Saturday, December 01, 2007

Maceo Parker

[for Plan B magazine; meeting Maceo was, as you might imagine, quite a trip, and he was one of the coolest interviewees I've ever had the pleasure of questioning. Long may he blow...]

He was, and perhaps still is, the hardest working saxophonist in showbusiness, blowing horn and evading fines with James Brown over several stretches through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Maceo Parker lent his furious bebop bleat to Brown’s 1973 studio masterpiece, The Payback, and played on his epochal 1968 single ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black And Proud)’. Say It Live And Loud, a highpoint amid Brown’s blizzard of live albums (taped the night after Brown recorded his black power anthem, but unreleased until 1998) is as blistering evidence as you could wish for of Parker’s crucial place within Brown’s onstage sound, while anyone au fait with 1980s Hip-Hop will be familiar with the sound of Maceo’s horn, turned inside-out thanks to nefarious manipulation by the Bomb Squad, squealing like the devil’s own siren throughout Public Enemy’s ‘Rebel Without A Pause’.

Stepping off the JBs train, he led his own group, before hooking up with George Clinton to usher in the high times of disco-era Parliament. In the 1990s, he graced De La Soul with his presence for their Buhloone Mindstate album, signed up with another mercurial funk genius blowing for Prince’s New Power Generation, and guested with Jane’s Addiction and the Chili Peppers. Today, he’s promoting his latest album Roots & Grooves, a double set featuring a brace of hard-funk licks sharp enough to belie his 64 years, and an album’s worth of Ray Charles covers backed by an 18-piece Big Band from Cologne, with Maceo’s croon velvety in the foreground. “I’ve always sung ‘unh’s and grunts, just like James Brown,” he grins, “But this is the first time I’ve sung like this.”

Covering Charles’ songs is for Maceo very much a tribute to his roots, growing up in Kinston, North Carolina. He shared with his two brothers an insatiable hunger for music; this was, however, the age before internet file-swapping, so they had to employ different means to feed their curiosity. “The radio would just play country and western music in the evenings,” he remembers, “So we’d go out into the neighbourhood and visit the older people, and ask if they had records, and if we could listen to them. I’m serious, man, we went around and we wanted to hear ev-ry-thing! Frank Sinatra… Johnny Mathis... Who’s that guy, [sings] ‘I left my heart, in San Francisco…? Tony Bennett! These guys had such wide repertoires, you learned all the songs listening to them. And who sang a broader range of music than Ray Charles?”

His mother had, he says, “a great voice. She could have been a star, but she chose singing religious music over nightclubs. I was telling her on the telephone today, that she could’ve been Ella Fitzgerald if she’d wanted to be; she’s 80-something now, but she still has a great voice.” Both parents attempted to learn the piano but quickly dropped it; the instrument remained in the Parker house, however, and so-inclined visitors would often tinkle the ivories, with Maceo gazing on in rapt concentration. “I’d watch their fingers,” he says, “really watch them. I musta been six or seven years old, but I’d remember the fingering, where the chords were. And when the grown person would get up and start talking to ma, I’d go and start playing the song. I didn’t know how to play the piano, but I was playing the piano!”

Parker describes his time with James Brown as being “like a train ride. You get onboard, and once it’s taken you as far as you want to go, you get off.” Maceo had plenty of preparation for his first embarkation, having formed a group with his brothers Melvin and Kellis when he was eleven. “My uncle had a group, the Blue Notes, and we tried to play everything they played. We tried and tried and tried, and eventually we got to a point where we could play three or four of my uncle’s tunes, and people could recognise what they were! We called ourselves the Junior Blue Notes, and began playing around town, and people we’d never met before started saying, ‘Wow! You can really play!’ That’s when we knew something was happening.”

The Godfather of Soul caught one of the group’s performances some years later, and was particularly impressed with the drummer, Melvin, offering him a place in his group. A year later, Melvin was drumming for Brown, having also secured a slot for 21-year old Maceo, for whom the opportunity offered the chance to fulfil a long-held dream. “I’d always wondered, what would it be like to walk into a bar somewhere you’ve never been before, throw a quarter into a jukebox, and hear yourself play? I knew that, playing with James Brown, we’d get to record in a studio. By the time it finally happened, it wasn’t the thrill I thought it was gonna be,” he laughs, of his jukebox fantasy, “but I was a little more grown by then, and my dreams had evolved to playing stages all over the world.”

This was another dream playing with Brown would facilitate, but the Godfather was an exacting boss. “All the stories you’ve heard are true,” Maceo chuckles, “but it’s all to make you better, to make the group better. James preached discipline, decorum, taking pride in how you dress, trying not to perform in uniforms that look like you just slept in them, just being proud of who you are and holding your head up high. Again, you’re aboard the train, and it’s taking you where you need to go, you have to trust in the driver. That’s how I viewed working with James: anyway he wants to do a thing, that’s how I’ll do it.”

A year after joining Brown in 1964, Maceo was drafted into the military, returning afterwards for another three year stint, during which the Godfather was greatly accelerating the evolution of this thing we call funk. Shortly after recording a feverish homecoming date in Atlanta, GA in 1969 (which the Godfather intended to release as James Brown At Home With His Bad Self), however, Maceo exited Brown’s employ, accompanied by the rest of the group.

