Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Nothing To See Here...

I'm no longer blogging here - but you can find me at

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Okkervil River + Wye Oak, Scala, 14/9/09

It’s weird watching faces change when you pass through the same venue often. Scala’s hosted La Roux, Dirty Projectors and Okkervil River in quick succession in the last few days, and for every garish girl and word-perfect gay at La Roux, there was a skinny east-end type at Dirty Projectors – Primark pumps swapped for brogues and a pout. Okkervil River manage to pull the other one, a sold-out theatre filled with the balding, bespectacled and bearded.

They’re the kind of people that file their papers at five thirty, eat their tea and arrive on time, and so Scala is already full for support Wye Oak. The Baltimore duo is a striking listen and an ambiguous pair. There’s just so much noise from those four hands – that kit, that guitar – that the eyes wander to the pedals and to percussionist Andy Stack’s left hand, simultaneously playing bass on a keyboard, his right hand and his feet never missing a drumbeat or cymbal roll. Jenn Wasner plays her guitar like it doesn’t belong to her, like her arms are disconnected, but the sounds that emerge from the speaker switch easily between the patter of folk and the incremental build up of unexpected distortion. She knows what that guitar is, make no mistake, despite all that innocent inter-song babble and softly softly vocal. It’s subtly brilliant, varied and an all-round success. The beards like this band. The brogues just might, too.

Subtle isn’t the word for Okkervil River, oh no. Someone gave Will Sheff a guitar when he was a baby and he never let go, he liked the attention. Now responsible for the watery indie-folk of Shearwater alongside his decade-spanning career with Okkervil River, and the as the king of all the beards, it’s astounding he hasn’t yet satiated his ego. Tonight’s set presents rousing stuff for fans that threatens to collapse under technical issues early on, Sheff complaining that the problem prevents him from really getting into the songs. After a few quick repairs he gets in with two feet, pulling everyone present in, too. There’s handclapping, acoustic numbers, songs old and new and the odd petering singalong. ‘Girl In Port’ is an obvious highlight rendered well-tempered and genuine, while ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’ is overwrought, even the audience shying from the obvious collective chorus the band are trying to induce.

Okkervil River are clearly a multifaceted, musical triumph and there is craftsmanship at work in the songs they create, but it can’t detract from the idiosyncratic smugness of that frontman and his Cocker-esque swagger. That his fans are out in force at Scala tonight justifies the showmanship – there are elated faces at the close of a set nigh on ninety minutes long – but one wonders how some of Scala’s other visitors this week might have reacted to such unashamed pomp.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Richard Hawley Interview

There’s a lyric on Truelove’s Gutter that ends: “blundered into the abyss”. Is that where we are, The Abyss? Two and a half million unemployed; our little island lagging behind all the bigger fishes and fatter cats in the semi-recovering global economy; clinging onto other people’s politicians and our own half-remembered glory days. If that’s where we are, then blunder we did.

Only Hawley wasn’t talking about the economy, or politics, or society. He was talking about falling in love. That’s the thing about Richard Hawley. Big things have gone to shit – Britain has forgotten what it is, where it’s going – but there are still voices of reason out there. And Hawley’s one of them. His sixth solo LP doesn’t directly reference the recession. But dashed hopes, damaged dreams and half-forgotten ambitions penetrate every weird sound and subtle lyric of its fifty-one minutes. His songs aren’t about boom and bust, but “the fall out of that, I suppose, and the way that people are affected by it. My family was deeply affected by the last major recession with the closure of the steel works. It cost my parents their marriage.”

That’s what it comes down to. Not statistics and politics, but the people you love and the streets you tread – something that Hawley has never forgotten. “My family has lived [in Sheffield] for 150 years, you know,” he says. “We live in a very transient, migratory age, but I really, really am rooted in Sheffield, and that’s important to me. Not in a stick in the mud kind of way, but because I know why I’m here.”

Hawley’s never made a secret of his love for his hometown. His Mercury-nominated fourth album, Cole’s Corner, told the story of one of the city’s famous meeting places, while Truelove’s Gutter is the ancient name of Sheffield’s Castle Street, so-called after Thomas Truelove, an inn-keeper there. “The juxtaposition of the two names seems to sum the record up perfectly,” he offers by explanation.

