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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The XX Interview

For The Quietus

The shock of the new? A new sticky label on the same old tin of beans, more like. The NME’s future fifty recently proclaimed that our best hope for tomorrow is Animal Collective, a group of visionary 30-somethings who’ve been making music for a decade. They beat dormant Swedes The Knife to the top spot, the compilers momentarily overlooking the fact that the latter haven’t released a record in over three years. The rest of the list is so futuristic it can’t be mentioned here for fear of ripping a hole in the space-time continuum and transporting us all to a parallel universe that exists only in Chris Cunningham’s nightmares.

Chances are, those looking for something new to feed their insatiable ears will end up frantically clicking round the murky corners of the blogosphere before passing out cold in a pool of their own drool after reading some blethering pansy twit’s ‘creative’ review of an unheard of Brooklynite with an 8-track. The predictions and promises of your favourite garish magazine/blog/zine are so often redundant, self-serving and contrived. Good music, the kind that doesn’t need force-feeding down desperate open gullets, creeps up on you and demands attention, like an audio-tug on the sleeve that arrests unintentionally from the off.

One of the few acts to really merit their place in the future fifty, a veritable sleeve-tugger themselves, are south London quartet The XX. Theirs is an album of claustrophobic beauty and measured sentiment so strikingly self-restrained that it has, rather ironically, inspired some of the internet’s more excessively poetic reactions.

While the verbose reviews will grate, it’s true that there is something unquantifiably refreshing about hearing this band for the first time, though it’s for a far simpler reason than the word-botherers would have you believe. What sets The XX apart is the vision of four south-London teenagers, discovered two years ago and then quietly cultivated, keenly supported but unrushed and un-meddled with, until the time that they were ready to break. Budget cuts, media edacity and attention deficit in the information age have nigh-on made this kind of approach to new music obsolete: The XX are a reminder of what can surface when bands are given the opportunity to mature on their own terms.

“We started working with [Young Turks] when we had just turned 18,” Oliver Sims of The XX explains. “They just turned up at our shows and offered us a place to rehearse, got us gigs, got us chances to work with some amazing producers. That’s all it was for about a year – playing shows, writing songs. It’s only in the last year that we’ve started working towards an album. When they first started working with us we only had about six songs – now we have an album.”

Young Turks, the subsidiary of XL Records responsible for Wavves, Kid Harpoon, and (less fortunately) Jack Penate, were quick to realise the quality of their newest associates, offering the band the chance to work with some stellar producers including Diplo and Kwes.

“We worked with some producers beforehand just to get some experience, and maybe if we liked it to have them produce the album. But everything we did ended up sounding more like them than us,” says young producer-programmer Jamie Smith. “I was producing before I was in The XX, so during those recordings I kind of realised I was a control freak, and that I had to do it all myself to be satisfied with it.”

Jamie joined The XX when the band started working with Young Turks, adding to the original line-up of childhood friends Oliver and Romy Madley Croft, and keyboardist/guitarist Baria Qureshi, who joined to help the original duo recreate their ideas live. Baria explains: “Everyone else we worked with over-produced it. We wanted to stick to our original sound, and Jamie knows what it is that we want. It was important for us to be able to play the record live, and so it’s better to have someone who’s more involved with us.”

“Jamie’s work’s really good,” Oliver adds quietly. He’s spot on. Jamie is arguably The XX’s secret weapon. A shy, curly-haired computer-aficionado who barely looks up from his equipment on-stage and admits to terrible nerves before gigs, Jamie speaks keenly about his MPC – Media Production Centre. The technology, which has existed since the late eighties, allows him to programme the sounds he requires on his computer and then provide all percussion live on electronic pads, with his finger-tips, in a miniature imitation of a drummer.

“I did drum lessons for about two years. I’m okay at drums, but I’m not good enough to be technically innovative,” says Jamie. “There are so many bands with amazing drummers who sound the same, and I’m not good enough to make the drums sound different, and I wanted it to sound different. With an MPC I can make it sound exactly as I want, so I can create all the sounds that we need.” Not only does the technology add a dimension and facilitate experimentation, it’s also fairly unique. “Some bands use an MPC to trigger a long sample that plays round a couple of times, but I don’t think anyone uses it as much as I do, except maybe a couple of producers,” Jamie explains, citing American producer RJD2 as his major influence.