“We had grievances, it was time to tell the conductor to stop the train,” remembers Maceo. “The other guys got wind that I wanted to leave, and suggested we all approach James en masse, and threaten to quit. And James didn’t like that, it was too much power for him; later on, in his book, he said he fired me, but he didn’t. I’d not wanted the rest of the band to quit, though; I wanted to look James in the eye and let him know I had enough, uh, whatever, to quit on my own.”

Brown didn’t look far for replacements, hiring a couple of young kids, Bootsy and Catfish Collins, who were always hanging around his recording studio in Cincinnati as the backbone of his new backing group, The J.B.s. The transition was signalled with 1970’s Sex Machine album, where a J.B.s-era late night session, which yielded the hugely-successful titular track, was cobbled together with the 1969 Atlanta show as a live album, with canned studio noise covering the cracks. The J.B.s would not last long, however. “Bootsy and Catfish had joined, thinking they’d get to play with us,” laughs Maceo. “Then when they arrived, and discovered us gone, they started to wonder what had made us quit. And then they found out…”

Maceo, meanwhile, had gone on to form a new band with his old colleagues, Maceo And All The King’s Men, their moniker perhaps a jab at their erstwhile King Of Soul employer. “We had fun,” Maceo remembers. “Some nights we wouldn’t make more than $80 between all of us, but that was just enough gas money to get us to the next show. We were young, we had no responsibilities, what did it matter?”

Parker would return to the Godfather’s employ during the 1970s, leaving again to work with George Clinton, as Musical Director for Parliament. Though Clinton was Brown’s only true rival for the crown of God Of Funk, their approaches couldn’t have differed more. “Where James preached uniformity, punctuality and discipline, George didn’t have any of that,” he laughs. “And that was shocking, it really was. If some guy was into Tarzan, and wanted to dress onstage like Tarzan, or like a baseball referee, or a pilot, that was okay with George. I mean really, really okay. And if someone wanted to wear the same outfit for four years and not wash it, that was okay with George. I was used to tuxedos, bow ties, patent leather shoes… Uniforms. George said, life’s just a party, so you shouldn’t be uptight about how people dress.

“And that was his concept; they’re from outer space, and they’ve been assigned to come down from their galaxy to show the people of Earth what funky music is really about. We had a tune called ‘Atomic Dog’, and George would tell the audience, I gotta find me a dog! He’d walk around the stage, and pluck a girl from the audience, throw her down and walk her like a dog…”

Did you find this hard to adjust to?

“No. It took a minute to adjust... There were some real funky players in that group, like Eddie Hazel. He was funky, and funky is funky. [mimics funk guitar] And you appreciate it when you hear it.”

In the years that followed, Maceo returned to the Godfather’s bosom a couple more times, fielded offers for high-profile collaborations, pursued several solo projects, and has been blowing horn for Prince since 1999’s Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. And he finally got his chance to play with the Collins brothers, as a member of Bootsy’s Rubber Band, throughout the 70s and 80s.

“Bootsy had a little of James’s uniformity, but also a little bit of the George Clinton thing too,” says Maceo. “We didn’t get as raunchy or vulgar as George, but he’d hint on a little something every now and again. And, like George, he loved flashy clothes, in particular anything that was red and white. Nobody else can play like those two, I’m sorry. [mimics interplay of the Collins brothers] It’s nice.”

At the end of the interview, Maceo asks if he can borrow my notepad and pen and, on the next available blank sheet, scribbles a word in a neat scrawl near the centre of the page. He then pushes the notepad back across the table.

“I just want you to know, everything I do… Everything…” He draws his hands up to his chest, which rises slowly as he takes a deep breath, filling lungs that have blown like the proverbial hurricane through the histories of funk, soul and pop – a gesture which unconsciously reminds just how grand an ‘everything’ that really is. “…is because of this.”

The word is “love”.

(c) Stevie Chick, 2007

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Brian Wilson

[news piece / review from MOJO]

September 12th saw Brian Wilson return to the freshly-refurbished Royal Festival Hall – where he had previously debuted Smile and Pet Sounds – for the world premiere of his newest work, a song-cycle written with Wondermint Scott Bennett and long-time collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Entitled That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative), conceived while Wilson was “in the middle of a real creative trip”, it is a musical tribute to Southern California, a location enshrined in so many Beach Boys songs.

In typically excitable, enthusiastic mood, dressed in a black and white striped top and accompanied by his ten-piece band and the Stockholm Strings And Horns, Wilson treated his audience to a joyous opening set of Beach Boys favourites from ‘Surfer Girl’ to ‘Heroes And Villains’, slipping in a snippet of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ as a tease; that the audience were clapping along by the fifth bar was an encouraging sign.

Following a twenty minute interval, Wilson and his musicians returned to perform the nine songs of That Lucky Old Sun, with periodic interjections from Van Dyke Parks’ dippy, loving, poetic narration, accompanied by projected animations. Brian’s most ambitious new work since returning from the wilderness, the song cycle recalls Pet Sounds and Smile, not least in its playfully baroque arrangements – a playground riot of glockenspiel, tympani, strings and harmonies all played with a smile – and melodic nods to the Beach Boy canon, complementing the autobiographical bent of the lyric-book.