Hawley’s father was a steel worker, his step-father a miner, so he’s well-placed to remind people of a time when community still existed and work was anchored to identity. “It’s the people I love more than anything,” he says of the city. “When the steel works were open people lived really hard lives, but they had a right good sense of humour. Very self-deprecating, not taking yourself too seriously. And people would definitely stick together, you know?”

The people Hawley writes about on Truelove’s Gutter came unstuck, they lost themselves in the mire of modernity. They forgot where they came from. In ‘Don’t Get Hung Up In Your Soul’, Hawley recounts the story of a friend who spent a lot of time in institutions for mental problems because she found it safer in there than being out in the world. “You have to know something before you can really sing about it,” he explains. “It’s not about holding onto things for the sake of it, it’s about holding onto things because they mean something. And I think that’s the point. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

He speaks of how he takes his children to see the old steel works where their grandfather, the late Dave Hawley, worked, and about the museum in Sheffield dedicated to the industry. “In twenty years’ time or even ten years’ time I can’t imagine there being a call centre museum, can you?” And then, laughing: “‘This is where I plug my modem in, this is where I charge my mobile…’ Do you know what I mean?”

Coming from anyone else, it might seem worthy: a successful rock star championing the working class. But Hawley’s done his time. His career started when he was still at school, in a band called Treebound Story; when they broke up he found success with nineties Britpop act The Longpigs, and then, seven years later, with fellow Sheffield-natives, Pulp. “The ideas for a lot of the solo stuff had kind of been fermenting in my mind for a long time,” he says. “I wasn’t frustrated or anything, I was more than happy sat at the back watching someone else singing, that was great. But it just got to the point where I was 32 years old… And now I’ve been making solo albums for a decade, that’s longer than I was ever with any of my bands…

“I was completely shocked where I ended up and it completely threw me – I never expected that at all. But the music’s mine to be made. I’m sick of music being made for commercial purposes. I think that music can serve a different purpose.” For Hawley, music is his livelihood; it’s his trade, just as much as steel was for his ancestors.

“Music is a craft,” he explains. “If you pick up an instrument to become famous and rich, more than likely you will be very sorely disappointed. But if you pick it up because you love it… I’m very clear about what I set out to do and I’ve never lost that.”

He goes on: “At a time like this it’s not great commercial sense to make an album full of ten minute strung out pieces of music. But I don’t think it’s the time, either, for creative characters just to play it safe and play the game. That’s another thing that’s important for me as well, to make a record where I stretch myself as a writer, musician and producer.”

Truelove’s Gutter still features that same molten vocal that earned Hawley a reputation as ‘the Elvis of the north’, but this time it’s soundtracked by a whole host of instruments so unusual they could almost be made up: the glass harmonica, musical saw, megabass waterphone and crystal baschet. What should sound, from this description, like some kind of hellish modernist racket, actually rumbles and glides with similar classical precision as his previous work – testament to the man’s propensity for integrating innovation and tradition.

Hawley’s a man who’ll remind you just where you came from, and why things went awry. But he’ll also tell you that now, more than ever, is the time to push on with the future. “At the time I decided that I wanted to make music as a way of making a living, things were a bit like they are now. You’re not going to say, ‘don’t do that, get a job,’ because where are the fucking jobs?! You might as well do something that you believe in.” For a working lad from Sheffield, he’s not done too badly, after all.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Leeds 2009 Day 3

In a valiant effort to open a much-needed discussion with us muggles about the state of the music industry, Sunday at Leeds opened with two hours of ‘Instigate Debate’. Ten questions were distributed around the sitting audience to be put to a panel featuring the ubiquitous Jon McClure of Reverend And The Makers, Jamie Fullerton from NME, and Clint Boon of Xfm Manchester. The questions, ranging from ‘Are gig tickets too expensive?’ and ‘Would The Clash or The Libertines ever have made it in today’s industry?’ required some serious thought, resulting in several semi-drunken, semi-sensible outburst from the crowd. But it was McClure who stole the show, turning every question into a mini advert for his oh-so-worthy musical outings. Shush now, young man, and let the rest of us have a say.

It was The Horrors, later on in the afternoon, that proved substance will take you a lot further in life than a loud mouth and a few nice outfits. Their NME/Radio 1 Stage set blew doubters out the arena with new tracks like ‘A Sea Within A Sea’ and reinvented old ones, bolstered by the band’s more confident sound. The struggle with noise-laden records is often in bringing them to a live setting, but The Horrors managed admirably.

