he played in the ’70s, at the Malvern Winter Gardens, and the bands he saw back in the day…

VP: Thanks, Sean. I used to go to the Winter Gardens in Malvern as a young teenager – the bands I mention in the song were some of the ones I saw. It was a magical place to me. The song’s narration is from the point of view of a burnt-out rock star who lives in Malvern, working as a gardener and lamenting the glory days.

The idea of using that voice came from conversations with older musicians in the local music shop and the pub. I understand Ted Turner, who played guitar in Wishbone Ash and gets mentioned in the song, used to live in Malvern. I was also informed the cover of Argus [by Wishbone Ash] was shot in the Malvern Hills, but my subsequent research suggests otherwise…still I’ve included it in the song, anyway. 

Blackpole

The dangers of English Civil War battle re-enactment. Please discuss…

VP: There’s a Civil War re-enactment society just down the road from me – I walk past it when I go to town. I’m fascinated by people who a dress up to re-enact battles – time travellers, if you will. There’s a particular escapism – a kind of discipline that I admire. The song came from a  ‘what if?’ scenario – ‘what if your re-enactment became real and someone got hurt?’ and it grew from there.

The hero of the song dies in battle and returns as a ghost to haunt his girlfriend, who marries the undertaker. I wrote it as a picky little folk song, but it morphed into quite an epic – a twanging, jangling affair. I think it’s one of my favourite songs on the record.

Golden City

What’s the story behind this song? It sounds like it’s named after a Chinese restaurant…

VP: I’d drive past Golden City – and you’re right, it’s a Chinese restaurant here in Blackpole – routinely, when I was in the process of moving from Manchester to Worcester. It’s a rather striking, modern, detached roadside building and I was intrigued. It’s also the name given to San Francisco, which is one of my absolute favourite places to be. The song is about change, hope and moving on, as well as addressing doubt and uncertainty…

Return of the Native 

This is the title track and it name checks Rik Mayall, alongside a whole host of other people and local characters who’ve come from Worcestershire…

VP: Yes – there are a lot of name checks in this song – they’re affectionate recollections. The song is derived from a ‘making a list’ approach, I’ve done this with a few songs before where there’s no linear story – a more random approach. Many of the characters are fabricated, but all have local reference points…and Rik Mayall was born just down the road from me, so that has to be worth celebrating. Many of the other landmarks were significant to me when I lived here, all those years ago. I suppose you could say it’s a spontaneous memory song, in the Kerouac tradition of bop prosody, or was it Ginsberg? I digress…

A Girl From Bromsgrove Town 

More jangle-pop… This is a sad tale of a girl who left you for the girl next door! Care to shed any more light on this affair?

VP: After visiting my father in his Bromsgrove nursing home, I found myself loitering outside a former girlfriend’s house, waiting for my mother. It was a flashback-type moment, and it set me reminiscing. It’s a true story…

‘Clifford T. Ward taught me for a year – we spent a lot of time distracting him and he was happy to talk music’

The Singing Schoolteacher 

This is a very poignant and reflective song, which is about your English teacher, who found brief fame as ’70s M.O.R. singer-songwriter, Clifford T. Ward. It talks about the influence he had on you and how pop music shaped your early life. I guess he was the first famous person you knew and he had a major impact on you… How did he inspire you?

VP: Clifford T. Ward taught me for just a year. He took a less than typical approach to teaching. If we didn’t fancy poetry, he gave us permission to opt out – nobody did – and he had long hair, very long hair, so he was immediately one of us. I don’t remember much about the actual lessons – we spent a lot of time distracting him and he was happy to talk music. He was on John Peel’s record label, Dandelion Records, and he wrote songs for Bronco. All of this was incredibly exciting. When I told him I had musical ambitions, he was the only teacher who took me seriously. I never got to know him as an adult. The song tracks my relationship at a distance, but it’s very much a tribute to his memory and his inspiration when I was young.

