The Joy Formidable @ Rough Trade East

The Joy Formidable. Photo: Brian Whar
The Joy Formidable. Photo: Brian Whar

Their debut album ‘The Big Roar‘ was aptly named: a formidable wall of searing, layered guitars, drums and front-woman Ritzy Bryan’s voice pitching between a shriek and a whisper. The three-piece from Mold in North Wales have been touring hard over the last few years in support of the likes of Muse and White Lies, writing on the road and only taking time out to record their follow-up, ‘Wolf’s Law‘, in the appropriately wild state of Maine in the Northeastern US.

To the sound of a wolf’s howl, the band stride on stage and launch into ‘Cholla’, the second new album track to get a release. Named after a sticky cactus, the searing riff at its heart is just as catchy, but the noise hurricane that characterised much of their first album has been tamed somewhat.

“Hello! Are you alright?” says Ritzy when she comes up for air. “Yes? No?” The typically uncommunicative London audience are, well, uncommunicative. “Well, nevermind. We’ll try and cheer you up.”

Indeed, why so serious? The tell-tale opening bass line of ‘Austere‘ drags a cheer from the crowd, despite the quality of the sound system – in what is, admittedly, a shop – more closely resembling your mates’ band playing in the front room through your home stereo. “Puppets and gowns/We’ll ransack this town,” she sings softly, dropping down to a single string of fuzzy guitar, beckoning the crowd forward before overwhelming them with a wall of noise. As the song’s rhythm decays into aggressive hacking at guitar, bass and drums, onstage the band are having a whale of a time. Drummer Matt Thomas batters his skins as if equipped with more arms than is usual, bassist Rhydian Dafydd has a quick jab at the cymbals for good measure, and the tiny lady with a fringe as razor sharp as her riffs leaps about irrepressibly, her huge blue eyes opening wide enough to be visible from the back of the room. In fact her whole face is a semaphore for each song, cycling through expressions from serene to pained to a rock ‘n’ roll bass face and back again.

Ritzy Bryant. Photo: Brian Whar
Ritzy Bryant. Photo: Brian Whar

It’s textured, layered, pummelling noise. They’ve been called shoegaze, apparently because they use loops and pedals, but really their sound conjures up the wail of Dinosaur Jr. or the Pixies more than floppy haired folk from Oxford. But, especially in such a small gig, what’s apparent as they tear through closing numbers ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade‘ and a tumultuous rendition of ‘Whirring‘ is how much fun they are having. How unselfconsciously they banter with each other and the audience, Ritzy offering her guitar to be struck by the front row during a feedback wig-out, Rhydian good-naturedly shoving her into the crowd as she leans too far off the stage, both accuse Matt of “not hitting the drums hard enough,” which could scarcely be less true.

“It’s so nice to see so many faces we recognise,” Ritzy adds. That people come back for more doesn’t surprise us at all. Their star is rising; it’s not if, but when.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Palma Violets @ The Boston Arms

Palma Violets
Palma Violets

This energetic South London four-piece’s reputation saw them on tour supporting Savages, 2012’s most hyped Joy Division impersonators, then get signed to Rough Trade without so much as a demo. Tonight, tickets marked for Steve Lamacq are among a pile of industry passes at the door; the venue is sold out. What have the Palma Violets got to explain the hype?

It’s garage rock – cacophonous drums, insistent bass, reverb-a-plenty and shrieked two-part vocals. Pete Mayhew’s organ offers respite and aspires to a broader sound some would call psychedelic, but too often here it’s lost in the mix. On stage Sam Fryer (vocals/guitar) and snarling, floppy-fringed Chilli Jessen (bass/shouting) bounce off each other, launching a blitz of guitar and strobe through a thick pall of smoke and reverb. It’s gleefully reckless; they don’t hit all the notes, they chuck themselves about. Fayer’s voice resembles Ian McCulloch in tone but without the Bunnyman’s finesse; every song arrives laced with whoops, yelps and screams.

Single ‘Best of Friends‘ has a winning chorus, Will Doyle’s catchy drum clatter of ‘Tom The Drum‘ stop-starts to raucous effect, while ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ could be The Modern Lovers, whose more boisterous organ and bass-driven moments the Palmas sometimes echo.

The gig descends into entertaining chaos: articles of teenage clothing are hurled at the band, a shirtless girl clambers onstage and barely retains her bra, full scale stage incursions ensue, and Jessen indulges in some reverse stage diving by walking into the crowd to be raised aloft and thrown back onstage.

Nothing different then, just a classic recipe executed well with the infectious energy and unshakable faith of the young. These four are living the dream right now. Let them.

In the works: Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr at Abbey Road Studios by Mark Kean
Photo: Johnny Marr by at Abbey Road Studios by Mark Kean

ALBUM TITLE: The Messenger
RELEASE DATE: February 2013
RECORDED: Berlin and Marr’s own studio in Manchester
SONGS INCLUDE: ‘The Right Thing Right’, ‘European Me’, ‘The Messenger’, ‘Upstarts’, ‘Sun And Moon’, ‘New Town Velocity’
FACT: In 1988 The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde told Johnny that if he didn’t sing he was “a chicken” – better late than never, it turns out.

A thirty-year career that began as a teenager with The Smiths has seen Johnny Marr develop as a six-string for hire with – among many others – Talking Heads, Electronic, The The, Oasis, Modest Mouse and The Cribs. But his new album ‘The Messenger’, previewed for Clash at Abbey Road studios, will be the first to bear his name alone.

“I hadn’t really decided on a fixed line-up until near the end. I didn’t want to put it out as if it had a band vibe, because it’s more personal than that. It’s just me really,” says Marr.

His last solo effort in 2003 was ‘Boomslang’, as Johnny Marr And The Healers, which received a mixed response. “I didn’t really know what I was doing then, but I was speaking collectively for the others. On this record I’m speaking entirely for myself. It feels totally different, like the start of a few solo records,” the softly-spoken Mancunian adds.

Mixed by Frank Arkwright, with whom Marr remastered The Smiths discography for re-release last year, the tracks seem steeped in influences from the bands that Marr has worked and written with. ‘European Me’ is threaded with Smiths-esque fingerpicked guitar, the opening chords of the tender ‘New Town Velocity’ recall Electronic’s ‘Get The Message’ (one of Marr’s favourites), while ‘Sun And Moon’ rocks the lo-fi attack and snarl of The Cribs, sounding like a strong single.

johnnymarr-clashmag-full-shrunk

But they’re also very much pieces of Marr, as songwriter and singer. Lyrically the album swings between political and social comment and tales of youth and devotion: “If anything the narrative through the record is about growing up in this country. I think ultimately it’s quite hopeful because I’m that kind of person.”

But while bandmates Zak Starkey and Edgar Summertyme (with a little help from Ms. Hynde) may have managed to strong-arm Marr into taking vocal duties, he’s not going emo: “I’m absolutely not interested in being the frontman in a band that bares my soul or feelings in song. Siouxsie Sioux, or Ray Davies, or Howard Devoto don’t sing from some weird, schlocky, sentimental place. What’s wrong with singing from the brain?”

[Originally published in Clash Magazine issue 81, December 2012.

Soulwaxmas @ Brixton Academy

Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash
Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash

Soulwaxmas – the name hints at the calling-card humour of Stephen and David Dewaele, the globetrotting Belgian brothers behind electro-rock live act Soulwax and mashup artists 2ManyDJs.

It’s been 14 years since Soulwax’s breakthrough electro-tinged rock album ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice‘, and 10 years since 2ManyDJs pretty much invented mashup with their genre-blending album ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Part 2‘, in which they went to extraordinary lengths to clear more than 40 tracks with copyright holders, creating an album-length mix of snatches of records cut up and stitched back together.

Now in its sixth year, their annual Soulwaxmas festive European tour sees the boys dispense a heady Belgian brew of techno, electro, and full-on party madness from both their guises, with support from fellow traveller James Murphy of DFA Records, Erol Alkan, and Hellmix among others.

Dressed in their signature immaculate suits for the occasion, as Soulwax the brothers are joined by Stefaan Van Leuven on bass and drummer Bent Van Looy to bang out an hour of percussian-heavy, bass- and keyboard-driven electro rock.

