‘These are torrid times – this album is a reaction to that’

Vinny Peculiar is doing it while he still can… The West Midlands-based singer-songwriter’s new album – While You Still Can – is a socio-political record that takes a wry look at the current state of the UK, but also throws in some references to ’70s pop culture along the way.

We spoke to him about Brexit, the good and bad sides of social networking, heavy rock and channelling Gang of Four, Wishbone Ash and Pink Floyd…

Diane Abbott taking a selfie, broadcaster Richard Stilgoe, ’70s rock, class A drugs as a form of social control, Donny and Marie Osmond and a chain mail bikini… welcome to the weird world of Vinny Peculiar.

All of these subjects are mentioned on While You Still Can, the new album by the cult singer-songwriter, which is his thirteenth in a 20-year career.

The last time we spoke to Vinny, he’d just recorded Return of the Native, his brilliant 2018 album about moving from Manchester and returning to Worcestershire, where he grew up. This time around, he’s made a harder, darker and rockier record with a political edge and plenty of social commentary, but he hasn’t dispatched with the vintage pop culture references that we know – and love – him for.

Man Out Of Time is rollicking country-blues with a lyric about the ’70s glam rock years of his youth, while Culture Vulture’s Led Zep-inspired riffs are a nod to his Black Country rock roots. The synth-heavy Ministry Of Fate concerns itself with government media blackouts, Scarecrows is Bowie-esque, robotic funk meets plastic soul and the post-punk, heavy indie-rock of Pop Music For Ugly People tackles political opportunism and personal greed.

With atmospheric, ghostly piano and minimalist, spidery guitar, the opening song, Vote For Me, is a mysterious and sinister plea, and Question Time – our favourite track – is a Smiths-like, jangly pop song, but with a lyric about a missing female politician, told from the point of view of a suspect under interrogation.

With that in mind, we subjected Vinny to an interrogation to find out more about his new album and get his views on the state of the nation.

“I’m not used to making political-type proclamations – I just want to sell records!” he tells us. “How flippant am I?”

Q & A

I like the title of the new album. Where did it come from?

Vinny Peculiar: It came from something my dad often said to me: ‘Do something useful while you still can…’

That was the original title, but I shortened it to While You Still Can, after a conversation with Paul Cliff, who designed the sleeve of the record. It seemed appropriate, given the volatile times we live in, politics fragmenting, constitutions crumbling, the climate changing, and the need to act while we still can…

On that note, the album is quite political at times – there are several social commentary songs on there: Vote For Me, Pop Music For Ugly People, Culture Vulture, Let Them Take Drugs, Ministry of Fate, Diane Abbott Takes A Selfie, Question Time, Art and Poverty…  Did you set out to make a political album, or did it happen by accident? 

VP: It’s impossible to avoid politics nowadays – things are so polarised, opinions so righteous, news feeds ever omnipresent… This album is a reaction, in parts, to all that and from speaking to people on the sharp end of this Government’s austerity programme – teachers, nurses and shop workers. These are torrid times.

The Tories have so much to answer for and, with the Brexit divide, everything is so aggressively polarised all the time, hence the socio-political side to this record. That said I don’t have all the answers, but listening a bit harder and shouting a little less would be a start. We need to be nicer to each other, and we need to get rid of the Tories, obviously…

Staying with politics, Question Time – my favourite song on the album – is classic Vinny Peculiar jangle-pop. The guitars are very Johnny Marr-esque, but, beneath the pop tune, there’s something more sinister going on…. a female MP is missing and her suspected abductor is being interrogated. We hear the song from his point of view…

VP: There’s an ambiguity in the song – it’s not clear exactly what’s happened to her. Perhaps she’s has been trolled and has gone underground, or perhaps something more sinister is going on… So many of my songs have a linear story, with a beginning, middle and an end, but Question Time asks more questions than it answers – a bit like the TV show…

‘I’d support bringing politics back to a more local, accessible, decision-making level, with less screaming, confrontational opinions on Twitter and more jovial meetings in the community centre’

With the current state of the UK, it must be a great time to be an observational singer-songwriter. Where do you start? Is it overwhelming?

VP: The songwriter’s radar does seem to be a little more vivid just now – yes. The sense of uncertainty, Trump – I mean, where do you start? We are living in a great big unknown and it feels like we’re being stitched up. It’s crazy, isn’t it? The Brexit thing, all the pseudo-nationalism, immigration scaremongering, families at war – these are divisive times.

We need a more empathic way of listening to each other. I’d support bringing politics back to a more local, accessible, decision-making level, with less screaming, confrontational opinions on Twitter and more jovial meetings in the community centre.

There’s a song on the new album called Diane Abbott Takes A Selfie. Are you a fan of social media? Is it a necessary evil?

VP: Like most musicians, I use social media to communicate new releases, point people in my direction, share interests and such – it can be a useful tool. On the other hand, it can be incredibly damaging, dangerous and destructive.