Detroitwich

The first time I heard this song, I laughed out loud! Eminem ends up in Droitwich by mistake and mayhem ensues when the locals get their hands on him. There’s even a ‘Vinny Peculiar-doing-the-Pet-Shop-Boys’ West End Girls’ rap vocal! How the hell did you come up with this? It’s bonkers… 

VP: I first heard the ‘Droitwich-meets-Detroit’ naming aggregation from my daughter. It amused me no end, setting off some flight of fancy, whereby Eminem, befuddled by endless touring, ends up in Detroitwich, where he’s abducted by the mob, before being rescued by P Diddy. I worked at a plastic mouldings factory in Droitwich when I knew no better – it was rather grim and I suspect its influence has crept into the song somehow. It is sort of bonkers, yes – I can’t really argue with that…

‘I worked at a plastic mouldings factory in Droitwich  – it was rather grim and I suspect its influence has crept into the song’

 On Rainbow Hill

We’re plunged back into more familiar Vinny Peculiar territory – this is another poignant, reflective, melancholy ballad of lost love. Can you elaborate?

VP: It’s a readjustment song – it’s all about moving on. End of a relationship stuff.

David Swan Riverman

Another song about a local, eccentric character… David Swan Riverman regularly feeds the local swans and ducks and looks out for them. Do you know him? Is there a nod to Nick Drake’s Riverman in the title? I like the haunting, psychedelic feel of this song….

VP: There are a lot of guitars on this song and cellos, too – beautifully played by Bobby Kewley. The haunting Nick Drake-ish-ness is kind of accidental, but I can see what you mean. It’s a droning, root note affair. I don’t actually know David Swan, but I’ve seen him at work and it’s kind of mesmerising and dazzling seeing so many swans assembled at feeding time on the river. Crowds gather around – it’s a beautiful spectacle.

Game Over

This is one of my favourite songs on the album. It sounds like your years living in Manchester have influenced this elegiac song of lost love. I think it has a Joy Division / New Order feel and it references Ian Curtis lyrically…

VP: This was a cathartic song to write, too. Sometimes songs write themselves and you look at them and think ‘is that really me?’ This was such a song. It’s a final acknowledgement – a song that’s hopefully fit to end a record. I wasn’t that aware of the Manchester influence, but I can hear it now you’ve mentioned it. I suppose it’s hard to ignore it after living there for the best part of 23 years.

‘I’ve started making demos for a new album –  it’s going to be a very noisy, dissonant wreck of a record’

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Picture by Trust A Fox Photography

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the songs, Vinny. Finally, what’s next for you? Any projects in the pipeline?

VP: I’m currently working on a collaboration with the poet Anna Saunders, writing music for poetry. We hope to perform live in the future.

I’ve also started making demos for a new album, which we plan to record and mix live in just five days – the very opposite in many ways to how I typically put records together. It’s not going to be a singer-songwriter album – it’s going to be a very noisy, dissonant wreck of a record. It’s a collaborative project with the musicians formerly known as Parlour Flames – the file sharing has commenced. I have no idea how long it will all take, nor under which name it will emerge, but it feels kind of exciting and new, which is a good sign, I think…

Return of the Native by Vinny Peculiar is released on June 1 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records). 

http://vinnypeculiar.com/

https://vinnypeculiar.bandcamp.com/

 

 

Welcome To The Institution

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Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution) –  the new record by singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a tragi-comic masterpiece that tackles the issues of mental health and care in the community.

A concept album that’s set in a ficticious long-stay institution called Silver Meadows, it’s an eclectic collection of songs that were inspired by working as a nurse and visiting his schizophrenic brother in hospitals during the 1980s and early ’90s.

It opens with the stately piano ballad The Institution and takes us on a journey through the corridors, offices and wards of the facility, introducing the characters who live and work in Silver Meadows.

There’s drug-dealing Gerald The Porter,  controversial new member of staff Andy, who’s ‘The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour’, and Albert – a troublesome inmate who causes all sorts of problems.

Musically, the record is richly rewarding, with New Wave pop, jangly, country-tinged guitar tunes, ’80s disco and psychedelic leanings.

I spoke to Vinny to get the full story behind the making of his new album…

 

Congratulations on Silver Meadows – it’s a wonderful record. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why did you choose to make a concept album about mental health issues?

Vinny Peculiar: Thanks for those nice comments – I’m so glad you enjoyed the album. The songs arrived out of nowhere in a two week spell at the start of 2014 – 20 in a three-week period, cut down to the 14 tracks on the record. I was on a bit of a roll. It was, of course, the last thing I expected to write about, after finally leaving the NHS after years of planning to. It’s set in a fictitious 1980s long stay institution – the kind of place I used to work in as a nurse.