The Big Pink, by contrast, nearly fell on their arse with a lacklustre, rambling set of very little energy, failing to recreate any of the buzz surrounding new album ‘A Brief History Of Love’ in the Festival Republic tent. At one point the whole show looked set to implode as the music was replaced by a heated discussion between vocalist Robbie Furze and drummer Akiki Matsuura, presumably about the next song on the setlist. Onlookers stayed politely until the end, but those yet to be convinced by The Big Pink’s big sound are unlikely to be satiated that performance.

Jamie T entertained in a packed out set mid-afternoon, punters struggling for a space in the cavernous NME/Radio 1 tent. His set erred almost on pantomime, the south London wunderkind mustering sing-a-longs and call and responses with all his might. And then, as he drew to a close and everyone present trekked over to see Kings Of Leon on the mainstage, the carnage started. Muddy fields had prompted the organisers to make the festival one-way, and suddenly hundreds of festival-goers found themselves trapped and suffocating in a massive crush to get into the main arena. It was terrifying and frankly could have been fatal – that security were no where to be seen and KOL carried on regardless shows Leeds up as the corporately organised riot for which it has become reknown.

And for what? Kings Of Leon’s set was a disaster of wet stadium rock, a messianic Caleb Followill rambling endlessly about the band’s success and promising fans to return from the US next year with the best album the band have ever made. “Every song I wrote, I thought of England,” he gushed, before launching into the lifeless rock-by-numbers that is ‘Reverie’ and ‘Use Somebody’. Even old tracks ‘Red Morning Light’, ‘Four Kicks’ and ‘Charmer’ seemed devoid of the grit and guts that once made them so special. At the back, watching the circus, early fans felt betrayed. Yet the word on everyone’s lips was that this was the gig of the weekend, the best performance of the band’s career – just proves, if you’re going to sell out, you might as well do it properly. And if the thousand-strong crowd enraptured by this performance are anything to go by, KOL have done it very successfully indeed.

Leeds 2009 Day 2

Leeds this year was blessed with one of those most British of bank holidays, where the clouds bluster past at the rate of knots and you’re one minute set for sunbathing and the next scrabbling for wellies and waterproofs.

The changing seasons were nowhere better demonstrated than on the miserable chops of one Charlie Fink, Noah And The Whale frontman, who’s suffered in the last week from a horribly embarrassingly personal interview with the Guardian in which he waxed lyrical about new album ‘The First Days Of Spring’ being all about his break up with Laura Marling. Marling isn’t there for the Leeds show, and neither is any other female backing vocalist, a conspicuous omission after their prominence on the band’s debut. Instead the set is dark and electric, Fink’s stubble and furrowed brow a constant reminder that this is no long the happy-clappy band that gave us ‘5 Years Time’.

In sharp contrast, The XX manage subdued miserablisms so restrained and self-contained that they crawl under the skin. The stark, unharmonised melodies of vocalists Oliver Sims and Romy Madley Croft whisper outwards throughout the tent and raucous, neon-faced kids stand quietly in awe at such unexpected and unusual subtlety. Meanwhile, in a triumph of street team PR, roaming promoters hand out t-shirts and badges for free, and suddenly giant white X’s brand every other torso in sight.

Broken Records smash all subtlety out the water with their string flanked Scottish folk. A regular at many a festival this summer, their infectious jigging and cleverly orchestrated songs gather quite a crowd. It’s a well-deserved success that can only augment as the year draws on.

Now, there was a time when Brooklyn’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs had bite and guile to spare – a rip-roaring mess of distortion and screeching, furious vocals to make your stomach turn and the whites of your eyes bulge. And while ‘It’s Blitz’ was a very lovely slice of disco – ten points for diversity, guys – where was the hacked up guitar riffs, the sawn off Zinner magic, that made earlier stuff so striking? New sources show that it may have been hiding in an amp on the mainstage at Leeds, just waiting to blow the socks off the assembled festival-goers in 2009. This was a stormer of a set including ‘Black Tongue’, ‘Rich’, ‘Cheated Hearts’ and a mesmerisingly well-executed acoustic version of ‘Maps’ alongside the new stuff. It was all perfect – vocals, pacing, guitars and, of course, delivery from the inimitable Miss O.