The electro-madness of the naughties seems a century ago now, when biting saw waves seemed to be present on practically every record, and Soulwax fall into the group that includes Death From Above 1979 that mix the rockist with the danceable. Maybe there’s a sense that this wave has passed as the fifth jagged electro build-up in a row ripples out across the crowd who leap about illuminated in the searchlights and lasers, hands in the air as the beat returns. But the band constantly reinvent and bring new twists to their tracks, as they did on their dance-erized ‘Nite Versions’ remix album, and big hitters like ‘Another Excuse‘ have the crowd gladly admitting: “It’s a mistake that we’re making/that we’re making”.

Erol Alkan keeps things lubricated between sets, but it’s when they return as 2ManyDjs that Brixton Academy really takes off.

Armed only with their consoles, a considerable back-catalogue of extremely intoxicating dance remixes, and a video projection backdrop that announces the record using cartoonish animated versions of record sleeves, 2ManyDJs step forth to drink the festive crowd under the table. The opening cocktail of acid house classics ‘Humanoid‘ and ‘Mentasm‘ (complete with vast, grinning aceeed face above the stage) leads through Mr Oizo’s techno hand-puppet Flat Eric wearing a fez, Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ accompanied by undulating naked cartoon Bowies, The Rapture, walking Eiffel Towers, and the inevitable and roof-raising Soulwax Remix of MGMT’s ‘Kids’.

Dashes of one record are dropped into another, setting up the best flavours of both and mixing up memorable stabs and hits to create something new that is neither one nor the other. It’s a great trick, and it keeps on working.

With a final salvo of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Tricky‘ the brothers bid us a happy Christmas, and an explosion of glitter, confetti and broad smiles burst out across the auditorium. As the first night after the predicted apocalypse predictably failed to materialise, Soulwaxmas still shows us how to party like there’s no tomorrow, even when there is.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Band of Skulls @ Brixton Academy

Photo: Richard Gray

Undoubtedly Band of Skulls look the part. Pointy cowboy boots, check. Tight trousers, check. Leather jackets, beards, long hair. Then there’s the sound: pleasingly fuzzy, overdriven guitar; choppy, cut-up riffs; a twanging, bluesy air, and Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson’s dual vocals.

Opening with the slow, half-time riffing of the title track from this year’s album ‘Sweet Sour‘, the sound is dense, the stop-start guitars growing more growly with each verse until Russell takes his guitar off to rub up against the amp for a feedback-filled wig out, before leaping straight into the more considered but equally slow ‘Bruises’. The crowd are a sea of assertively nodding heads caught in the sweep of the stage lights during ‘Patterns’ from 2008’s debut album ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey‘, the vocalists calling out to each other and Marsden leading the crowd into singing the final verse: “A pattern, there’s a pattern/there’s a pattern there to follow” they sing. And they’re not wrong, as for track after track Band of Skulls’ set list rolls but never seems to rock. The three, muscular minutes of ‘Bomb’ and Matt Hayward’s clever, insistent drumming on ‘Wanderluster’ bring some needed bombast to a set that threatens to fall flat, but even that track interrupts itself to wallow in 32 bars of soft-spokenness, and is immediately followed by the long and directionless ‘Navigate’. The Skulls’ apparent requirement that each track have a breakdown (or two) creates drag that prevents things ever really taking off. It’s like the warm-up opening number that never gets beyond warm.

After 45 minutes it falls to ‘Hollywood Bowl‘ – the only track from their days as Fleeing New York still in rotation – to cause a stir. From here on they pick up the pace, from the clever rhythmic wordplay on ‘I Know What I Am‘ (“Flick flack/No slack/I got the wit that my enemies lack”) to the rock-out riffing of ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On’ and ‘Death By Diamonds And Pearls’.

Such Americana-influenced blues-rock is a well trodden path, in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Dead Weather, Queens of the Stone Age or The Kings of Leon to name but a few. It is admirable that not every track on their albums sounds the same, but at the same time they sound too much like everyone else.

“We’re Band of Skulls from Southampton,” deadpans Marsden, to cheers from the band’s fervent front row fans who have long followed them around the country. These days they play big venues, the Reading Festival’s main stage, win over the SXSW crowd or embark on US tours, but there is still a humility that recognises how speedy their ‘Twilight’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ soundtrack-powered ascent has been from club circuit toil to being heralded as the latest saviour of rock and roll. The trio have worked hard for ten years to get here, but now they have, do they know what to do with it?

Chapel Club @ Birthdays

After a single album as an Editors-esque, Interpol-a-like indie guitar band, London-based outfit Chapel Club reappeared after six months in the US with a very different, dubby, effects and synth-laden sound, thick with rhythms, layered synthesizers and heavy bass with a hint of shoegaze. These pictures were taken at the gig at Birthdays where the new material was first played.

 
[Words and pictures first appeared at Clashmusic.com]

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The metamorphosis of Chapel Club

Chapel Club at Birthdays, Dalston, London, August 2012

 

Chapel Club are hot right now, but not as hot as this club. It’s so hot in here that the air is thick with moisture, making the results of flash photography look the Victorians’ weird efforts to capture ghosts on film. Like a hotel maid, club staff lay a fresh towel alongside each musician’s instrument – cheaper than air con, I suppose.

Chapel Club have gone through something of a metamorphosis. Gone are the tight trousers, cropped haircuts, serious expressions and downbeat lyrics of their previous incarnation as post-Editors, Interpol-esque guitar-wranglers. Here at Birthdays the superheated crowd await the new sound that singer and lyricist Lewis Bowman has described as, in a candidate for Understatement of the Year, “pretty different”.

To whoops from the crowd come the opening strains of ‘Scared’ – gentle strands of echoing synth and filigree guitar spun together, a crescendo that drops with a bassline that is nothing short of a groove.

It’s a summer record, drenched in reverb and delicate synth lines that tumble like blossom in a heat haze. “When I was only young/To me the world was mine, in which to go have fun,” sings Bowman sweetly. “Now I am fully grown/I’m not saying I’m happy but/I’m not alone.” It’s not every day a pop group channels St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. “I know that you might be feeling a little scared/But it’s nothing to be ashamed of”, he croons, striking a note with everyone in the room – old cynical gits, young idealistic fools, and all points in between.

Under the pitch bend and glissando bass of ‘Sleep Alone’ the skins are battered in the approximation of a hiphop beat while Bowman – whose vocal range is impressive – caterwauls over the top. ‘Jenny Baby’, a song apparently and inexplicably about Jennifer Lopez, is a wash of acid lines, throbbing bass and deep, dubby drums.

Versions of ‘Surfacing’ and ‘The Shore’ from their debut album follow, refashioned to be bigger, bassier, beatier and more danceable in keeping with the new material.

Bowman’s crew cut aside, synthmeister Michael Hibbert, Liam Arklie on bass, guitarist Alex Parry, and drummer Rich Mitchell now sport flowing locks, t-shirts and loose-fitting clothing. The sound is heavy, dubby, druggy, clubby. People are dancing, everyone is sweating. What have the band being doing in Los Angeles? If they could bottle it, they’d make a fortune. Everything’s got baggier. Were they locked in a room listening to Ultra Vivid Scene, Slowdive and the Happy Mondays?

Sometimes a band has tracks just made for opening or closing sets. Wrapping up tonight is ‘Good Together’, a fairly epic ten-minute drum and bass work out whose rising and falling arpeggios echo the sentiments of Bowman’s lyrics, as two people tumble in and out of love. Around the four minute mark it dissolves into an extended deep house instrumental broken up with snatched, echoing samples of Bowman’s voice. Blissed-out pop music with big rhythms. The lights come on, the crowd left wanting more.

 

Originally published at Clash Music, as were my photographs from the gig.

Paul Simon’s Graceland 25th anniversary concert @ Hard Rock Calling

Paul Simon at Hard Rock Calling. Credit: Andy Sturmey
Paul Simon at Hard Rock Calling.
Credit: Andy Sturmey

The big news is that it didn’t rain on Sunday. That the previous days and weeks had seen torrential downpours that required hundreds of tons of woodchip to shore up poor Hyde Park’s turf is a minor point – it was relatively quagmire-free as festivals go.

But there was never any doubt that the soaring sounds of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ on offer tonight would have lifted the dampest spirits.

Lurking mid-afternoon in the backstage hospitality area, refreshments came courtesy of Starwood Hotels’ impressively elegant (considering it was in a field) SPG VIP area, which among other things provided an opportunity to talk to two Russian ladies. Their initial friendliness was revealed to be an undercover marketing ruse, as their chat quickly turned to preferred brands of credit cards.