The album opens with The Institution and the song addresses hospital gossip, nursing home parties, illicit band rehearsals, an abusive charge nurse, a drug-addled psychologist and women patients who were incarcerated just for getting pregnant. That’s a lot of issues for one song!  It was the first one I wrote for the album – it sets the scene and kick-started the rest of the writing.

So we also get new treatments and behaviour modification techniques  – Room Management and Self Help Skills Unit – and changes in practice – Community Care and Everyone Has Something to Say.

There are a couple of love stories – The Wednesday Club and Waiting Games – and in The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour, new staff polarise the workforce and challenge the old ways.

The song Hospital Wing was inspired by a young man I met when I started nursing. He was visiting his brother, who was dying on the hospital wing from a rare genetic condition. I can’t recall exactly which one, but, three years later, he was admitted to the same ward, where he too died, peacefully. He had so much dignity –  his story has never left me. I have made a video for Hospital Wing with a wonderful group of actors in Bream, in the Forest of Dean – they did a great job. It was fabulously directed by regular Vinny Peculiar collaborator Andy Squiff.

 

Considering the sensitive subject matter, was it difficult to write the songs? You don’t want to come across as patronising, or cruel, do you? How did you approach the record?

VP: It wasn’t a difficult subject to write about, but, on the other hand, it’s not an easy subject to explain in a succinct, press release kind of way. You’re right – the last thing you want to do is to patronise the people who actually lived through the era and experienced life in those places.

I’ve a lot of mixed memories – good and bad – from that period. I’ve tried to set out a balanced stall and stick to the plot, so when it’s sad, it’s sad and when it’s funny, it’s funny.

There are so many characters in the songs. Are they based on real people you knew? 

VP: The characters are stolen from memory, with requisite name changes, and they sort of wrote themselves. It’s a record of extremes, highs and lows, kindnesses and cruelties. I’ve changed names and switched a few details around to protect identities, but the essence of the songs are all true….

Your brother had mental health issues, didn’t he?

VP: My brother died in 2001 – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I’ve written songs with mental health themes in the past.

Big Grey Hospital, which is on my album Whatever Happened to Vinny Peculiar? is about my brother’s admission to hospital and the powerlessness of families trying to make sense of it all.

Operation from Ironing the Soul has hospital overtones, as does Nurse of Year, so I have skated with mental health imagery in the past, but Silver Meadows is a more concentrated work.

What did you want to achieve musically with this record? It has a full-band sound and great arrangements. There are even some New Wave synths. Can you tell me about the recording process? 

VP: I’m really proud of the way it sounds – lots of experimental layers and instruments that I’ve not really used before. It was more of an experimental approach – even proggy in places – and it was crafted with love by David Marsden, in his Southport Studio.

I first met Dave when he managed Pearl Studios in Liverpool in the early ‘90s. Nowadays he has a successful career in film and TV music. We always said we’d do something together. It took us 20 years to get there, but here we are, and we’re exceedingly proud of the album.

Recording started with home demos, then band rehearsals with the rhythm section Bobby Kewley (bass) and Paul Tsanos (drums). They are both great friends of mine and are lovely players.

We recorded the rhythm section at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with Ian Lewis and Dave overseeing, and then I added most of the electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, and mandocello at Whitby, where I could crank up the volume. We did a few of the main vocals and took everything to Dave’s studio where the parts were edited and new vocals recorded. Dave added a few more guitars and other exotic bits and bobs, including the Moog parts. He’s a proper Moogaholic.

The title track is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a lovely country-tinged sound and I really like the twangy guitar licks and the gorgeous melody. Can you tell me more about the song, which sees a former patient from the institution returning to Silver Meadows, as he’s unable to cope with normal life?

VP: In the early days of community rehabilitation, it was typical for people to leave hospital and be left to fend for themselves in the outside world. However, without the right support, people would fail and return.

If someone has lived in an institution most of their lives, then they are going to need help to adjust, but they didn’t always get what they needed.

In the song Silver Meadows, a patient returns to what is familiar and where he feels safe – it offers some kind of counterbalance to the bad stuff that’s going on.

I’m glad you like the country twangs. Without wishing to go all Guitarist Magazine on you, that’s my Fender Telecaster Custom 1978 through a Silverface Fender Twin Reverb amp, circa 1976. Although, the star guitar on the record for me has to be my Rickenbacker 360 and what Dave christened the  ‘walls of jangle’. It gives it a psychedelic edge. Drummers, do please forgive my ramblings…

The song The Wednesday Club is a nod to ’80s disco, both musically and lyrically. I like the synths and the backing vocals. What were you aiming for with that track?