A Bloc Party interlude – three years on the trot at Leeds and still holding out for that headline slot – preceded the moment everyone had been waiting for: Radiohead. Well, everyone apart from the screaming hoards of girls who trotted off to see La Roux. Two hours passed in moments as Radiohead set the bar higher than ever. Their set was a proper mix of all seven of their albums, from the lesser known ‘Wolf At The Door’ and ‘Gloaming’, right through to anthems ‘Idiotheque’ and ‘Just’, finishing with the cinematic ‘Everything In Its Right Place’.

It was musicially flawless, Thom Yorke’s vocal so well-timed and glorious that it could have been pre-recorded. Depite this, Yorke revealed to a photographer straight after the gig that he wasn’t happy with his performance at all, perhaps due to his slightly squiffy banter between songs, where he once asked Johnny Greenwood for the chords to new song ‘These Are My Twisted Words’. A perfectionist, no less – the rest of us were left speechless.

Leeds 2009 Day 1

Ah, Leeds. Where else would you find thousands of overdressed teenagers battling mud and queues to spend all of their pocket money on a tiny tray of chips and a paper cup of lager to the soundtrack of hundreds of crappy middling pop-punk bands?

Alright, it’s not all that bad. Those arriving early enough on Thursday and Friday morning caught a glimpse of the festival arena pre-carnage – a grassy, neon-lit circus of a festival site, all fairground rides and burger stands. Overcrowded sets from Wild Beasts and Blood Red Shoes attempted to entertain the early birds on Thursday night, but with so many people at the tiny BBC Introducing stage, it was impossible to catch a glimpse of the bands, let alone hear them properly.

Friday lunchtime heralded the start of the festival proper, just a red ribbon and a start line short of a race to narcotic oblivion. Newcastle’s Detroit Social Club did little to raise the pulse on the Festival Republic stage, sounding too much of a hotch-potch of Elbow and dad rock to make waves.

It was a special guest appearance – one of those secret gigs that everyone who wasn’t there kicks themselves for the whole weekend afterwards – that really set off Leeds 2009. Josh Homme, John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl turned up on the NME/Radio 1 Stage as Them Crooked Vultures, the QOTSA/Zepplin/Foo Fighters hybrid also featuring guitarist Alain Johannes. Homme should supposedly have played with Eagles Of Death Metal, the band he formed with guitarist Jesse Hughes, on the main stage that very day, but was apparently saving all his energy for the ‘Vultures, whose epic set finished with ‘New Fang’ and ‘Nobody Loves Me (And Neither Do I)’.

Later that day The Maccabees snatched the very same limelight for a packed out set to hundreds of punters, igniting a huge dance off with a mix of new and old material. Even Orlando looked to be enjoying himself as people jostled for a space in the massive tent.

Meanwhile things were heating up on the main stage for Friday’s headliners. Prodigy cemented themselves as undisputed kings of British rave, attracting a crowd that moshed right up to the sound desk and beyond. They mixed old classics ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ with newer material from Invaders Must Die, never once letting up on intensity.

There was much speculation as to the direction that Arctic Monkeys would take before they hit the main stage – and while sceptics were momentarily silenced as Alex Turner entered with dark glasses, leather and a swagger, the ensuing set violently divided fans. Much has been made of Turner’s drunkenness, austerity and lack of chatter on the night, but the bottom line has to be that this was a set constructed to reinvent a band bored of the relentless smalltown louts turning Arctic Monkeys gigs into hooligan affairs (many of whom found apt accommodation in the kindly branded ‘Relentless’ tent a little later).

A month in the desert has transformed this band into one of depth and distinction – so much so that even old favourites ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and closer ‘505’ came off darker and more accomplished than ever before. It’s unsurprising that the indie-pop plaudits were pissed off. It takes courage to slap thousands of fans in the face with the cold water of a new musical direction (no wonder Turner took to the bottle before the stage), but ultimately, it’s what’s required for a band to keep the cogs turning, the kids guessing, and their career alive. What’s more, the hoards of fans word perfect on new tracks like ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Propeller’ prove that there’s more than a little on ‘Humbug’ to get at, should the critics open their ears before their mouths.

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Big Pink Interview

When The Jesus And Mary Chain first started recording demos in 1984, comparisons to The Ramones resulted in them adopting the feedback that would eventually come to define their sound. William Reid, one sibling half of the original line-up, said: “That’s why we started using noise and feedback. We want to make records that sound different.”