That Lucky Old Sun revisits familiar Wilson themes, albeit from a newly nostalgic (and sadly wise) perspective; ‘Forever You’ll Be My Surfer Girl’ gazes back on first love forty years after the fact, grateful for the memories – and melodies – she yielded. ‘Midnight’s Another Day’, referencing Wilson’s darker days, opened with footage of the Wilson brothers in their heyday projected on the backdrop (to wild applause), giving way to a cold white moon. “Lost my way, the sun grew dim,” Wilson sang, accompanied only by his own piano; as he charted his quest to find again the warmth of the sun, the white disk behind him slowly changed to a golden glow.

Southern California’ closed the cycle on a triumphant, redemptive note, recalling his dream of “singing with my brothers in harmony / supporting each other”, and declaring “I’m glad it happened to me / Nodded off in the band room, woke up in history”. An extended standing ovation greeted the song’s final notes, preceding a giddy medley of Beach Boys hits, and an aching cover of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ dedicated to Paul McCartney; a similarly rapturous reception is expected when the studio version of That Lucky Old Sun surfaces next Spring.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Sunday, October 28, 2007

juggle tings proper

Big Dada Records is ten years old! Buy their new Well Deep compilation album and DVD! Then buy everything else they ever released! But first read this.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Because I Love It

Oh, hello. You can find my Guardian feature on the wonderful Amerie here

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fall Out Boy

[for Arena... Las Vegas, well, I hated it. The Fall Out boys, however, were lovely. Big shout to Louise Mayne who had to put up with my interminable gloom throughout this trip (seriously, June sucked...)]


The high-pitched banshee wail is ear-piercing and nigh unbearable. We’re at Nellis Air Force Base in Clark County Nevada, North East of Las Vegas, where the majority of the US Air Force log their hours of fighter pilot training, a location that has weathered the arcing screams and sonic booms of modern jet airplanes since opening in 1941.

But this isn’t the airstrip, rather an on-base department store for local military personnel and their families. And that incessant shriek isn’t the sound of burning jet fuel and whirring turbines, but hundreds of young kids, mostly girls, assembled for a meet’n’greet signing session with their idols, Chicagoan pop-punks Fall Out Boy, playing the Palms hotel in Las Vegas later that evening. As the group sit behind a long table piled high with promotional posters, idly toying with sharpie pens, armed Military Police dressed in camo-garb manage the crowd, barking at them to stand behind the grey plastic shopping trolleys banded together like some crude velvet rope. Beatlemania was never like this.

Or perhaps it was. The group’s tour manager Charlie, a towering, shaven-headed dude who looks like a squaddie himself, yells at the slowly-moving line that “Only one item per person will be signed”; the (mostly) girls file past, bringing with them CD sleeves and promo photos and even a couple of guitars to be signed by the group. More precious even than the autographs, however, is the fleeting personal contact with their heroes, and bassist and chief heart-throb Pete Wentz in particular.

“He told me that he liked my hair and my face!” screams one hyperventilating nine year old to her mother, signed poster clutched to heaving chest. “Oh! My! God! Pete said ‘What’s up?’ to me!!” yells another pre-teen hysteric, like the greeting could cure cooties. Only a dead-hearted cynic could remain unmoved by such unabashed devotion, however unsettling it might initially seem.

“They’re reacting in the way they’ve been programmed to,” Wentz explains later, indulgently and a little bashfully, of such Beatlemanic scenes. “They only know you through MTV and the photo in the CD booklet, so when they actually meet you it blows their mind. I ‘get’ it, because that enthusiasm is what allows you to keep making music.” Still, the meet-and-greets take their toll; Wentz’s right hand, currently decorated with a deep red scar as a result of an onstage mishap, has suffered enough from crushing fan handshakes that he now offers his left out of habit.

The 200th fan having collected her poster, the signing session is ended with appropriately military precision, Charlie shepherding his boys towards the exit, the MPs dispersing the crowd. As the Fall Out boys scurry past the blouses, skirts and bras of the ladieswear section, fans disobey the soldiers’ commands and run after them, one desperate mother materialising from behind a rail of petticoats to snap Pete on her camera-phone. “Smiiiile for my daughter!” she howls, as Charlie runs interference and the group disappear through the doorway, to a USAF van waiting with its engine running outside. Welcome to a ‘typical’ day in the life of Fall Out Boy.

“When things like that become totally ordinary in your life, it changes who you are as a person,” muses Wentz moments later, as the group speed along to the Palms Hotel, and the next of their promotional commitments. He’s typing endlessly on his Sidekick; tonight’s support act +44 (fronted by Mark Hoppus, formerly of multi-platinum pop-punks Blink 182) have had to pull out, and Wentz is trying to organise last-minute substitutes in the form of Panic! At The Disco, a Las Vegas group whose career trajectory fair resembles Fall Out Boy’s, perhaps explaining their close friendship.

Sat behind him, Patrick Stump, Fall Out Boy’s singer/guitarist, pores over a package handed to him earlier by a fan, a folder containing a gift for each member of the band. “Look, she did a painting each for all the other guys,” Stump frowns, indicating three surreal watercolours enclosed, “and they’re real good. And I got a sheet containing parody lyrics for one of our songs.”

Patrick lifts up his ever-present baseball cap and ruffles the mop of butterscotch hair hidden beneath. While he sings all the group’s songs, and indeed writes all the music, it’s Wentz, the bassist and lyricist of the group, who’s considered the ‘frontman’. Where Wentz is kohl-eyed and olive-skinned, with an easy and infectious grin that doubtless glows in the dreams of his many fans, Stump is, by his own self-deprecating admission, not exactly a heart-throb. “I’m a totally normal guy,” he smiles. “I’m what we call ‘TV Ugly’, where I’m handsome enough to be cast as the ugly friend. I’m ‘TV Fat’, a ‘thin’ guy compared to most of the population, but, well, you know...”