Of course, it’s not just Jamie’s production that makes this band. They talk openly of their ‘sound’ with rare precision for an act so young. “I don’t think it’s been an intentional decision to make this kind of music,” Oliver says when pressed to explain how their music came about. “I don’t know, Romy just got a new amp that had reverb and it kind of just came from that, and I’m not a very loud singer, so it didn’t make sense to make loud music that I couldn’t compete with vocally. I wouldn’t describe it as an accident, but it was quite natural rather than intentional.”

The unusual closeness between Romy and Oliver permeates this record. Their cool, antiphonal vocals, the lyrics addressed always to another ‘you’, manage to seem at once isolated and conjoined. Oliver explains that they each write their own lyrics, in their own time. For words written in solitude, they match astonishingly well. A testament to their friendship, perhaps? “I suppose so,” Oliver replies, with habitual vagueness. So many of his answers are punctuated with ‘dunno’ and the word ‘nice’. “I find it weird,” he goes on, “[the lyrics] seems to match up quite well. Romy’s like a sister to me, so all the songs are addressed to something outside of us.”

Music aside, it becomes quickly obvious that The XX are genuinely a product of this decade – a true, bonafide band of our time, for better or for worse. Romy and Oliver thought that ‘Teardrops’, arguably their finest cover, was originally garage remix rather than a hit for Womack And Womack in the eighties. (“It’s quite shameful, really,” Oliver admits now.) The two of them swap lyrics and write songs over iChat rather than face to face. Their understated pop-focus has its bottom flattened out at intervals with the unexpected squelch of a massive sub. They have rewritten classic pop and made it their own – listen to the parallels between ‘Infinity’ and Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’. (“I don’t think it was planned, but I think he is deeply engraved in my mind,” Oliver counters at the suggestion of plagiarism.) They have toured with Micachu and The Big Pink, and they have support slots planned with Florence and the Machine and Friendly Fires; four bands engraved indelibly on the musical landscape of 2009.

Yes, The XX are a band that belong in that future fifty, if ever a future fifty is worth the paper it’s written on. But more than that, they’re a lightyear ahead of the rehashed, branded and contrived indie and pop that has dominated this decade, simply because they had clarity of vision and were given the resources to explore their ideas, undisturbed. “We don’t know what to expect, we’re just taking it as it comes,” Baria says of the future. But then, no one’s qualified to say what lies ahead. For now, it suffices to have discovered a band that make you glad to live in the present.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Observer Review Festival Watch: Leicester Summer Sundae

See original article here

Just big enough to entice campers, yet nestled conveniently in the city centre, Leicester's Summer Sundae attracts an untypical festival crowd - from the too young for Glasto to the too old for discomfort. This was reflected in the lineup, a hotchpotch of the nostalgic (St Etienne, the Charlatans) and the innocuous (Frank Turner, múm), all of whom took to the stage before it got too dark, with acts finishing well clear of midnight so as not to upset noise restrictions.

The result was part-festival, part-village fete. For a small event, Summer Sundae does well on diversity, offering an eclectic variety of luxury festival food, with side portions of comedy, spoken word and film. That said, discerning music fans were catered for too. Wild Beasts capitalised on their newfound acclaim, while Broken Records, Port O'Brien and First Aid Kit remoulded traditional folk into various new guises. Indoors, the impressively well-equipped De Montfort Hall played host to 65daysofstatic and Micachu and the Shapes, both of whom used the venue's capacity for visuals to maximum effect.

With swine flu keeping the Streets and Fanfarlo from attending, and Bon Iver's set strangely overlooked, it was the Beatles-covering Easy Star All-Stars who took most of the plaudits. The reggae troupe's perfectly timed Sunday afternoon slot had everyone up and dancing, can in hand, in the spectacular weather. This was the great British staycation in festival format - and just a carnival queen short of a summer fair.

Best performance Micachu and the Shapes.

Overheard [of Bon Iver] "I think he's some American folky dude."

Best discovery Broken Records.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Big Chill 2009 - Day 3

By Sunday, everyone’s lobster-pink, a bit grimy and dog-tired from excesses of heat and hedonism. But not to fear! The Big Chill programmers lay on a day of comedy and culture for the day of rest to help everyone recuperate enough to spend another night in a tent. The Guardian tent sells papers with free goodies (fudge and babywipes: a triumph of their targeted marketing strategy) and The Coop provides a whole day’s worth of stellar comedians.