VP: The Wednesday Club is set in a learning disabilities hospital disco. It’s actually quite a sad song – in spite of its dance-ability. It’s a song about a couple that live in the institution. They do lots of jobs around the place and they’re really able, but no one is quite sure how they ended up there. They fall in love at The Wednesday Club – the hospital disco – but are ultimately separated when they are forced to move to different parts of the country in separate group homes, far away from each other. This happened in the early days of community care and the legislation that drove the hospital closure programme. When we recorded the backing vocals, it was like we’d joined The O’Jays….

There are some dark tracks on the album. The Back Wards is very menacing and disturbing… 

VP: In the old-style institutions there were always ‘back wards’, with the reputation of turning a blind eye to bad stuff.

By the time I was working in hospitals, these were much less prevalent, but cruelty and abuse is never far away when you have poorly trained and under-resourced staff with power over vulnerable people.

These things still go on today – look at Winterbourne .

I witnessed some abuse when I was a student nurse – there’s a reference to it in the song The Institution. It was an assault, but no one would sign witness statements, so the case was dropped and I was moved to another hospital to finish the module.

Are you planning to do a stage show / musical based on the album? How’s that project coming on?

VP: The stage play is, as they say, in development. We have characters and narrative and I’m working on the first draft with Liverpool writer Ian Salmon.

It’s very early days. We’ve had a couple of meetings and Ian is fleshing out the dialogue, so I’ve taken something of a back seat these past few weeks.

I’ve no idea how long it will take to finish the musical. We hope that by March 2017 things will have moved from concept to concert hall, but we’ll see…

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Will you be touring this album with a full band?

VP: Yes. I’m really looking forward to playing the album from start to finish with a full band. We have a couple of band shows in September, then, hopefully, more towards the winter. And the band will feature in the stage play musical too, if I can prize them away from their respective tribute bands…

Since the last time I interviewed you, sadly, David Bowie has passed away. You must have been very upset. He was a huge influence on you, wasn’t he?

VP: I was really saddened by his death. My generation is the Bowie generation – the alien on Top of The Pops generation. It was impossibly sad knowing his final album was a farewell gift – and that he was orchestrating his own finale, which was just so humble and so brave. He was a consummate artist – always exploring and reinventing – and I doubt we will see anyone else to compare him to in our lifetime.

And now Prince has gone, too… Were you a fan?

VP: I was a fan – not of everything he did, but there was so much to love, and he was such a prolific talent.

Sign of The Times and Sometimes It Snows in April… there are so many more songs. He was also an independent – his own person – and he stood up to the corporate music mogul world of exploitation and refused to play by Tickemaster’s rules. I loved him for all that, too.

What music  – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

VP: I like The National – Trouble in Mind is a beautiful record. I know they are not that new, but they are new compared to most of what I listen to. The new Coral album sounds interesting. The last album I bought was, rather predictably, Bowie’s Black Star on CD. I still buy CDs…

So what’s next for Vinny Peculiar? Would you like to make another concept album? Do you have any ideas for the next record?

VP: I hope to complete the recording project I started last year with Mancunian performance poet Tony Walsh – aka Longfella. I’m a big fan of his work.

I’ve also started writing songs based on local place names. I moved house last year and perhaps it’s my way of trying to make sense of it all…

 

Vinny Peculiar’s new album, Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution)  is released on June 6 on Shadrack & Duxbury Records.

For  more information, go to http://vinnypeculiar.com/

Best Albums of 2015

 

minesweeping

As we approach the end of the year and overindulge in festive celebrations, hangovers are a daily occurrence.

They also played a major part in the making of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2015 – Minesweeping by O’Connell & Love.

One of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of recent times, it’s a collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell.

As Larry told me when I interviewed him about the making of the record: “What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.”

Reviewing it earlier this year, I described it as, ‘a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.’

The record opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing,hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

It’s an album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt – it’s like rifling through a record collection of classic rock and roll, folk, blues, country and soul.

There are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

I’m really looking forward to seeing O’Connell & Love play this record live in 2016 – according to Larry, there are plans for a UK tour.

In the meantime, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of something dark and strong and lose myself in Minesweeping.

One for the road, anyone?

As albums of the year go, singer-songwriters, alt.country, power-pop and Americana dominate my list.