It’s a strange festival. Apart from the headliners – Paul Simon (age 71), Bruce Springsteen (62), the apparently ageless Iggy Pop (65), and Soundgarden – and a handful of others like Alison Krauss, the Guillemots, Big Country, The Mars Volta, – you’re left with a bill over three days of names that don’t resonate. Most seemed happy to pay only to hear Paul Simon, judging by the early evening rush at the gates.

With the crowd swelling Paul Simon came on a little early – perhaps in an effort to avoid a repeat of Saturday’s debacle in which Springsteen and Paul McCartney were abruptly cut off when they overran. Onstage Simon appeared a little like the lyrical travelling salesman of ‘That Was Your Mother’ in battered suit and hat – but while he was never a big man, his music still punches above his weight. Hits from the 1970s such as ‘Kodachrome’ seemed poignant looking back over a long career of many musical directions, while the crowd lapped up a sax-heavy rendition of ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’. Later ’80s singles like ‘The Obvious Child’ from South American-infused album ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ still sparkled, but was sung – jarringly, and inexplicably – without chorus. In a surprise guest spot, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff bounced spritely through ‘The Harder They Come’, and ‘Vietnam’ in a duet with Simon.

But the biggest cheer was reserved for the many members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo whose arrival with ‘Homeless’ signified a whistlestop tour of ‘Graceland’, taking in ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, ‘Crazy Love vol II’, a positively transcendental rendition of ‘Graceland’ and the glorious, rousing opening accordion chords of ‘The Boy in the Bubble’. While it was not possible to reconvene ‘Graceland’s entire original musical ensemble (“some were unavoidably unable to take part in this reunion concert due to being dead”, as the Telegraph so elegantly put it), there was obvious delight on the faces of all the musicians, young and old, to be playing such joyous music again – not least because in the years since it was written and first played, apartheid had finally ended.

By now the sun had departed, and alone under stage lights Simon whispered ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘The Boxer’ and finally ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. They said it was crazy to make an album like ‘Graceland’, but Simon and the millions of listeners turned on to this wonderful music from Africa 25 years ago have proved them wrong.

 

Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.

Psychedelic Furs @ Highbury Garage

Psychedelic Furs
Psychedelic Furs

“When did you first see them live?”
-“1986”
-“Sometime in the ’70s”
-“At Glastonbury about twenty years ago”

Tonight’s crowd at the Highbury Garage has been around a bit – watching the stage is a landscape of widow’s peaks and thick trunks. There are men in plaid, with beer bellies and thick necks, a man in a battered original Cure t-shirt, and scores of men and women with a free pass from their significant others to come and wallow in nostalgia for an evening.

The Psychedelic Furs, led by brothers Richard and Tim Butler, were formed in 1977 and released their eponymous debut album in 1980. They’ve been gigging, bar some years in the wilderness, for thirty-five years, and some fans here have probably been coming to watch them for as long.

They kick off with the clattering, motorised ‘Into You like a Train’ from their breakthrough second album, ‘Talk Talk Talk’. Their early sound is tight and bass-driven, claustrophobic with flanged guitars, shrieking sax and Richard’s hoarse, evidently British, atonal singing voice. It just works, a lesson in how to pull off that style, unlike modern pretenders (The Drums, I’m looking at you. Find a singer).

Richard is a sinuous, writhing, grinning golem, still with the gaunt cheeks of his youth. Replete in head-to-toe black, a waistcoat, and heavy black-rimmed spectacles he looks like a successful graphic design consultant. Tim stalks the stage with his bass from behind dark glasses looking for all the world like Andrew Eldritch after a few good meals, and still managing to conjure up a little of the menace from the Furs’ punkier days.

The crowd are more than willing, their flesh discovering strength perhaps forgotten. Better-known hits like ‘Mr Jones’ and ‘Pretty in Pink’ are met with roars of approval, while a hundred similarly bespectacled faces mouth words they didn’t realise they remembered.

The more synth-heavy art-rock sounds of their later albums still please, with ‘Love My Way’ and the sublime saxophone of ‘Heartbeat’ provoking men in their ‘50s to roar out the words alongside girls young enough to be their daughters. Furious renditions of ‘India’ and ‘President Gas’ set off widespread moshing down the front and brings the set to a close after a respectable 90 minutes.

What’s our problem with ageing rock stars? No one tells BB King, Fats Waller, or Dave Brubeck to stay at home and age gracefully. Perhaps it’s the words “rock” and “star” that are so inflexible, that allow so little leeway for age and maturity over youth and exuberance. In his fifty-seventh year, Richard may be nearly superannuated but remains super-animated, miming lyrics with constantly moving hands, clearly enjoying himself as he high-fives fans down the front. Mars Williams – besides Tim the only other member from the ’80s lineups – looks like an immaculate bluesman in suit and shades, his sax soaring. With youngsters in the crowd as well as first-time-arounders, it’s clear that not only can the Psychedelic Furs can still knock out a show, but that their post-punk heritage lives on in the countless revivalists of the last decade inspired by them and their ilk.

To hell with the naysayers. How do you want to earn a living in your later years? Maturity is for wine and cheese.

 

Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.

Independent record labels: born of love

Some of the independent record labels leading the scene

When EMI’s new boss announced that the firm was to axe its A&R talent scouts and hand control over to the suits in marketing, it seemed like a confirmation of what every musician always believed about the major labels putting sales above creativity. So was it because of or despite this that EMI this month sank into administration with £4bn debts?

The digital revolution of the past 10 years has hit the ‘big four’ major labels – Universal, Warner, EMI and Sony – hard. The ubiquity of the internet and communication channels such as MySpace, Facebook and off-the-shelf blogging platforms has given independent labels – and every bedroom DJ, musician, author or artist of any kind – the ability to reach audiences without relying on the established old media groups and methods of distribution.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported in 2005 that independent labels generated 19 per cent of the world’s music sales, divided up between tens of thousands of small labels and a handful of large, established independents – for example, in Britain, Beggars Group, Domino, and Warp.

However, while the major labels account for almost 80 per cent of sales, those sales represent barely a fifth of releases. In other words, the independent sector is very busy selling not very many copies of a lot of records.

If that thriving independent sector and its music didn’t exist, would only the back catalogues of established artists, marketing-driven tie-ins with television franchises and slick pop or hip-hop acts remain? It is a chilling thought. With the existence of so much great music at stake, how do these mostly tiny labels survive? How do they cope with recording, distribution, marketing and booking? Does it pay, or is it just a labour of love?

“I’d say about 99 per cent of them are labours of love,” says Simon Singleton of Pure Groove, a label specialising in vinyl releases. “It’s about building the label into some kind of brand, something to attach to a gig night or blog to gain some recognition. It’s pretty rare to get to a point where you can make money just from selling records.”

There is certainly an element of luck: Australian label Modular Recordings’ first three releases were all hits, including The Avalanches’ award-winning album Since I Left You in 2000. Beggars Banquet, the largest UK independent, hit gold in 1979 with Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Stephen Bass, co-founder of Moshi Moshi Records, discovered Hot Chip – its first runaway success – after meeting band member Joe Goddard at work.

Singleton says: “If you can get in on a scene as it’s happening then you can beat the bigger labels to it and ride the wave. It’s much harder to take an artist and develop them into a big name.”

Stephen Pietrzykowski, of Tough Love Records, agrees: “You find that labels with a certain sound and aesthetic do better than those that don’t. It’s about a signature sound, something people can grasp,” he says. “That sort of specialisation by micro-independents is essentially doing the groundwork for larger independents, who are in turn doing it for the majors. It’s about getting the music heard. If a band plays a few shows, gets a record out, plays a festival, we’ve done our job.”

Pietrzykowski, who has released 40 records in five years and still has a day job, says up to a point contracts, fees and advances make no sense. “If you take on an artist and give them an advance, that’s a big responsibility. We make an agreement, put out a record, see how it does and split it down the middle between us,” he says. “It’s never been about the money,” he adds, “which is just as well.”

When margins are so tight – 500 vinyl singles might return £1.50 per record – a run of good releases can be affected by one that doesn’t sell, or an unforeseen event. “We nearly went under after a pressing plant went bust, taking our £1,500 with it,” Pietrzykowski recalls, ruefully. “We’ve lost money on most of our releases. We’re constantly on the brink of bankruptcy – or the next big thing.”

So, to keep afloat, labels have to not only offer the kind of personal service that the majors cannot, but to be creative in the way they generate cash from other sources.