Stump doesn’t envy the attention Wentz ‘enjoys’ from the media, focussed as it is on his puppy-dog looks, his relationship with pop singer Ashlee Simpson, and the more turbulent corners of his private life. “It’s strange, the person they sometimes make Pete out to be,” puzzles Stump. “I know him as good as anyone’s gonna know him; the guy I’ve read about is a dick, but he has nothing to do with Pete Wentz.”

Certainly, Wentz has endured a rocky ride through stardom, ever since the group’s major label debut, 2005’s From Under The Cork Tree, made them an ‘overnight success’ on their third album. The group formed in Wilmette, Illinois in 2001, when 22 year old Wentz and 17 year old guitarist Joe Trohman, veterans of hardcore group Arma Angelus, approached high schooler Stump, who soon assumed vocal and guitar duties. Taking the name Fall Out Boy in loving reference to the sidekick of Simpsons-Universe superhero Radioactive Man, the group went through a number of line-up changes and released a mini-LP before hooking up with drummer Andy Hurley and cutting their debut full-length, Take This To Your Grave in 2003, for legendary punk imprint Fuelled By Ramen (Wentz runs his own label, Decaydence, under their aegis).

Signed to Island records for From Under The Cork Tree, the album’s lead-off single ‘Sugar We’re Goin’ Down’ – a confection of anthemic punk-rock riffage, sugary harmonies and the kind of perfect-pop hook that imbeds itself in your brain without mercy – was soon an MTV smash, ensuring the album sold 68,000 copies in its first week (eventually going double-platinum) and delivering the group to the ever-rabid audience of hit show Total Request Live, typically stomping grounds for unabashed pop acts like Britney and Justin. It was a weird environment for a punk-rock band from Chicago to find themselves in.

“I don’t think any of us anticipated any of this when we formed,” deadpans Stump, of the promotional activities their fast-won celebrity demands. “I was brought up on punk rock. I’d go to shows, and when a band starts playing people rock out, and when the band stops they go and have conversations, and the band walks offstage unhassled. You love the bands, but you could give two shits about the guys who play in them. And so, the first time someone said ‘hey, will you sign this album?’, I said ‘but I’ll get marker pen on it and ruin it!’”

It was Wentz who was to feel the public gaze most keenly, especially when naked photos of the bassist, shot on his Sidekick and sent to a possible romantic conquest, leaked onto the internet in March 2006. “I’ve been so candid in the past, and its burned me,” Wentz blushes. “I used to speak without a filter, but I ended up in hot water.”

This troublesome honesty wasn’t just limited to Wentz’s sex-life; he was also candidly open about struggles with his emotional health and his experiences with anti-depressants, a rollercoaster that ran at perilous speed throughout the making of From Under The Cork Tree.

“I can barely remember those years,” he grimaces, settling himself on the sofa of his tourbus, rough-housing with touring companion, gorgeous one year old bulldog Hemingway. “I was taking prescription medication; I was definitely a Drugstore Cowboy, mixing this with this, seeing what the combinations did. I couldn’t picture myself in two years. People would ask, what are you going to do on the next record? And I’d say dude, I can’t even see myself being alive.”

It’s a common story for kids of Wentz’s generation, prescribed anti-depressants at an early age, upon which they soon become reliant; Gerard Way, frontman of My Chemical Romance, has been similarly open about his struggles with depression and prescription drugs. “It’s an over-medicated generation,” Wentz offers. “Rather than having conversations with each other, we go and see what pill we can take to make it all go away.”

A near-fatal overdose on sedative Ativan early in 2005 inspired From Under The Cork Tree’s key song, ‘7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)’, though Wentz says today, “I’ve never described anything that happened to me as a ‘suicide attempt’. But I thank God for my bandmates every day, for their tolerance. I was completely self-aware of the situation I was in, but I didn’t care enough to do anything. The guy who doesn’t know what he was doing, you can’t blame him, he doesn’t know. But the guy who knows it, and is just sitting there putting himself through it, you’d hate that guy. And that’s who I felt I was. In America depression is treated in such a bizarre way, shuffled off and put in a closet. It seems like it’s something you’re supposed to be ashamed of, but sometimes you’re supposed to feel crappy. You figure your way out of it, and you figure yourself out, and that’s how it’s supposed to go.”

Wentz’s emotional turbulence provides much meat for his songwriting, penning lyrics that balance a scarringly confessional bent with a penchant for wordplay; sample song titles include ‘Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am’, ‘Champagne For My Real Friends, Real Pain For My Sham Friends’, and ‘I’ve Got All This Ringing In My Ears But None On My Fingers’. Like all the best pop, Fall Out Boy play adolescent conflicts out as high drama, Wentz’s lyrics allied to riffs and melodies surging with an emotive dynamism, penned and sung by Stump. “It’s like he’s writing confession, and I’m singing it,” laughs Patrick. “I’m like a priest to him that way. He gets to say it through me, and I get to absolve him.”

The lyrics speak to a generation similarly anxious and disturbed, finding succour in songs awash with anguish; but Pete says he doesn’t have answers. “People come up to me and say, ‘Your band saved my life’… I still haven’t figured out how to react to that. Because, yeah, this band saved my life too. Honestly, I feel like one of the last people who should be giving advice to anyone about anything. I’m not the Doctor Phil of punk music.”