Richard Hawley turned in a classic with Hollow Meadows, which was less psychedelic than its predecessor, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and largely rooted in country, folk and the lush, late-night, ‘50s-tinged melancholy ballads that dominated his earlier albums. Although there was still room for some bluesy-garage rock (Which Way) and anthemic, widescreen guitar pop (Heart of Oak).

I was lucky enough to meet Richard after one of his gigs this year and when I told him that I preferred his new album to the one before, he simply said, ‘Well – you can’t please everyone, Sean…’

Other singer-songwriters who released great albums this year included Manchester’s Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk – and Vinny Peculiar, whose Down The Bright Stream was a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary.

Nev Cottee

Nev Cottee

John Howard’s new project – John Howard & The Night Mail – was a wonderful record, full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

Detroit’s Nick Piunti – a Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – returned in a blaze of glory with Beyond The Static, which was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed power-pop record 13 In My Head, while Dublin-born singer-songwriter Marc Carroll’s latest album, Love Is All or Love Is Not At All, was his most political record yet.

Dead Flowers – who topped Say It With Garage Flowers’ album of the year list back in 2013 with their debut, Midnight At The Wheel Club, didn’t disappoint with their new record – Minor & Grand, which was often louder and much more electrified than their first album.

Manchester band Last Harbour made Caul – a brooding, cinematic masterpiece that recalled Bowie’s Berlin period, the industrial, electronic atmosphere of Joy Division and the gothic splendour of Scott Walker and Nick Cave.

Steelism

Instrumental duo Steelism, with their spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, came up with a record (615 To FAME) that harked back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also threw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic soundtracks.

UK Americana label Clubhouse Records had a great year in 2015, releasing superb albums by alt.country band Case Hardin (Colours Simple), whose singer-songwriter Pete Gow played a solo show that I promoted back in October, and The Dreaming Spires (Searching For The Supertruth)– Oxford’s prime exponents of ‘60s-style jangle-pop.

I must declare a vested interest in one of my favourite records of 2015 – The Other Half, a collaboration between top UK crime writer Mark Billingham and country duo My Darling Clementine.

Mark discovered My Darling Clementine by first reading about them on my blog, so, I’d like to think that I set the wheels in motion that led them to record their story of love, loss and murder that’s told in words and music and set in a rundown Memphis bar.

Sadly, not everyone who released superb albums in 2015 lived to tell the tale. Gifted, but troubled, singer-songwriter Gavin Clark (Sunhouse, Clayhill) died in February, but he left behind Evangelist – a project that was completed by James Griffith and Pablo Clements, members of UNKLE/Toydrum and the owners of the Toy Room Studios in Brighton.

Loosely based on Gavin’s life, it was a dark, edgy, atmospheric and psychedelic-tinged trip that made for uneasy – yet essential – listening.

And finally, here are some nods to acts who didn’t release studio albums this year, but put out some records that I loved.

I’m not normally a huge fan of live albums, but Johnny Marr’s Adrenalin Baby was brilliant and really captured the feel and atmosphere of his gigs – it’s worth it just to hear his outstanding, europhic version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

And talking of live shows, UK folk duo The Rails gave away a seven-track acoustic EP called Australia at their gigs this year.

It served as a good stopgap until their next album and featured a killer, stripped-down cover of Edwyn Collins’ Low Expectations.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts followed up his 2013 concept record Cold Wars Part 1 EP with the five-track sequel – What Would You Die For? [Cold Wars Part Two].

The standout track This Is A Cold War was a stately, Beatlesesque piano-led ballad. Lennon and McCarthy?

And while we’re on the subject of spies, being a huge James Bond fan, I really enjoyed A Girl And A Guna 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2015 and a Spotify playlist to accompany it:

  1. O’Connell & Love – Minesweeping
  2. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows
  3. Vinny Peculiar – Down The Bright Stream
  4. John Howard & The Night Mail – John Howard & The Night Mail
  5. Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun
  6. The Dreaming Spires – Searching For The Supertruth
  7. Dead Flowers – Minor & Grand
  8. Evangelist [Gavin Clark & Toydrum] – Evangelist
  9. Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
  10. Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine – The Other Half
  11. Nick Piunti – Beyond The Static
  12. Case Hardin – Colours Simple
  13. Last Harbour – Caul
  14. Steelism – 615 To FAME
  15. Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
  16. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  17. Marc Carroll – Love Is All or Not At All
  18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  19. Gaz Coombes – Matador
  20. Wilco – Star Wars
  21. The Sopranistas – Cutting Down The Bird Hotel
  22. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  23. New Order – Music Complete
  24. GospelBeacH – Pacific Surf Line
  25. Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite
  26. Kontiki Suite – The Greatest Show On Earth
  27. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
  28. Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love And Let It Kill You
  29. Jacob Golden – The Invisible Record
  30. Ian Webber – Year of the Horse
  31. Bill Fay – Who Is The Sender?