Gigs and festivals are important, but so is providing band management or securing publishing rights to license. Moshi Moshi Records’ subscription scheme is an example: for £30, subscribers receive every single and album the label releases in a year. Building a recognisable sound is essential, says co-founder Michael McClatchey. “After all, you’re asking people to pay for singles they haven’t even heard yet,” he says. With a few hundred subscribers since November, it’s an idea to watch.

It was five years before McClatchey could quit his job in the music industry and work on the label full time. “Actually, it was a decision taken for me as I got made redundant,” he laughs. “It was an excuse to put out the stuff we couldn’t work with in our day jobs, but we’d taken it as far as we could by then as a hobby.”

Martin Brimicombe has a partner, children and a day job, but that hasn’t stopped him from running, and largely paying for, I Blame The Parents Records. Brimicombe started the label to release music by the band Extradition Order, whom he had seen live and was impressed with. “I had no idea, but there’s quite a punk, DIY way about it, it’s quite easy to find advice and get things done cheaply.” With no distribution deal, he takes records to independent record shops by hand, or sells them at gigs. Despite losing money on each of his 20-odd releases, he remains optimistic, if cautious. “After four years, I’d need to see some shift this year to carry on, but the bands I’m working with now are hard-working live acts that may do better,” he says.

At the other end of the scale is Beggars Group, which grew from a record shop in the early 1970s to the largest independent label in Europe. It is still owned and run by its founder, Martin Mills, who says: “It was done out of love then, and now, but it was much easier to sell records then.” Despite employing hundreds of staff in Britain and the US, Mills has never been the sort for spreadsheets. “We’ve never borrowed, and I’ve never really done business plans,” he says. “You have no idea how a record will do – you can only wait and see.”

For Mills, the music industry “ecology” means independents are as much a part of an artist’s success as the major that may eventually sign them. “Everyone starts on an independent, and to seem real to your fans you have to have come from somewhere and have grown organically,” he says. “It is a food chain, and it is important that food chain is supported top to bottom.”

He has no problem with staff running their own labels on the side, for example: “As labels fold or bigger independents get bought out, the sector needs to regenerate itself.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Mills believes independents are the future, and predicts a resurgence of independent record shops whose fortunes are “bound up” with the less centralised, less corporate mechanisms of the independent music scene.

“Big labels will get smaller, and small labels bigger,” he says. “It will operate in a much smaller and more fragmented, but viable, way. It’s hard for musicians now, but you have to believe the industry will mature to encompass many ways of getting paid that don’t involve buying physical product.”

Perhaps Pietrzykowski puts it best as to why some are keeping the independent flame alive, even when all the signs are grim. “Being in music is great,” he says. “You meet interesting people and have great times. It might not be sustainable, but it’s something I love doing and one way or another it pays for itself. It doesn’t have to pay for itself in money.”

David Holmes

Illustration: Jimmy Turrell - www.jimmyturrell.com
Illustration: Jimmy Turrell - www.jimmyturrell.com

A good film soundtrack hangs in the background, carried along by the film’s momentum, giving way to dialogue or standing in its place as the narrative requires, but without intruding into the viewer’s consciousness.

David Holmes is like that soundtrack; releasing album after album of unusual, thoughtful music over 15 years that swing between ambient soundscapes, clattering breaks, techno and jazz, he still remains a background figure, known more among producers and studios than the record-buying public.

Holmes, 41, is the youngest of ten children born and raised in Belfast, giving him, he says, the “brass neck” to propel him through his career. Belfast in the 1970s was short on fun and long on Troubles, and while the paramilitaries warred on the streets outside, young David spent his days under curfew watching films, unwittingly sowing the seeds of what would become his signature musical style.

Holmes says: “It was purely accidental. Andrew Weatherall once told me if you’re going to go into the studio try and find your own sound. As a DJ I used to spin soundtracks over the top of my sets, and that gave me the idea – it just became my thing.”

Playing rhythm and blues records in nightclubs as a teenager, Holmes found his musical interests abruptly altered in the late 80s. “Like millions of other people, I got completely obsessed with the acid house revolution. So while I was always buying different music – soundtracks, country, rock and roll – my next obsession became electronic music,” he says.

“And that in itself opened me up to primitive electronic music, library music, musique concrete – all this electronic music that existed long before acid house.”

His first release to overtly sample cinema was DeNiro, (under the moniker The Disco Evangelists), intertwining themes from Apocalypse Now, Once Upon A Time In The West and Blade Runner.

This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash The Seats, his first full length album in 1995, is a brooding, atmospheric soundtrack in search of a film, from the dark foreboding intro No Man’s Land – sounding every bit the backdrop to an opening scene – through acid techno, fractured funk, and breathy ambience.

For his 1997 follow up Let’s Get Killed Holmes, instead of sampling films directly, Holmes used recordings he had made as a mere teenager – that brass neck again – of street people in New York, splicing together captured dialogue and drawing on his early Mod and soul influences.

Traipsing through the underbelly of New York City as a teenager had been “an enormous trip”, Holmes recalls. “We were recording in the wee hours, under the influence of mind-altering chemicals. I remember consciously just trying to focus on pressing the record button.

“The whole thing was like Fear and Loathing in New York. The experience of making those tapes is the one I’ll take to my grave – it was such an adventure.”

Many of the titles come from the NYC experience too – Let’s Get Killed was a phrase that readily came to mind walking through the Bronx at night. Holmes says: “Just after that, we found sprayed on wall in fresh paint ‘Don’t Die Just Yet’. To be honest I began to freak out a little.”

A warm and upbeat album, it became Holmes biggest hit, chiming well as it did with the late 90s ‘big beat’ sound of the time. A third album, Bow Down To The Exit Sign, was also well received.

There is a certain irony Holmes’ music’s affinity for cinema has become what he’s better known for, providing soundtracks and compositions for a dozen films. Steve McQueen’s film about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, Hunger, was one that he sought out.

“There’s been more than a fair share of glamorised films made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I really wanted one to do it right. I knew McQueen would. He made a film about an IRA icon without turning it into a pro-IRA film, and in a way that made it relevant to what’s going on in Abu Grahib and Guantanamo. It’s a great, great film.”

Holmes has scored for many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, including Ocean’s 11 and its sequels and most recently The Girlfriend Experience, featuring the first major crossover role for adult star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort.

“I haven’t seen the film, but I’m a big fan of Sasha in her other job,” Holmes laughs. “She’s a really interesting character, a real 21st century porn star – a very smart girl.”

The Girlfriend Experience features on a retrospective of tracks from the last 15 years, The Dogs Are Parading, which also includes tracks from his most recent original album, The Holy Pictures – made in 2008 after the deaths of his parents.

It is an album full of tender moments, and for the first time, Holmes steps out from behind the shield of cinematic themes and adds his voice to the mix, sounding not a million miles from Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

“I’d toyed with the idea of singing in the past but it was only after I lost both parents I felt I had something important to say,” he says. “I wasn’t really intending to make such a personal album, it just happened. I felt no one else could’ve sung those lyrics so every day when my family went to school and record them myself. It was a very cathartic experience.”

A man with many strings to his bow, Holmes latest project is not a film score, but a film – Good Vibrations, co-produced with Michael Winterbottom, looks at the life of Terri Hooley, a colourful Belfast character and his titular record shop on the city’s most dangerous street. “He discovered The Undertones and sold the rights to Teenage Kicks for £500 and a signed photo of the Shangri-Las – he never got the photo,” Holmes chuckles. “I’ve been buying records off him since I was a boy, and all my friends for 20 years are involved in the film. We’ve been talking about making it for years – it’s a real Belfast production.”

But for all his Belfast history, the future for Holmes lies in LA, where he’s moving with his wife and five-year-old daughter. “I don’t want to hit 50 and never have lived anywhere but Belfast,” he muses. “And just think of the weather!”

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]

 

Vitalic: fat beats and tall stories

Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta - www.lisacarletta.be
Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta -www.lisacarletta.be

When electronic musician Vitalic, aka 33-year-old Frenchman Pascal Arbez, released his Poney EP in 2001, its thrashy guitar-tinged electrohouse sound set the tone for years afterwards. At the same time, Arbez indulged in a touch of Gallic mischief by creating outlandish fictional biographies in his interviews. The Big Issue caught up with him as he began a new European tour.

What bands have you’ve encountered recently that you like?