These days any band seeking distinction would be ill-advised to assume the same tactic – noisy records are everywhere, swinging back into vogue as the past is endlessly rehashed in search of something new. But what Jesus And Mary Chain did was take something simple – Beach Boys pop and Ramones punk – and confound it with fuzz. No one would listen – in the early days the band had to sneak into venues and pretend to be the support act to get gigs. Then they moved to London and got signed to Alan McGee’s Creation Records on the strength of a sound check. A few months later, one NME writer declared them the best band in the world.

In the words of Willy Wonka – strike that. Reverse it. Take a duo – Milo Cordell and Robbie Furze – who met at an underground rave and discovered a shared love of feedback – straight up white noise – and launched a record label called Hatechannel to release digital hardcore records that were, in their own words “really very aggressive”. (The clue’s in the name.) There was already an eponymous label, Digital Hardcore Recordings (DHR), at that time “but we wanted to go one better,” Milo explains. “Hatechannel is supposed to be more offensive and aggressive than Digital Hardcore. We wanted to be the loudest.”

Somewhere, in these ambitious, arcane, a-melodic origins, The Big Pink was born.

Neither Robbie nor Milo, two Jesus And Mary Chain obsessives, are new to the music industry, and it shows. Milo’s the founder of Merok records, a label that has signed bands who could barely play an instrument before their first gig and then went on to become huge: Klaxons and Crystal Castles among them. He’s well-spoken and clearly business minded, traits inherited, perhaps, from his father, Denny Cordell, the producer responsible for Procul Harem’s ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’. Milo’s brother, Tarka, famed for flings with Kate Moss and Liv Tyler, was found hanged in his house last year on the eve of his own album release.

Robbie, meanwhile, comes from less conspicuous origins. They both claim to be in their late-twenties but Robbie’s weathered features tell a different story (though the babyfaced girlfriend he brings along to the interview suggests he’s not lost his charm just yet). He’s done his time touring every squat in Europe with hardcore bands, most notably as the guitarist for the founder of the aforementioned DHR, digital pioneer Alec Empire, and also with his own hardcore outing Panic DHH. No, Robbie’s no stranger to the notion of noise. But pop – the kind of scuzzed out, hook-laden pop that The Big Pink purport – is a new direction for him.

“When we first started we didn’t have any manifesto, really. We didn’t know what The Big Pink was going to be,” says Robbie. “It was something that we just did at home – twenty minute soundscapes of pure noise. At that point we were like ‘ah, man, we want to sound like the digital Velvet Underground.’”

“And then,” Milo interjects, “we added beats.” It isn’t just beats that make The Big Pink what they are today, although the fact that their music belongs on the dance floor as much as in bedrooms is undoubtedly part of their appeal. Where The Jesus And Mary Chain needed that feedback, The Big Pink needed the very opposite: melodies.

“The thing with the stuff that we were doing before is that there was no song structure,” Robbie explains. “We’d have seven or eight minute songs and we’d go off into six minutes of white noise. To try and do and three and a half minute song is a lot harder, but it’s more fun, it’s more interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up humming a noise track. A good melody is everything about music.”

Melody is everything? Coming from two men obsessed with amp fuzz? “With the record label I signed loads of pop music,” justifies Milo. “Alec Empire writes pop songs as well. It’s just pop music hidden behind distortion. Other people decide that it’s pop music, not us. I want people to decide for themselves what it is.”

And people will. With their debut, A Brief History Of Love, now out on 4AD, six months after NME gave them the Philip Hall Radar Award for best new act, there’s a lot to be decided in the coming months. Top of the list will be whether they can shake off the scenester tag that’s dogged them ever since a drug-fuelled interview with Vice man Andy Cappa and a few homoerotic photos preceded the mainstream release of any of their music.

“All this other bullshit’s so boring to be honest,” Robbie says of the media interest in their social lives. “I think we’ve made a really great record, whether we take drugs or party is irrelevant.”

“We write really good songs. Of course it’s the songs,” says a slightly paranoid-looking Milo when asked why people are so interested in this band. He’s right in some respects. There’s substance here – there’s a label man and seasoned musician, there’s obsession for music, and there’s the time spent distilling noise into songs. They’ve got plenty of ambition. But like Jesus And Mary Chain before them, who struggled in the early days to shake off the hype and get people to actually listen to the music, there’s still a lot to prove.