‘I’m a Methodist atheist lesbian trapped in a man’s body!’

 

Vinny Peculiar

Vinny Peculiar

 

Down The Bright Stream – the new album from Manchester singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary. I asked him about growing up in an English village in the ’70s, catalogue trousers and poking fun at sculptor Antony Gormley.

The last time I interviewed you was in 2013, to promote your compilation record, The Root Mull Affect. At that time, you were also working on your new studio album – Down The Bright Stream. Now it’s finished and it’s out in March. How do you feel about the new record?

Vinny Peculiar: It feels really good to have finished it – a sense of relief even. I ended up using a few studios in the never-ending quest for sonic perfection…

It’s a fantastic album – wry, amusing and very moving at times. The record is steeped in nostalgia and memories – several of the songs deal with your childhood and growing up in the ’70s. The opening song English Village, which reminds me of  The Kinks, is all about the place where you spent your early years. Where did you grow up?

VP: I grew up in a little place called Catshill – an English village in north Worcestershire. Well, it was more of a village back then, but it’s acquired a new estate since and an Indian takeaway, so it’s expanding.

My early childhood was based around church life  – my family are Methodists – granddad was a lay preacher, dad a church organist and my cousins taught at Sunday School. I was in the Boys’ Brigade and I did Bible studies. Hymns were the first music I really heard and took part in – I still really enjoy singing hymns. I’m an atheist who enjoys the rituals of religion, if that makes sense. I’m a Methodist atheist lesbian trapped in a man’s body!

Where did the title of the album come from?

VP: It’s from a lovely little book by B.B  – the story of the last gnomes in England. We had it read to us at primary school – happy days. I name check the book in English Village, along with Stig of the Dump, another school days classic…

There’s so much detail in your songs… Do you keep diaries, or do you just have a great memory for recalling experiences, people and places?

VP: I kept diaries as a teenager, but they were nothing to write home about, mostly just day to day activities – ‘I went to school, had a bath’ – that kind of thing. I’m often writing from memory – my memory is fairly good, although not always as accurate as I imagine. Of course, I have a propensity towards exaggeration. Don’t all writers?

As an observational singer-songwriter, you’re up there with Ray Davies. Are you a fan?

VP: Sure – yes. He’s such a great observer – still writing, still working and still believing. He’s truly inspiring and his newer stuff is great too, not just the classics. Have you heard Working Man’s Cafe? It’s wonderful.

Your song The King of Pop is a tribute to Michael Jackson – were you a fan of him, too?

VP: I was a fan of sorts – yes. Not a massive, full-on, love is blind kind of a fan, but more an appreciative, at a distance, respectful outsider fan – especially Off The Wall and Thriller.

The song The King of Pop is really a comment on the freak show that his life became and how we were all party to it – the public and the media. We killed him…

Who were your musical heroes when you were growing up?  You’ve always been a big Bowie fan, haven’t you? Do you like his new stuff?

VP: My first love was Simon & Garfunkel, then came Bowie, Slade and T.Rex.  Then I got into harder rock – Wishbone Ash and Black Sabbath. I then got into The Kinks and Joni Mitchell – Joni was a revelation.

The new Bowie stuff is great, although I wish he’d ditch those huge ‘80s drum sounds – they really annoy me. I love writers, too – Charles Bukowski, Keith Waterhouse, Richard Brautigan, Rick Moody, Alan Bennett, Henry Rollins… There are so many.

Your song Catalogue Trousers celebrates the mail order catalogue and name checks pianist entertainer Bobby Crush. The Internet has killed off the mail order catalogue, hasn’t it? Discuss…

VP: I wrote Catalogue Trousers after reading a piece on the demise of the mail order catalogue industry and the relentless march of the Internet. It just set me thinking about how important the catalogue was to our family, and to young boys’ emergent sexuality. Clothes, records and cameras – you could get anything from the catalogue. My grandma really did say I looked like Bobby Crush – she was a big fan of the crimplene crooner.