Last week I was in Leeds and Reading festivals and saw Deadmau5, he’s not popular in France but here in front of a really busy crowd it was spectacular. An album I’m listening to a lot is La Roux. I really love the Lifelike remixes, I prefer them to the original. It’s like French disco. And I love Major Lazer’s dancehall reggae.

When you started recording as Vitalic you made these stories, claiming to be Ukrainian and a former prostitute. Why the man-of-mystery routine? It was not planned, really. Before the release of the first album the label asked me to provide them with a biography. I thought, maybe I could fake something for fun and see what happens. I had a contract with another record company so I thought I’d try and be someone else to not upset anyone. At the beginning it was really cool, but they discovered me eventually.

Do people still ask you whether it’s all true? Yeah, people still ask me. I don’t regret it at all, it was funny.

The new album’s called Flashmob. What do you think of flashmobs? I think they’re a bit weird, a bit fun. In the UK they’ve become a bit commercial which is not the case elsewhere. I like the process – people who don’t know each other meet to do something crazy together just for a few minutes and than then go home.

I suppose once you see it in mobile phone adverts it loses something. Yeah, it’s not about performing any more, it’s about selling things

In France there’s a big underground techno scene. Did you go to raves when you were growing up? I was never really into that super hardcore sound, I liked music festivals with bands. We did used to have small free parties with 1,000 or 2,000 people which were great fun, a good size so you feel you know everybody.

Flashmob seems a bit mellower than the first album, you’ve dropped that thrashy, rock sound. Is that a conscious decision? Well, when everybody’s doing the same thing, you have to move to something different, refresh your ears.

You were quoted as saying techno is boring. What are referring to? At the time, around 2000, everybody was copying [legendary Detroit techno producer] Jeff Mills, everyone was a fake Jeff Mills. I have the same feeling now, now that electroclash, minimal sound is everywhere – it’s very boring.

Being devil’s advocate, the techno purist would say that 90s style of minimal techno influenced by Detroit and Tresor Records, it works by building up many layers of percussion into an irresistible, hard, funky groove. The electrohouse style is just a house beat with a big bassline, or a big keyboard stab. Do you think it’s too simplistic? No depth to it? I think it’s a question of taste, it’s difficult to say what’s simple or not. I think the most difficult thing is to find is a good bassline. The more you put in layers of drums and things then the more you lose the melody.

How do you play live? The bass and drums are pre-programmed, I have blocks of drum loops and bass leads. I vocode the vocals and play with the loops and use synthesisers, but I don’t play the melodies by hand.

We have the Kanye West album in the office… it’s too much. Is this the end of the vocoder? I think it’s more the end of autotune rather than vocoder. Vocoder keeps some of the voice’s frequencies, it’s different. I am a bit fed of up autotune. It’s very easy but it’s effective, that’s why it’s everywhere.

I blame Cher. Oh yes – Life after Love. Ha, I remember when I was living in Guilford…

I’m sorry. I was a student, it was great. That song was massive here, it was everywhere.

What were you studying? Economics.

So you’ve managed to avoid having an economics day job? So far. It’s more fun being a musician.

Both albums work as albums, not just a collection of singles – there are dancefloor and mellow tracks. Is there a difference in how you write them? Do they come from a different part of you? I think it’s a question of mood. It would be very difficult to write a dance track if I’m not feeling it. It’s not an exercise. I don’t sit down and say: today I will write a sad track.

The track Alain Delon particularly sounds very Jean Michel Jarre, it has that atmospheric, analogue keyboard sound. Is he a big influence? In France it’s bad taste to say you like Jarre. Many musicians admire him but will never tell. I don’t like his new stuff, it’s too cheesy, but his early work, Oxygene and Rendevous… He has a talent for programming and melody.

You track Still has a strange, Romanian gypsy, almost tribal sound to the vocal. Who is that singing? It’s just my voice, through lots of effects (laughs).

Really? Just your voice? The marvels of technology. I don’t have sessions with Romanian singers.

Someone called you the Wagner of techno. Do you think that’s a compliment? You think it’s not a compliment?

I don’t know, what do you think? Well… I’m no friend of Hitler. I don’t know if it’s a compliment, but it’s a good description at least.

Have you played any festivals this summer? Leeds and Reading, Lowlands and Pinkpop in Holland.

I keep meaning to go to I love Techno in Belgium. I’m playing there this year. I’ve been three times – if you like techno, it’s the place to go.

The thing about British festivals is you just know it’s going to rain. I saw a t-shirt at Reading, it said ‘It’s not the same without the rain’. I think you English like it really.

Vitalic plays live at Matter in the 02 Dome on November 28. Flashmob is out now on Play It Again Sam.

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2009]

 

Gang of Four

Gang of Four. Photo credit: Shamil Tanna - www.shamiltanna.com
Gang of Four. Photo credit: Shamil Tanna - www.shamiltanna.com

Fame and recognition comes only posthumously to some bands, whose influence takes years, or decades, to emerge. But when the 20-year trend cycle comes back around and unearths the music and fashions of the previous generation, those bands – Killing Joke and Nick Drake for example – resurface for a second hearing.

Gang of Four are one of those bands, and their reappearance was foretold ever since The Strokes and the White Stripes and their ilk made spikey, angular, post-punk-revivalist rock fashionable again 10 years ago.

To the uninitiated, Leeds-based art students Gang of Four fused Andy Gill’s unconventional, staccato guitar, vocalist Jon King’s seething lyrics and the machine-funk rhythm section of Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham to produce some of the most furious and original music of the post-punk wave.

They sliced and diced their way through two dark, danceable albums dripping with brutal irony – Entertainment! in 1979 and Solid Gold in 1981 – before internal tensions and a hard US tour culminated in Allen leaving. His replacement Sara Lee also contributed her vocal skills, softening the Gang’s hardest edges on 1982 follow-up Songs of the Free. This also spawned their most accessible hit, I Love a Man in a Uniform, whose lyrics pointed not so much to the brutality of war as to the battle of the sexes – but which was promptly banned when the Falklands War began anyway.

Then the Gang began to fall apart; by the fourth album, 1983’s Hard, Burnham’s departure left them as a three-piece, while the record sounds more Duran Duran than Damaged Goods, their first single from 1979 and only hit.

But more than ten years later, bands like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, R.E.M., Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi and Bloc Party had all discovered and imitated the uneasy listening combination of white-man punk rage and noise with basslines and guitar more reminiscent of Funkadelic.

Speaking backstage at the Macbeth – a tiny pub in Hoxton, London, that specialises in gigs that are small, hot and loud – King and Gill explain how they joined the ranks of the reformed at the start of a four-date tour to celebrate 30 years since the release of Entertainment!

“My 15-year-old son,” King recalls, “was playing music with his mates and I thought it was a Gang of Four track but couldn’t place it. I asked what it was; it was the Chilli Peppers’ new album. It was just the same as Return of the Gift, right down to the vocal a cappella at the end. I thought, why would someone do this?”

For bands that are ahead of their time, the sight of others treading in their footsteps with considerably more success must be galling, but also a slap on the back for being right all along.

“Gang of Four never really sounded like anyone else,” Gill ponders. “It had its own world view, not just musically but the way me and Jon thought about songwriting is rather unique, and became something everyone wanted a bit of.

“I suppose that at the point we got back together everyone sounded a bit like Gang of Four and other new wave bands – that era had produced a whole new young generation we could reach that perhaps hadn’t heard of Gang of Four.”

Above Gill’s guitar, which manages to simultaneously disturb and structure the band’s tight, funky rhythms, are highly critical lyrics to match the sonic assault.

For example, on Ether, with it’s discordant, unsettling melodica, the lyrics contrast the isolation of imprisoned IRA members with that of being trapped in a world sold on love, despite it’s impossibility. In 5.45 (the slot for the early evening news) they attack the media and the state, comparing the yolk streaming from a teatime egg to the blood from warzone bodies whose images are never shown, concluding: “Guerilla war struggle is the new entertainment.”

King said: “We were receiving reports from the TV like everyone else, trying to reassemble them into songs while life went on.

“We were always aware of the conflicting ideas that pull in different directions. Like the first time you saw those images of Abu Grahib, that shame and horror you feel for a moment… and then, hey I’ve got a new phone, or let’s get shitfaced.”