As such festival-goers settle themselves onto hessian mats in this cavernous disco marquee looking like refugee-fallout from some humanitarian crisis: weary and ready to be entertained. First up, Mock The Week baby Russell Howard mixes material old and new in an hour and a quarter set that goes down a treat. His is a style that skews the humdrum into the extraordinary, re-imagining the world with a childlike wonder. It’s evident, for all the comedians, that the festival crowd is a very different creature to their usual audience, with Howard at one point exclaiming, “That was a great punchline, but don’t worry about it!” after a joke passes, collectively unnoticed.

Noel Fielding of Boosh fame fails miserably to carry the baton through the following hour. “I don’t have any punchlines in my set,” he proudly announces, before proceeding with dull fantastical skits and floundering audience banter, prompting the conclusion that he maybe should get some. Where Fielding excels is as the camp, cross-dressing zombie king of the videoed zombie rave, shown later on, on the screens of the Main Stage. The film, shot on site on the preceeding Thursday with the participation of early festival-arrivals, broke the record for the number of zombies caught on camera, managing to get over 4000 people mocked up and baring their teeth for a Warp Film and Film4 co-production entitled ‘I Spit On Your Rave’.

Zombies of a very different kind greet Dylan Moran as he takes to The Coop stage after Fielding late-afternoon on Sunday. A deadpan, cynical master-of-his-art, Moran holds the audience on a string, keeping momentum through a relaxed set that cements his inimitable prowess in the realm of disgruntled Irishman.

There’s plenty in the Sunday music stakes to keep punters at the Big Chill, despite what the city-types might tell you as they pack up and head off to work before the night begins. Broken Records perform a set of string-flanked, Scottish indie-folk brilliance at sundown that pulls an encouraging crowd ahead of a support-slot with The National in London the following week. Meanwhile, David Byrne rounds off a year of touring with his headline set, his band dressed head-to-toe in white, including a gaggle of contemporary dancers that could come straight out of Flashdance. His music is similarly anachronistic, the original in eighties pop at a time when countless new artists are re-imagining the decade.

The weekend draws to a close with the homebred charm of Riot Jazz, a fleet of mesmerisingly talented brass-players who take rock’n’roll, jazz, reggae and even dubstep into their own hands; and Big Chill originals Hexstatic, whose mash up of audio and visuals is the last dancing gasp of the mutating festival beast that is The Big Chill. Everyone’s left tired, but not totally frazzled – true to its name, this is one weekender that strikes the balance between rave and retreat with rare precision.

The Big Chill 2009 - Day 2

It’s a little known fact that God likes The Big Chill. As proof, the big man set about bestowing three days of uninterrupted, skin-sizzling sunshine upon the lesser-trod hills of Herefordshire. Coupled with which, the whole weekend retains a hard-to-come-by sense of laidback, communal magnanimity true to its name, from the sanctioned Big Issue vendors selling programmes to the hoards of children chasing bright balloons, bare-footed, around the site. It’s a festival you’d take your mum to, and then pop her in a tent in the quiet area after sundown and embrace the night with your mates. The line-up isn’t bursting with the cream of currently touring bands, but there’s so much more to this weekender than music, from gourmet foodstalls to big name comedians, to endless pockets of lesser-known entertainers, that there’s hardly time to notice.

There are a few artists that demand recognition, however, and Emmy The Great sits firmly in that box alongside the best of them, her mid-afternoon Castle Stage set bringing together a hillside’s worth of lazing sunbathers ripe for a little good-humoured folk. She plays the best of 2009 album ‘First Love’, alongside some excavated ‘new-to-you’ songs that have just been released on the Edward EP. The audience swells as the set advances, and Emmy’s cheered back for an encore (a rare occurrence at festivals, constrained as they are by time restrictions), performing the dreamy ‘Everything Reminds Me Of You’.

Who can predict the collective mind of the festival mass? Mercury Prize nominees The Invisible are scheduled for the Main Stage on Saturday, but fail to even really draw enough people to fill a tent. It’s a mad state of affairs, especially considering that the band have such an industry buzz about them and have been blowing people’s socks off with their eponymous debut album. Clearly this doesn’t immediately translate into popular recognition – a great shame given that their swirling, jazz punctured sound is one of the best to emanate from the Big Chill this year.