What has been your worst fashion faux pas?

VP: A cravat in bright orange, with a curtain ring neckpiece, circa 1974.

Your song Antony Gormley is a tongue-in-cheek, Pythonesque dig at the sculptor and his nude male statues on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Do you really hate his work? What do you think he’d make of the song?

VP: I think he’s an interesting artist. I don’t hate his work. I think the impact of the men on the beach is kind of spectacular. In the song, I’m just looking at it from a simplistic viewpoint, devoid of all artistry and cool. I’m sure he’d see the funny side…

Is Girl At The Bar – one of my favourite songs on the album – aimed at anyone in particular? Is it based on a real encounter?

VP: It’s loosely based on a night out I had a couple of years ago, when I met a girl with a lust for life – some way beyond by own limitations. I felt like Billy Fisher [from Billy Liar] loitering on the platform by the milk machine. I never saw her again…

Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted the new album to sound like and what its themes would be?

VP: I was unhappy with some of the initial recordings, so that impacted on newer songs being added. It started off as one collection of songs but morphed into another record over time – I think it’s stronger for that.

I Only Stole What I Needed, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and Antony Gormley were recorded some time after the rest of the album, in a different studio. Three songs from the initial sessions didn’t make the cut. I ended up doing the production myself in collaboration with various engineers, so it took longer than expected.

Special thanks should go out to The Gadget  – aka Jonathan Hurst  – who played a blinder in the patience and fortitude department. I very nearly drove him over the edge. David Marsden mastered the album  – his attention to sonic detail is something else.

How was the recording process? Can you tell me more about making the record? 

VP: The drums [Che Beresford] and bass [Ollie Collins] were recorded at Eve Studios, Stockport and then I took the files away and I added guitars, keys and vocals at home and in various studios. Rob Steadman also added keys and a couple of tracks were recorded using my Liverpool band Paul Tsanos [drums] and Bobby Kewley [bass, cello].

The recording process was a bit disparate and the majority of the mixes I settled on were completed at Gadgets Lab, Manchester – three tracks were recorded mixed at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with resident engineer Ian Lewis.

Jah Wobble [PIL] plays bass on the last track The Doo Kum Inn. How did that collaboration come about? 

VP: Neil McDonald [ex-Puressence] plays on three tracks. He was adding guitar parts to his Roland machine at South City Music in Altrincham, when Jah Wobble came in the shop. Jah liked the track and ended up playing bass on it. I need to thank him properly…

So, what are your plans for the rest of this year?

VP: We’re doing a festival headline show in June at Fylde [FRRfest – Lytham, Lancashire – June 18-21: www.frrfest.com]. I’m excited about that – an extended band show. There will also be more gigs and recording.

The next album is written – it’s called Silver Meadows – Fables from the Institution. It was inspired by me working in learning disability and psychiatric hospitals in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I start recording soon and it should be finished by the summer.

I’m hopeful Silver Meadows will also become a stage play. I’ve drafted some basic script ideas and I’m looking around for collaborators/backers. It’s early days, but I’m excited by what I have so far, so we’ll see what transpires.

In 2013 you released an album with ex-Oasis guitarist Bonehead [Paul Arthurs] under the name Parlour Flames. Can we expect another Parlour Flames record in the future?

VP: Unlikely in the short-term, but you can never say never for sure. I did write several songs with a new Parlour Flames record in mind. One of them, which is called The End, made it into my solo shows for a while and will emerge on future Vinny Peculiar recordings, I’m sure.

Finally, are there any artists that you’d like to write and record with?

VP: I’d love to collaborate with John Cooper Clarke. He’s a bit of a hero of mine and he only lives down the road. I quite fancy myself as a bit of an Invisible Girl, if you follow…

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Down The Bright Stream by Vinny Peculiar is released on March 30 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records).

www.vinnypeculiar.com

 

Forthcoming Vinny Peculiar UK shows

Feb 18 – RMA Tavern, Portsmouth

Feb 27 – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Mar 21 – The Crescent, Salford (album launch)

Mar 25 – Death 2 Disco, Silver Bullet, Finsbury Park, London

Apr 10 – The Cinnamon Club, Bowden

May 2 – John Peel Centre, Stowmarket

June 19 – Macbeth, London 

June 20 – Fylde Rock ‘n’ Roots Festival 2015, Fylde Borough