Natural’s Not In It introduces the band’s most common targets – pointless and bland consumerism and the use of sex to sell: “Economic circumstances/The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest”. Pointing to the mass market messages we soak up everyday, King explains: “Humans tend to think of themselves as great individualists, this notion that we can make our own lives. But all the research shows we are the product of our environment. Is the way we behave really something you spontaneously come up with, or the product of your environment?”

Not Great Men carries the most relentlessly funky guitar and bass work they ever wrote, while Contract reduces sex to a transaction: “You dreamed of scenes/Like you read of in magazines… Another disappointment/We couldn’t perform/In the way the other wanted”.

If this all sounds a little bleak, then recall that much of late 70s Britain was no fun at all.

“Leeds was shitty, impoverished, grim, violent, full of neo-fascists,” Gill said. “It felt like it was pre-war. I think everyone thought Britain was fucked, finished. There was potential for civil war.”

“You knew the cops were the enemy,” King adds. “They’d already killed someone [anti-fascist campaign Blair Peach, in West London 1979]. That Red Riding trilogy only touched on it – they were totally bent.”

Listening to them recall what drove them to write such sonically brutal, politically charged but danceable punk, what brings back Gang of Four is clear from the show that follows. King is energetic, even taking a swing on the lighting rig, while Gill, shrouded in pinstripe suit a few sizes bigger than he once wore, is a brooding, malevolent presence. It’s suddenly apparent how little has changed in 30 years: cops still beat up G20 protestors, power still lies in the hands of the few who line their pockets, the state still lies to us about wars, and we still lie to ourselves about love.

For a few moments Gill and King are boys again – invigorated not by new fans half their age but by the anger and energy that gives them plenty still to say, and the knowledge that it’s no less relevant now than at any time in the last three decades.

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]

 

Royksopp: Junior

Royksopp. Photo: Stian Andersen - www.stianandersen.no

“We grew up with Star Wars and the sci-fi of the 1980s, that fascination with space, and when you grow up in northern Norway and you can look out at the sky and the Aurora Borealis and the stars, it can really shape you as a human being.” Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, or indeed, in the stars, for the last 10 years, it would be impossible to have missed Röyksopp’s dreamlike music from the far north of Scandanvia; strange, soothing, effervescent broadcasts from the top of the world.

For a few years after their debut album Melody AM arrived in 2001 it seemed that the music to every other advert, documentary, or programme link was one of their mellow, catchy, musical textures: the wistful Remind Me, dreamy So Easy, infuriatingly catchy Eple, or ubiquitous ‘chill-out’ compilation standard, Sparks.

Röyksopp is Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge, and it is Berge who is explaining how growing up in Tromsø, the most northern city in Europe, might have cultivated the Röyksopp sound.

“We’ve not done it deliberately, like some kind of arctic New Age thing, but what you encounter and experience in your life will shape the outcome of your art. This is the environment we’ve been brought up in. Nature has always been very close to us – you can walk out of Tromsø and be in complete wilderness,” he says.

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there is something of the wild found in the music that is pouring out of Scandinavia. The Bergen Wave, the rash of Norwegian bands that emerged 10 years ago named after the southern Norwegian city they called home, is an incestuous mix including Röyksopp, collaborators Kings of Convenience and Erlend Øye, whose vocals graced Melody AM, and The Knife, whose singer Karin Dreijer Andersson can be heard on Röyksopp’s new album, Junior. In the last few years another Scandinavian invasion has ushered in the likes of Swedes Robyn and Lykke Li – whose voices feature prominently on Junior, but also Danish popsters Alphabeat, the inappropriately named I’m from Barcelona (they’re from Sweden), and many others.

In each there is something of the melancholy silence of the snow, the dazzle of the Northern Lights that Berge and Brundtland grew up admiring, the clarity of the Scandinavian air. Many of them produce modern electronic pop music, but it is pop with depth – bitter as well as sweet.

Berge and Bruntland met at a party when they were 13, brought together by a love of music and computer games – and the music of computer games, which during the reign of home computers like the Commodore C64 in the 1980s was the cutting edge of budget electronic music. Six months later they had bought their first synths and drum machine together and begun a musical partnership still going strong after 20 years.

“Tromsø is small and isolated, we had two record shops and they only sold Iron Maiden and Metallica,” Berge recalls. “We were interested in electronic music, and a friend’s boyfriend would travel abroad to London and bring back music from Blackmarket Records and we’d soak it up.” House and techno from Chicago and Detroit from the likes of Derrick May and Underground Resistance as well as synth-driven bands like Depeche Mode helped ferment their sound as much as their Scandinavian surroundings.

“When you’re 14 there’s plenty of hormones that make you want to jump about like a madman, but at the same time we wanted to be seen as intellectuals,” he laughs, denying that this shows an early understanding of good PR. “We never had any ambition to become a band, or be famous. We just liked dabbling in music. We’d formed a liking for the experimental, intellectual side of music, but also the lets-go-crazy rave music too.”

After the success of Melody AM, their 2005 follow-up The Understanding was more measured, moving into more traditional song-structured territory, but arrived sounding too accessible, without their previous work’s hooks. Röyksopp are unashamed at having spent another four years making their third album, Junior, because, Berge says, “we wanted to make it more soulful”. It certainly has that: single The Girl and the Robot features the urgent, husky tones of Swedish singer Robyn longing for the return of her mechanoid lover (“available in industrial and domestic models”).

It is Junior’s standout track, and sounds like a departure for Röyksopp. “Robyn has a very distinct voice and her energy is so evident in the track that it could be bewildering for those who are only familiar with Melody AM,” Berge says. “The thing that holds it together is our passion for soundscapes and music with longevity, made with layers that can be listened to in different ways.”

Certainly, this is no downtempo, chill-out track like those the band’s reputation was built on: four minutes of lush synth strings, a roaring arpeggiated bassline, crisp drums – it’s seamless dancefloor material.

“I don’t like this idea we’re a chill-out band,” Berge complains. “I think that’s pretty misguided. There’s plenty of things we do that couldn’t be defined as chilled. Chill-out to me is Café del Mar volumes 1 to 10… that’s all fine by me, but I hope to be more than music to fall unconscious to. We make music that can be peaceful, but when we play live, it’s messier, uptempo and energetic,” he laughs. “Those that expect to sit there with a bong and a blanket are in for a shock.”

A girl going quietly mad as she pines for her robot – “In the night, call you up and/Wanna know when you’re coming home/Don’t deny me, call me back/I’m so alone” – surely there’s a subtext here beyond the literal: “You never seem to know when to stop/I never know when you’ll return/I’m in love with a robot”? Boys and their machines, making techno-soul for the fairer sex?

“Well,” Berge says, drily, “it’s common knowledge the male species is inadequate at expressing emotions. There are many ways of approaching the song. The Slavic word for a worker is ‘robot’, so it’s also about difficulties with communication in a relationship, but we don’t want to go all Shakespearian and profound.”

Berge recalls how a journalist approached him on the subject of the lyrics to another album track, What Else Is there? “She had one perception and I said, that’s interesting but not really what I thought. I think she felt a bit robbed that she hadn’t got it right,” he says.

“We don’t want to be too revealing because it takes away the mystery and can destroy the enjoyment of the music for others.”

Junior is in fact one half of a two-parter: another album of material recorded over the same period, Senior, is due to be released sometime this winter. Senior is “more introspective and introverted” and more freeform – “hats off to the Brian Eno school of ambient,” he says.

Have Röyksopp committed the cardinal sin of creating… a concept album? “It’s about creating an atmosphere and a sentiment, and it’s also I suppose a lost homage to the album format, not an album as just a collection of singles.

“I don’t expect it to be celebrated,” he says, ominously. “It’s cerebral. That sounds elitist, but yes.”

And on the subject of elitism, Berge defends himself from critics, explaining that by agreeing to put their music to adverts Röyksopp gained airplay that was otherwise hard to come by for an unknown band from Norway. And to suggest that this was all a big cash-in is not strictly true, he says. “For us it was an easy choice to make but, for example on So Easy, as we used a Burt Bacharach sample so we made nothing off it – all the money went to fund Burt’s new hairdo and tan.”

Is this a sell out? Has Iggy Pop, whose voice and image now adorns car insurance adverts, ‘sold out’?

“It’s strange,” Berge says. “Some people say, boo Iggy. But if you’re Busta Rhymes and you do a deal with Mountain Dew and make millions in sponsorship they say, yay Buster, Buster wins , Buster makes money off the man.