There is a heavy emphasis on nostalgia on Saturday night, as Orbital officially reform to snatch the headline slot at midnight. The swelling crowd barely squeezes into the huge field before the stage, where they are treated to a visual-audio treat of astounding proportions. Countless people are overheard reminiscing about the duo’s legendary Glastonbury performances 1994/2004 as lasers, bubbles, lanterns and lights punctuate the cloudless night sky late into the night. The Hartnoll brothers appeared humbled by their reception – there can be no doubt that this is a gig worth reforming for.

Saturday night is conventionally ‘the big one’ at any festival; post-Orbital, most are primed for a messy night of raving. Horse Meat Disco in The Coop serves up a side of nu-disco, having garnered increasingly impressive reviews for their south London residency over the last couple of years. Though heavy on the cheese, the set goes down swimmingly as the huge tent filled with movers and shakers under the spangled lights of a giant disco ball.

Meanwhile, for those that like their afters heavy on the bass, Annie Nightingale mashes toxic levels of the stuff at the Frisky Bison, playing with the wide-eyed punters like puppets on strings, at the every whim of her prolonged intros and sliced up tempo changes. She might be sixty-something and have the appearance to prove it, but Nightingale stomps all over the BBC’s ageist policies by playing to the kids better than most of their peers.

After sound restrictions put paid to late night fun around 4am, the Crap Stage becomes the central spot for those who can’t face their sleeping bag. A wee DJ box positioned at the top of the Big Chill hill, its location makes dancing near logistically impossible thanks to the gradient, but that doesn’t seem to matter to most of those present, who likely lost touch with the ground several hours ago. The dancing continues until the rising sun threatens an end to proceedings, and as a chill hits the air festivallers stumble back, thoroughly entertained, even if not yet sleepy.

The Big Chill 2009 - Day 1

Festivals in the middle of nowhere are a yin-yang equation of lengthy journey-times and unprecedented access to some of the most beautiful countryside dear Albion has to offer. It’s no different at this year’s Big Chill, which suffers from train malfunctions to the quaint Great Malvern station (some Londoners endure a four hour journey with the same number of bus-train connections), but on arrival, proves itself to be one of the most spectacularly located outdoor events on the roster. Ledbury is lush, green and full of furry wildlife, though the latter make themselves scarce in the face of having their natural habitat overrun with noisy revellers. The festival site is set into the bottom of a huge trough in the landscape. The uphill trek over the hill reveals this jewel of a festival in its full glory – from the peak of the hill, the whole site spreads into the circular dip of the land, lit up by lanterns and stage lights.

Most punters arrive on Friday, in time for Friendly Fires on the main stage at sundown. Theirs is one of those clichéd, meteoric trajectories of success that bursts from obscurity to mainstream acclaim in the space of one album, but they carry the mantel well. Fresh from a Mercury Prize nomination, they pull a huge crowd all dancing in pale imitation of frontman Ed Macfarlane, whose high-energy funk dance fills the big screens just as his impressive vocal fills the air. Continued performances of this calibre have rendered Friendly Fires the festival band of 2009 – they’re everywhere, magnificently polished in sound and image, and well deserving of the recognition they’ve garnered of late, even for those that aren’t huge fans of the music.

From unbridled brassy joy to the depths of video hell, Warp-associate Chris Cunningham unleashes a ferocious visual assault just next door on the Castle Stage a few hours later. Set to remixes of other artists and his own, more recent, musical outings, Cunningham’s artwork remains perhaps the grimmest, most obscenely magnificent exploration of digital craftsmanship available in the UK today – from that famously ominous Aphex Twin grin and the wide-set eyes of the alien-girl in his Playstation advert, to even more obscure and shocking looping images of swollen, tortured aliens and fleeting forays into porn. The industrial din draws a massive audience, who are, without exception, left open mouthed by such a spectacle.

We’re left gaping by Basement Jaxx too, though for sadly opposite reasons. A swill of hacked together commercialism fronted by voluminous black women and including a painful snippet of Kings Of Leon’s ‘Sex On Fire’ does nothing but wound the eardrums. Thankfully Sheffield-native Toddla T has some audio-healing up his sleeve at the Frisky Bison cocktail lounge. His is another kind of hackmanship, drawing upon a plethora of different styles and genres. Eschewing expectation at every turn, the South-Yorkshire wunderkind mashes breaks with techno coated with a gloriously tongue-in-cheek delivery that assuages ravers into the small hours. Tom Bell, we salute you.