Patrick Stump reckons he was about eight or nine years old when music began to take over his life. “My parents had divorced, and I was helping my dad move his stuff out,” Stump remembers. “I was confronted by this vast record collection. I was a little guy, I couldn’t manage a whole box of vinyl, so carried them record by record, asking my dad about all these albums as I went along.” Stump’s father was a singer/guitarist in a local group through the 1960s and 70s, with a record collection swollen with rock, blues and jazz. “He had Herbie Hancock records, and Eddie Harris records, and he really loved Van Morrison. It was the blues and jazz stuff that really got me into music. Then I became a Prince nerd, and really got into David Bowie. Now, I’d say hip-hop is probably the music we as a band all love the most. I know that’s a strange thing for a dude in a rock group to say.”

Sat on the corner of the double bed that swamps his room at the back of the other Fall Out Boy tourbus – an array of baseball caps hanging on pegs from the wall, his dapper onstage trilby perched upon a hat stand by the bedside – Stump explains that the group’s latest album, this year’s Infinity On High, was written “with a chip on my shoulder. People told us that we were making music for fourteen year olds, and I took it as a compliment; when you’re fourteen, you’re not tainted yet. I’ve been one of those totally arrogant, idiot rock snobs in my time, but if you’re an artist it makes for bad art.

“I woke up one morning in a sea of John Cage and Terry Reilly, thinking, ‘Michael Jackson is really entertaining, he makes fine music!’” Stump laughs. “That was a defining moment for me – ever since then, any time that little bastard in the back of my mind starts turning up his nose, I’m, like, ‘Shut up!’. That definitely affected the record. One of my favourite songs is ‘Do You Know Who I Think I Am?’, just because there’s something in the chord progression that reminds me of the 80s pop music I grew up listening to as a kid… Like, I always loved that ‘Who’s Johnny?’ song from the soundtrack to the movie Short Circuit…”

For the album, these fledgling pop celebrities collaborated with both Jay Z and R&B legend Babyface. “It was great working with Babyface,” smiles Stump. “He almost doesn’t have to do anything to make you play better, you just walk into his studio, and the weight of all the classic music he’s recorded makes you raise your game somehow.” The album’s lead-off single, ‘This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race’, charted at #2 in the UK, a near-perfect synthesis of R’n’B squelch and punk-rock furore indicative of the ambitious, unabashedly pop-friendly embrace of Infinity On High.

A knock at Stump’s door signals the next in the day’s packed series of events, playing blackjack in the casino of the Palms hotel with contest winners from a local radio competition. With fans milling about the hotel hoping for a glimpse of their heroes, Charlie and his security detail ferry the group into the casino like a crack commando unit. But as the group take their places at the card tables and meet the competition winners, few in the casino seem to care, too enthralled by the endlessly blinking and chirping slot machines swallowing their cash at fearsome pace. Welcome to Vegas, baby. The gambling session is followed by another meet’n’greet in a ballroom on the other side of the hotel, the security guards marching the band over so they can have their photos taken with fan-club members who bring ‘FOB’-decorated cup-cakes and plush animal toys for their heroes.

Minutes later, the group are onstage, dashing through their anthems of adolescent heartache with joyous energy, Wentz and Trohman leaping off an onstage ramp and throwing rock shapes as the audience responds with that same Beatlemanic roar from earlier. An impressive cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ is momentarily curtailed while Wentz cools off a fight brewing in the crowd. Panic At The Disco’s two frontmen take the stage for a surprise acoustic set before Fall Out Boy’s encore, which closes with an explosion of pyrotechnics and glitter, and more of those teenage screams. (Wentz points out earlier that the Vegas show is at a much smaller venue than the rest of the tour, precluding such onstage FX as the props which malfunctioned earlier in the tour, leaving Patrick Stump trapped inside, much like Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls.)

Moments after he’s run offstage, Wentz takes time out from an impromptu aftershow party brewing backstage with his friends from the other groups touring with Fall Out Boy during the summer, returning to his bus to talk some more, about a future he once couldn’t see, and his rejection of depression and self-medication as a way of life.

“This had become a business of misery by accident,” he smiles. “The whole idea of the new album was to have a smile on your face, that you shouldn’t feel guilty about being happy. I love the adventure of being in Fall Out Boy. Sometimes I think about homeless guys, and about how I could easily find myself in the gutter someday – that’s just the kind of personality I have – but it would still be an adventure. I’ll be talking to Hobo Jim on the boxcar, saying ‘Yeah, I was in Fall Out Boy, I hung out with Jay Z!’ And he’ll be like, ‘yeah right, the guy in rags hung with Jay Z, sure man’.”

For all his fantasies of unexpected hobo-dom, Wentz is unlikely to find himself homeless in the near future, and seems to have made some kind of peace with these newfound responsibilities of fame. “I’ve got a weird brain chemistry, he admits. “Honestly, I used to wake up and wanna blow my head off. I don’t feel like that anymore. For so long, my life was like the crocodile with the clock in his stomach chasing Captain Hook; the clock always ticking and the jaws always snapping. There was a good six months where I was just toxic, over-medicated. I’m relying on that less, relying on my friends more. I think last year was the most dangerous year for Fall Out Boy, and the most dangerous year for myself, because its so easy to believe the people whispering in your ear, to get caught up in it all. I thank God I got through it, and came out of the other side.