“I’m not the kind of guy to judge. It doesn’t affect the music for me, because I’ve never had posters on my wall – I liked the music for the music, not the musicians as heroes.”

Perhaps, he ponders, the future lies in musicians making deals to get paid in exchange for music in computer games, adverts and film soundtracks, while the internet supplies endless free music to the masses. “Good music will always prevail, so the only thing we have to worry about is always making interesting music and not worry about anything else. But they still need to get paid, so lay off Iggy, I say.”

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, August 2009]

 

Little Boots

Little Boots, photo by Jay Brooks - www.jaybrooks.net
Little Boots, photo by Jay Brooks - www.jaybrooks.net

There’s been no shortage of hype about rising star Little Boots, who had notched up two television appearances on Later with Jools Holland and been declared the next big thing of 2009 before she’d even released a record.

The music industry will try all sorts of ruses to gain a marketing edge: remember Sandi Thom’s 21 Nights in Tooting? The singer’s label claimed they discovered the singer after she broadcast gigs from her basement onto the internet, but cynics saw her immaculate website, considered the massive internet costs that would have been run up by the alleged 70,000 fans listening to her streamed web gigs, and smelt a rat.

Early Last year Little Boots – Victoria Hesketh to her mum – made her own internet broadcasts, only she didn’t have a band or a record label: she posted videos to YouTube of herself playing her keyboard and singing cover versions of pop records in her pyjamas. Discovered by music blogs seeking the next big thing, six months later the 25-year-old had been hailed as the BBC Sound of 2009, released a string of knock-out singles and a top five charting debut album, Hands.

So, Little Boots is busy. When I speak to her it’s through a crackly mobile as she hurries through London to the Japanese embassy to collect a visa for an upcoming visit. In one week, she’s been to Los Angeles, Leeds, Sheffield and Sweden. She’s playing at Bestival next month, played at Field Day and Underage festivals this month, and Glastonbury last month – 33 festivals this summer, all told, despite describing herself as “a bit of an Ebeneezer” and not up for “camping in horrible tents.”

Such a whirlwind 18 months should be enough to go to anyone’s head, not to mention make the cynic flush with outrage. But Victoria, a level-headed Blackpool lass, former teenage Pop Idol contestant, restaurant jazz pianist and veteran of girl-rockers Dead Disco, is taking it all in her small but perfectly-formed stride.

Does she feel her status as queen of the current crop of synthesiser-wielding pop princesses is just deserts for her hard work? No, she says, rather unexpectedly.

“That’s looking at it the wrong way. It’s not like, oh I’ve been working so hard and finally after all these knock-backs I’ve finally made it. I just live for music; it’s what I do. I live and breathe it.

“It just happens that things recently have put me in the public eye and made me popular, I guess. To me, I’m doing what I want – listening to music and playing and performing. It’s what I’ve always been doing.

It is not,” she says emphatically, “some chore that’s paid off.”

Victoria took up piano at five, and “can’t appreciate enough” how classical training has helped her song-writing – “to be able to sit at a piano like it’s a second language.”

“People think I’ve been trying to get famous all my life, but I’m just about writing songs and making music.” She’s glad singing Nina Simone’s Feeling Good for Pop Idol came to nothing, but points out that growing up in Blackpool doesn’t make cracking the London music industry any easier – as a way to meet movers and shakers it’s not a bad idea, if not a route to creativity. “When you sign your name on that contract, you’re trading yourself to the devil, I think. You don’t get to do your own thing, you do it their way.”

“The day I quit my day job because I could do music full time was probably the happiest day of my life.” She laughs. “Actually I liked my day job – but it was amazing to think I could just make music instead.”

Her pre-Little Boots activities show her efforts in channelling this musical talent: from the years fronting nearly-made-it, Leeds-based Dead Disco, or the European touring jazz band, or the punk band that played Blink 182 covers, in addition to decades playing piano and meddling with Moogs.

Hands is a pop album, but it doesn’t sound like what we’ve come to expect. There is a slight feel of the home-made – it doesn’t bear the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from pop-record-by-committee; gone are the R&B clichéd drum patterns, nowhere to be seen are the rubbery, eurocheese synthesizers of the worst kind of commercial pop music, thankfully absent are laboured lyrics – and videos – laced with sexual innuendo. In fact part of its appeal lies in its lack of perfectly processed, over-production. It sounds like one woman on a mission to empty her head of ideas that had been fit to burst out for lack of an outlet.

So Little Boots is not a pretty face backed by a production wizard, as is so often the case – Victoria stands in as both. “It’s this age-old distinction of singer with the pretty face and no brain and behind it all is the man pulling the strings, playing with the wires,” she groans. “It’s so silly. I’ve been playing with synths for years.”

“As a teenager I was writing songs but the thought of playing them to anyone was like standing naked in front of a room of people,” she says, “I just couldn’t do it.

“When I joined Dead Disco it was the first time I was writing and playing my own ideas. I began to think, I’ve done as well as I ever have with my music, so maybe I’m not that bad at it. You start having faith, believing it could go somewhere.”

Recording began last year with help from Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and shared by Greg Kurstin, who produced Dead Disco’s final single and also worked with Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Lilley Allen. The promise of the early singles has led not only to giving up the day job, but also the chance to work with musical heroes: Symmetry, a track underpinned by a catchy, pulsing, reversed synth bassline, is a duet with Phil Oakey of the Human League. “I’m such a huge fan,” she says. “We were all quite nervous before we met him, as we’d not been able to record it live in the studio together and he’d not heard the final track. He’s a great guy and his voice is still really impressive after all this time.”

Victoria borrows from but transcends such 1980s-centric nostalgia that currently seems inescapable. While contemporaries like La Roux seem intent on recreating that 80s sound right down to the harsh, low-tech synthesized sounds, though Little Boots wears Gary Newman and Human League proudly on her sleeve, you can also hear Georgio Moroder’s analogue disco, the futuristic, spacey, spartan feel of 1980s Italo disco and electropop, and the polished dance sounds of 1990s Kylie and Madonna.

The relentless hook of Stuck on Repeat, the first of her tracks to emerge, recalls Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head or its great-grandmother, Donna Summer. But Meddle is a moody, percussive, bass-heavy monster with a skittering beat that is miles away from other more luxuriant pop tracks like Earthquake or Remedy.

When she performed Meddle on Jools Holland, it was with a piano, stylophone and Tenori-on, a new Japanese portable sequencer described as a “musical etch-a-sketch” that Victoria has become a cheerleader for.

“That was wicked,” she recalls. “The first time on that show I was scared shitless. At the time I thought it was okay, but looking back it was pretty risky – I was playing three instruments at the same time on my own, and all around me were these big bands. I’d never done it before so I thought I’d just give it a go.

It’s the tenori-on’s physicality and immediateness that appeals: “It’s very important for electronic music to be live music. For me, electronic music should be just as exciting live as anything else, I just want to demonstrate the physical act of music making.

“It doesn’t have to be two guys sitting behind a laptop or a singer with a backing track. You make it the studio, not on a computer, so it’s just about finding a way to do that in a bigger and more visual way so you can connect the images your seeing to the sounds.”

And in terms of visuals, her stage show ideas border on the epic. A plan to build a giant Tenori-on that mimics the one she plays was shelved due to cost. Instead the stage show has included a fake owl, a fibreglass wolf with glowing eyes and she’s building a laser-harp, beloved of synthesiser guru and showman Jean Michel Jarre, of whom she’s a big fan.

“He’s one of these people whose shows sell out whenever he plays, but it costs so much to tour he doesn’t do it often. I want to be a bit more practical – take the drama and visuality of it into a popular format with songs that hopefully more people can relate to.”

So after all the hype and expectation, is the exceptionally grounded Victoria still driving the Little Boots machine?

“Definitely, more so than ever,” she says. “I think I lost a bit of control around the album launch, it just got so silly with the amount of press and everything. But everything I do musically is very much mine.”

Keep following; there’s plenty more to come to fill these boots.

Little Boots’ album, Hands (Sixsevenine), is out now.

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2009]

 

The Social: a band, not a bar

The Social. Photo - Oliver Twitchett
The Social. Photo - Oliver Twitchett

I cast down my pen with a dramatical flourish. Come on then, admit it, I say. You basically sound like The Smiths.

Six-foot singer Laurence blinks. “Yep,” he replies.