The hate speak, the trolls – just block ‘em – the rise in teenage suicides that’s being driven by cyber bullies and the dubious data targeting to fix elections… It’s addictive by design and I’m as guilty as the next person of spending way too long scrolling through my feed… There are digital-free communities emerging in Northern California, which is, er, interesting…

‘We need to be nicer to each other, and we need to get rid of the Tories, obviously…’

Your last record, Return of the Native, was a concept album about returning to live in Worcestershire, where you grew up. The new album has some Black Country rock on it – the West Midlands influence is still creeping through. Culture Vulture has a Led Zeppelin feel. Have you been getting in touch with your ’70s rock roots?

VP: I wanted this new record to be louder and prouder, with more of a band feel. The songs felt like band songs, even during the writing stage, and there are hardly any acoustic guitars on the record. It’s all rather riff-centric, with a few old school guitar solos – the kind of which I would have enjoyed as a teenager. They’re a bit flash – hah! One of the producers, Dave Draper, knows all about rock and the Midlands’ heavy metal legacy – his input was crucial in shaping the direction of the songs, as we turned up to 11.

Speaking of iconic Midlanders, I can recommend the Black Sabbath exhibition in Birmingham – it’s a beautifully put together show.

How were the recording sessions for the album? You worked with your ex-Parlour Flames rhythm section Che Beresford (drums) and Ollie Collins (bass) and two producers, Dave Draper and David Marsden, both whom you’ve worked with before. Was it an easy album to make?

VP: The Parlour Flames rhythm section reunion was fun. We rehearsed the songs as a three-piece band a couple of times and recorded bass and drums in Manchester – the rest of the album was recorded in my home studio. It was a relatively easy album to make, but they are never that easy – there is always something that doesn’t quite go to plan.

I’d hoped to have a more inclusive band involvement in the mixing/production, but it proved impossible with distance, time and work constraints. So, the bulk of the album was produced here in the Midlands by Dave Draper, who did Return of the Native, but three tracks were produced in Southport by David Marsden, who worked on my album Silver Meadows.

‘I wanted this new record to be louder and prouder – it’s all rather riff-centric, with a few old school guitar solos’

I should also add that the artwork for the album is by long-term Vinny Peculiar collaborator Paul Cliff. The images he used are pinhole photographs highlighting the former homes of World War 1 soldiers from Bury, Lancashire.

What were some of your other musical influences and starting points for the new record? As well as ‘70s rock, there’s synth pop (Ministry of Fate) and Bowie-esque funk / plastic soul (Scarecrows) in the mix, too. It’s an eclectic album…

VP: Gang of Four – I’m channelling my inner Andy Gill on a couple of the tracks – white noise and scratches – and my inner Andy Powell, from my teenage favourites Wishbone Ash – hard rock riffs and feedback. Oh and my inner Dave Gilmour on Let Them Take Drugs – he is such a feel-good player…

Man Out Of Time is a country-rock-blues song that is littered with ’70s references: Elvis, The Spiders From Mars, Queen, The Osmonds, Noggin The Nog, Richard Stilgoe… Do you feel like a man out of time?

VP: Hah! Yes – kind of. I think we all have our chosen musical era in pop music that’s defined by age. It was the excitement of the new music of my youth – glam rock, heartbreak, pop and TV culture – these are the inspirational forces at play here. The song is set in 1972 and is slightly at odds with the rest of the album. It ends in 1976, with the dawn of punk rock…

You’re very prolific. What are your plans for the rest of 2019 and 2020? Any new projects and albums in the pipeline?

VP: I’m hoping we can do a string of band gigs in March 2020, as well as continuing with the solo shows, and we have a band album launch gig at The Castle, in Manchester, on November 28.

I’m currently remixing some older tracks for a rarities album that I’ll put out some time next year, hopefully. I have an acoustic project I hope to finish, but, in truth, it’s only three songs in, so I have a way to go on that one. I’m especially looking forward to playing with the band again…

‘I’m channelling my inner Andy Gill from Gang of Four on a couple of the tracks – white noise and scratches’

The new record is coming out on vinyl. Is this your first vinyl release?

VP: Yes – this is the first Vinny Peculiar vinyl release. The label Cherry Red put out the Parlour Flames record on vinyl, but this is a first for my tiny little label and me. I’m hoping against hope I can shift a few of them – well, a lot of them actually, but we’ll have to see…

What was the last record that you bought?

VP: It was Kate Tempest – The Book of Traps and Lessons, and, before that, Be Bop Deluxe: The Very Best of The Rest of… both on vinyl.

Finally, what do you most enjoy doing while you still can?

VP: Playing football with my grandson, but, alas, my knees are giving way…

While You Still Can by Vinny Peculiar is released on October 28 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records). It’s available on CD digi pack and vinyl, or as a download.

More information at:

https://vinnypeculiar.com

https://vinnypeculiar.bandcamp.com/

 

 

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/