“I picture myself having a family now,” he smiles. “Before, my dreams were about being in the biggest band in the world, playing shows all over the globe to thousands of people. Now, my dreams are of back yards and hanging out. It’s a good progression for me, trying to figure out what’s normal…”

Hemingway, gnawing at a juicy marrowbone on the floor, jumps up into his master’s lap at a click of Wentz’s fingers, Pete tugging lovingly at his ears, so the dog playfully bares his fangs. “Anyway, I’ve got Hemingway now,” he laughs. “I can’t just sleep in past noon anymore, otherwise he won’t get fed.”

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Saturday, September 08, 2007

my... disk... drive... is... dead...

Am deep into a weekend of writing and transcribing, and going slightly mental. Earlier I fashioned a relief sculpture of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial from an old clump of Pritt Tak attached to my speaker. Now, I am several hours into transcribing an interview tape, and have hit a gloopy stew of self-congratulatory wank from my subject. "We cannot fail, because we're so talented, so passionate, so focused, so committed..." He goes on and on, as does my typing, small bones dislodging specks of cartilage and playing croquet with them through the fleshy tunnels of my fingers. CLACK/THWACK/CLACK/THWACK. "We're so good, so fucking GOOD," he continues, and I'm thinking about arthiritis and how, when I can no longer type, because my hands are but twisted claws, it'll have been the fault of said rock star and his endless blether of banal self-love.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Drips

[featuring The Bronx's Matt and Joby, and the sons of Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, The Drips delivered one of the all-time great punk rock debuts with their eponymous 2006 LP. I play the shit out of it every chance I get, if you ever loved the Descendents or Husker Du you must get this album! for plan b]

The Barfly is the biggest cheese of all Camden’s venues, most nights playing host to industry liggers and kids dressed like indie-rockstars. Tonight, however, the front row is peopled by stripy-shirted screamo waifs, a be-‘Fro’d Japanese dude and, most notably, a contingent of gnarly skinheads resplendent with faded blue tattoos and flaky black leathers.

“You know what, man?” grins Matt Caughtran, The Drips’ sweet, dough-faced frontman, “That was the raddest thing ever. I love those dudes – because I’ve always been one of those crazy dudes. To have guys like that show up really means something – when dudes who listen to GBH 24 hours a day are coming to your shows… It’s not like The Drips are a hardcore band, anyways…”

Perhaps not when placed next to GBH, but The Drips’ breakneck punk-rock plugs deep into the more melodic vein of SST Hardcore (Husker Du, Descendents), their flab-free pop – played out on swaggering metallic guitars, nailed down by machine gun snares and illuminated by Caughtran’s kerosene-doused bellow – very much a sunshine-flip to Caughtran and guitarist Joby J Ford’s day-job in steroidal thrash-punks The Bronx.

“It’s sort of a ‘circle of friends’ thing,” smiles Matt, unthreading the groups’ tangled family trees. “Vince and Dave (bassist and drummer, sons of Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo) were childhood friends with Joby, and he played in their group. I joined, and we became the Drips. Then Joby and I started writing songs that didn’t really fit with the Drips, and that’s how The Bronx started.”

The Drips hit the back-burner while The Bronx rode the success of their self-titled 2003 debut, a brutish rush of shrapnel guitars and deadly dynamics you really should own. When the pressure of recording the follow-up, their first for a major label, began to tell last year, Matt and Joby were glad to blow off steam with The Drips.

“The new Bronx record wasn’t a bad experience by any means,” explains Matt, “But I tell you, we busted our ASSES on it. Everything took so long, it was all done really methodically. At times, we were like, ‘FUCK! I need to be doing something else…’”

Which is where The Drips came in. Re-ignited, they added Distiller Tony Bradley on second guitar, dusted off the songs they’d written six years before (and wrote a couple of new ones) and got into the studio. The result - a blistering eleven-song amphetamine-ripped dash - is gloriously kinetic noise candy, tunes painted in frazzling neon guitars as Matt howls along as if ‘Oi!’ were the sweetest sound he ever heard. “The Bronx are full-on headbang music,” muses Matt, “Where The Drips are more of a side-to-side bob.”

Examples of The Drips’ unabashed pop sensibility include interpolating a slice of Men Without Hats’ 80s New Wave hit ‘The Safety Song’ into careering closer ‘Coastline’, drubbing Matt’s vocals with dubby echo on the lightning-strike ‘Downbrown’, so his voice scars audible traces into the galloping melee, and ’16, 16, Six’, the group’s ballad. Unfolding to a sugary skank The Police would’ve approved of, it’s a Teen Love story that’s honestly awkward, clumsy, painful - not unlike Teen Love itself. Judging by how the screamo boys yelled along to lyrics like “This is the story of a broken heart / I tried to love but it fell apart”, striking heroic poses like they were some sozzled divorcee singing ‘I Will Survive’ at Karaoke, it could make The Drips huge.

“If it sounds awkward and naïve, that’s because I wrote it a long time ago,” offers Matt. “It was the first love song I ever wrote, and it was about my first girlfriend, who I was with for seven years. It was a tumultuous relationship.”

For all their phosphorent ferocity, The Drips onstage are mostly defined by Caughtran’s amiable, excitable charisma, grinning non-stop, like every moment – sharing his mic with the moshpit, leaping into their out-stretched arms – were his best ever. Which is pretty much the truth.