I’d expected some attempt to rebuff suggestions that his throaty, bass voice had more than a little echo of the strident, urgent lyrical exhortations of Morrissey, or even Ian Curtis. Or that Liam’s contradictory guitar melodies are so Johnny Marr-esque as to border on tribute act. But not a bit of it.

“It’s inevitable that we are going to synthesize what we love into what we do, but really you have to take us at our lyrics first before working back to the music,” bass player Stuart says.

“The Smiths are one of those bands that had a massive effect on British music,” Laurence adds. “But they were also unique – Nirvana and many others made a massive impact too, but none of them had the uniqueness of the sound The Smiths had, and it’s that sound that’s been deserted.

“I didn’t want to go to far from their sound, from their ethic, from their movement, because that’s what made them great. And we’ve only been together two years, so the next lot of songs will probably sound totally different.”

The Social are singer Lawrence, 26, and bassist Stuart, 29, both originally old friends from Birmingham, who met guitarist Liam and drummer Alfie after moving to London a few years ago.

They look like a mash-up of 1980s and 1880s – Teddy Boy-punks with white socks peeking above tasselled loafers, pleat trousers and dress shirts paired with ripped t-shirts, inappropriate PVC hats and scarves worn as cravats. There are no gladioli in Laurence’s pocket.

Though they wear some influences – The Smiths, The Cure – proudly on their sleeve, others more surprising lurk beneath the surface – Killing Joke, and fellow West Midlanders The Specials and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, evidenced by strong leading bass and drum tracks in songs like “To the Bone.”

Following a well received 7” double-A-side on Influx records last year, Under Grey Skies/London Is Divided, a chance meeting with producer Dave Allen called them back into the studio – away from their Camden shop, Divided London, that had become more of a speakeasy than a shopfront. The result is the five-track EP A Call To Arms, out next month.

The Social’s songs are tales of the dole – the DSS to which their name refers – of frustrated lives, big ideas, and idiots at the wheel.

“It’s a swipe at the times really; the 1990s consumer society, the apathy. We’re not a political band, but we’re attacking people that fall victim to what politics makes them. People that are blind and stupid,” Laurence says.

Indeed, The Social have views on many things, from NME (“like OK or Hello magazine these days”), to ways of making ends meet (Stuart DJs cheese at clubs like Bungalow 8, Laurence sings opera) and ‘indie landfill’ bands (“they’ve got nothing to say – The Wombats are making a Christmas record for god’s sake”).

Is the fact the boys released both on their own label, Divided London, a nod to a punk DIY ethic?

“The label helps us keep our momentum going,” says Laurence, “and with the way the things are at the moment – two of the big four labels not taking on new acts – small labels may be the only way things are done in the future. The system’s failing.”

“We’re not going to do music for adverts. In fact we’ve already turned down some offers, but it’s not what we’re about and we’d look like idiots,” adds Stuart. “But if the man puts a contract in front of me I’ll sign it – I want my swimming pool shaped like a guitar.”

 

[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]

 

Soulwax: still tearing up the musical landscape

Stephen & David Dewaele - Soulwax/2ManyDJs

Two brothers whose musical prowess fuels three different live shows return to Britain for a festival-fuelled summer as their two alter-egos, 2ManyDJs and Soulwax.

Stephen and David Dewaele hit the radar after being largely responsible for reinventing the remix when, as 2ManyDJs, they dismantled over 40 records and rebuilt them by mixing riffs and vocals from different tracks. Their triple-gold 2002 album As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2 neatly vaults across decades and genres, from Peaches to the Velvet Underground, from The Stooges to Salt ‘n’ Pepa, from Lil Louis’ house classic French Kiss to Belgian ravers the Lords of Acid.

These days such musical mashups appear every other week on bootlegged white labels, but the brothers spent two years embroiled in what must be the world’s most dedicated act of licence clearing. From 114 chosen recordings, 62 of the owners refused permission and 11 could not be traced. Even the cover artwork caused a legal wrangle after the owner complained of his photograph being mashed up along with the music on the record.

Speaking from his hometown of Ghent in Belgium, Stephen says: “I don’t think we could ever make a record like that again. It was pretty special, at a musical level and on a clearing level, it’s something no one had ever done before.

“Musically it was at the right time, a lot of dance music was still house music, very anal about itself in my opinion. We were just rock kids, going hey, this is fun, but we just don’t want to groove out for 12 minutes, we want to rock for one minute and then move on to something else.”

But even before their 2ManyDJs radio shows, albums and DJ sets, the brothers had been working hard at Soulwax, their bluesy sometimes almost psychedelic rock band whose sound has become gradually more infected with dirty electronic sounds and dancefloor beats, from their 1996 debut Leave the Story Untold, to 1999s breakthrough album Much Against Everyone’s Advice followed by Any Minute Now in 2005.

It’s a combination popular enough to have found favour with most indie rockers over the last decade, from Franz Ferdinand to Interpol.

How did a Belgium rock act end up spearheading an invasion of electronic dance rhythms into tight-trousered guitar music worldwide?

“Out of boredom, really,” he says. “When you’re in a band you play live but waste so much time before and after just hanging around. We’d support other bands and we’d be free so we’d ask the DJ, who most of the time would be playing house music, if we could play, and most of the time they’d be happy. We wanted to hear something different. We need the chaos.”

It is Soulwax’s standout remixes of the likes of Justice, Klaxons, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and The Gossip that has put them in such high demand.

Stephen says: “The electronic sound has always been in us, from the very first Soulwax record. We grew up on stoner rock, but even then we were interested in using electronics. We just never have imagined 2ManyDJs would have become so big, or that our remixes would become so big.”

In fact, their native Ghent hosts I Love Techno, a massive technofest every year in November for 35,000 ravers, and is the home to pioneering techno label R&S records, so their love of dark electronic noises and pulsing rhythms comes with a good pedigree.

“That Frank de Wulf [leading Euro techno DJ], he’s a friend of mine,” recalled Stephen. “I lent him all my Kraftwerk records when I was 15 when he had a radio show. I bumped into him the other day, and realised I keep forgetting my hometown is at the heart of techno.”

He adds: “For us, I really love DJing, playing music live, writing music and producing music for other people too. I’m very lucky that we’re able to do all these things with a fair amount of success,” he laughs, “because we never planned on it.”

And the chance to see the before and after effects of their treatment has not been missed – “We used to play the original Gossip track [Standing In The Way Of Control] before anyone else, we’d DJ and see everyone go nuts on it. We thought, this is a rock track with a dance feeling to it, but it just needs to get beefed up. We remixed it for no money and when you see the result it’s really gratifying.”

This month sees the release of Part of the Weekend Never Dies, a “film-slash-documentary” of the last three years touring around the world, part live show and part behind-the-scenes footage featuring some of the bands Soulwax gigged with: Erol Alkan, Tiga, Justice, Busy P, So-Me, Peaches, Kitsuné and Klaxons.

The full Radio Soulwax tour sees Stephen on guitar and vocals and David on keyboards play alongside Stefaan Van Leuven and Steve Slingeneyer as the Soulwax live band. They belt out not just own rock tracks but also their many successful remixes of other artists and the work they have done remixing themselves, Nite Versions.

Released in 2005, Nite Versions is a dancefloor-friendly re-imagining of their third album Any Minute Now with a hat-tip to the 12” mixes of the 1980s, which bands like Duran Duran called their “night versions.”

“It’s hard to remix your own music,” Stephen says, “it’s a bit of an exercise, but we managed it in two weeks after we just got our head round the fact that you can’t be too precious about it.”

How do you feel about other people taking the cutters’ knife to Soulwax records as you do to theirs?

“I’ve got no problem with people remixing our records, but nothing has made me stand up and go, wow. But, no problem, they can do whatever they want,” laughs Stephen.

“We’ve been bootlegged so much, there are whole record labels full of radio DJ sets that we’ve been doing. It’s so easy with modern technology, who am I to stop them?”

With talk in Britain of the government implementing a tax on internet users to cover illegal music downloads, it’s clear that the music industry is experiencing a seismic shift that Stephen acknowledges is pulling in different directions.

“I think the revenue for bands is shifting to live gigs, things are changing and we have to go with it not try and fight it. I mean, a lot of publishing contracts are not the best in the world, they’re based on old ideas and ideals. But I have no problem with people taking music, fucking it up and making something new—unless they get a number one with it!”

Soulwax play at Get Loaded in the Park on Clapham Common, Bank Holiday Sunday August 24. www.getloadedinthepark.com

 

[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]