“Shit yeah, man,” he affirms. “The Bronx, The Drips – we never expected people to be into any of our shit. Especially not The Drips, it’s our High School band. It’s really cool, I still can’t believe I make my living from this… I believe it’s what I was born to do, so I’m having a blast doing it. It’s the only thing I really wanna do.”

(c) Stevie Chick, 2006

The Grates

[the best part of this 'job' - aside from the joyful/agonising work of chipping a feature out of the impenetrable hunk of rock that might be your feelings about said music - is meeting people who you just think are ace in every way. and meeting the grates, an awesome young group from australia, was one of those moments; they totally won me over with their enthusiasm, their unforced bonhomie, the sheer joy they seem ed to take in what they do. this was for Plan B]

Lost in West London late one night during their first an masse trip to England, aimlessly wandering foreign, unfamiliar streets, The Grates happened upon a parked car by the kerb, disco music blaring, its lights on, an ungentle a-rocking occurring. Peering deeper into the urban undergrowth, they made an unsettling discovery: the passengers therein were engaging in proud, loud and lusty congress on the backseat.

All the windows were fogged up, except the wound-down one we could see the arse through, grimaces John, their very hairy guitarist, still somewhat bemused.

“We were all like, wow.” adds singer Patience, her eyes wide (but they’ll go wider still, later). “That’s bold. That takes guts.”

It is now the grave responsibility of your correspondent to explain to Grates the infernal practise of dogging, thus divesting them of their cherished innocence, perhaps FOREVER. It isnt pretty.

“You mean,” whimpers drummer Alana, disgust etched on her face, “They wanted us to join in?”

“I have this ongoing belly problem going on. I don’t know what the story is, I think some parasites might be in my guts…”

Patience leans across our table at the Electric café in West London, and peels out a grin so wide her eyelashes tickle the corners of her lips. You or I might, perhaps, greet such knowledge with an expression of dismay or upset, maybe with the word “Bother” or some vague synonym. Patience seems excited, elated by this news. To be honest, Patience seems excited, elated by petty much everything, a naturally heightened state of excitement that translates so well onstage, as she leaps and stamps and twists across the stage, insane grin in place, a little breathless (but we’re not sure if she’s ever out of control).

This sunny disposition, this heady lust for life, pervades the Grates camp. They are, declares the winsome Alana, “The very best of friends. We even stay in the same hotel room, all three of us, when we travel.”

“We argue all the time,” adds Patience (such an ill-fitting name - her every atom seems to buzz with impatience, for all the stuff there is to do and all the fun there is to have). “Our band practices take place in John’s Dad’s shed. We play for half an hour. Then we go and eat some barbecue…”

“Then John’s mum comes downstairs, and we have a chat,” continues Alana. “Then we surf the internet for a bit. Then we have an argument. I leave the room for a bit, and then come back, and we all make up, and play for five more minutes to celebrate. We’re all the best of friends,” she says again, “So we can afford to wanna kill each other one minute, and then all share a hotel room the next.”

“I taped part of our rehearsal the other week,” adds John, grinning with a simian wickedness. “All that was on the tape was Patience wailing, ‘I’m never gonna write another good song again!’”

She’s already written several wonderful ones. The Grates’ debut double a-side is a case in point; ‘Message’ skips and stomps like these suburban kids are taking a glitter-daubed chainsaw to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ blueprint and dancing gleefully in the wreckage, a tumbling racket of revving guitars, tumbling drums, stop-start noise and Patience’s howl, ricocheting off the speakers like a squash ball.

The flip is even more charming. ‘Suckafish’ is odd, off-kilter, faintly celtic but owing more to pixies at the foot of the garden than any leprechauns. It has that lumbering, gentle heaviness you always get when typically-loud musicians deign to decrease the volume, a sweet and messy thing of vulnerability and sing-song poetry that recalls a beautifully bruised Belly. You don’t expect something so tender to be hiding underneath something so brattily brash.

We aren’t here to talk about the music really, though, or at least that’s what The Grates seem to believe. We talk for about 90 minutes, all in. I don’t ask a single question. The tape clicks on while they’re talking, and whirrs absently as the chat unfurls, of wild and arcane subjects. Like what their spirit animal would be.

“Patience’s spirit animal is the seal,” explains Alana, authoritatively. “And Jon’s spirit animal is a bear. I don’t know what my spirit animal is.”

“It’s a toss-up, with Alana, between a polar bear and a koala bear,” interrupts John.

“I don’t feel an affinity with any animal,” frowns Alana. “And that’s my spiritual crisis.”

“John’s a bear, because he’s so very hairy,” offers Patience.

“And because he’d love to be able to hibernate,” adds Alana.

“I don’t think I could manage it, but I’d love to try,” smiles John. “Sleep for a few months, get it all out of the way, and then work for nine months without sleep.”

“John, bears still sleep at night when they’re not hibernating!” snaps Patience.

“Yeah, they only hibernate in the winter because there’s no food for them to eat.” adds Alana, scarcely more gently.

“Oh,” replies John, his eyes drooping slightly, so he looks like a momentarily glum (yes!) bear.

Check out the Grates’ website and you’ll be greeted by the band’s DIY design aesthetic in full flow, a cut’n’paste glut of vibrant colours and affectionate scribbles and paintings. The band press up their own badges, design their own sleeves, do everything, in fact, because they enjoy it. That’s the only reason they do anything they do. Luckily, the Grates enjoy being the Grates a great deal.

They formed in their hometown of Whitchurch, Brisbane, having been friends for as long as they could remember. They were, by their own admission, ‘rubbish’ to begin with, until Patience went off to live in London for a while, returning with a much stronger voice than before. The Grates are burgeoning huge in their home country, beloved of influential radio station Triple J. They deserve to be massive, everywhere. But especially places with decent air-conditioning.

John: “Its so hot in Australia, and I sweat so much when we play.”

Patience: “John’s a hairy guy…”

Alana: “But the venues in Australia rarely have air-conditioning. I’ve gotten so hot I’ve felt I might pass out while playing…”

John: “I’ve had sweat pouring off all of my body! Rivers of sweat!”

Patience: “I’ve thought, maybe I might puke onstage! And I have felt like it.”

Alana: “We discuss it beforehand, if she thinks she might get sick, we have a bucket onstage for her.”

Patience: “Because that’s cooler than saying, ‘Aw, I feel sick, I have to stop rocking out now!’ I’m not a baby…”

John: “Dad’s shed is air-conditioned, its excellent. We wouldn’t have gotten anything done without that. We don’t write fast songs during the summer; we write them in the winter, to stay warm!”

John’s Dad’s shed is the Grates’ HQ, the clubhouse where they hatch their plans for twisted nursery rhyme-aided world domination.

Alana: “It’s awesome… it’s huge, it’s soundproofed…”

John: “It’s not entirely sound-proofed. I walked outside it once while Alana was playing drums, it was really loud.”

Alana: “But the neighbours don’t complain. Our next door neighbour is insane, and she’s really lovely, and she just really enjoys tracking the band’s progress!”

“We’d been eating at this Chinese place,” continues Patience later, on her digestive disorder, “and I ordered ‘vegetarian’, which was disgusting, like raw tofu floating in chicken stock. Whatevs!” she snaps, efficiently shortening a sarcastic ‘whatever’ to two syllables. “So I ate some of John’s noodles, which he had with the pork. It was a skanky restaurant, and before we got served, I kept joking to John, ‘You know what meat they’re serving?’” Patience points at her handbag, emblazoned with a big picture of a cat. “And I’m hella allergic to cats. I reckon some cat-meat touched the noodles, and I had an allergic reaction on my insides. I’m allergic to everything about cats: their saliva, their hair…”

“And now, it turns out, their meat too!” laughs Alana.

“And my body flllllllllipped out” - ‘flipped’, but with the ‘l’ drawn out for, like, 5 seconds. “Whatevs, it was the most disgusting meal ever, and it was cat. Whatevs.”

(c) Stevie Chick, 2005

Saturday, September 01, 2007

an anthem in a vaccuum on a hyperstation

kim dances, originally uploaded by Stevie Chick, Foxy Boxer.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Roots Manuva

[written around 2001, getting published here in celebration of the upcoming Big Dada 10th Anniversary. Roots is a GOD.]

The setting is Pimlico school, Westminster, in the mid-1980s. "Hip hop was everywhere, everybody was writing things on their tracksuits and colouring their white trainers black, having freestyle battles on the concourse," reminisces Rodney Smith, aka Roots Manuva, aka British Hip Hop's Brightest Hope. "It was like the hip hop school, huhuhuh!"

And so it was that young Rodney was bitten by the hiphop bug - then written off as some flitting fad - as it swept through the UK's nightclubs and playgrounds. "I tried break dancing. I even tried scratching, totally wrecked a lot of records. I thought you were supposed to drag the needle across the record ... Sorry, Mum! It was something I loved, but I never imagined it would pay my rent. It never felt like something I could be a part of."

Ironic words, considering Roots Manuva's new album, Run Come Save Me, proves that hip hop is no longer an exclusively American culture but an international language encompassing a thousand tongues, including Rodney's London accent and his Jamaican roots. Whereas previous British rappers have been scuppered by their parochialism, he has taken the loose, mix 'n' match cultural identity of contemporary London and created an album that sounds global .

Roots, now 28, draws as much on the sounds of Brixton - dancehall reggae, skronky techno and smoked-out dub - as American funk and rap. Like Tricky, like Muslim agit-rappers Fun'Da'Mental, like 1970s ska-punks The Specials, his music celebrates Britain's unique, messily integrated eclecticism better than Robin Cook's clumsy tikka masala metaphors ever could.

"I'm a second-generation UK black, just trying to find his feet, spiritually and economically," he says. His lyrics are complex and spiritually troubled, and the question of identity is a key theme. "I'm just trying to make sense of this Roots Manuva character," he laughs. "Where Roots ends and Rodney begins."

His parents, immigrants from Banana Cove in Jamaica, were strict; his father is a Pentecostal deacon. A career in hip hop, Roots remembers, "was not something they encouraged; it was something they discouraged". And yet many MCs - from Fugees's Wyclef Jean to Mos Def - come from religious backgrounds, swapping preaching for another form of oratory.

The transition isn't so simple in Roots's case, however; moral turbulence courses throughout Run Come Save Me. Track after track finds Roots tussling with religion, spirituality (pointedly two separate things to him) and guilt.

"If I'd had parents who were really into music, who had a massive record collection, I don't think I would've been so into music," he says. "That I had to go next door to hear the latest reggae tune, or that our parents wouldn't take us out to the cinema or to the arcade, made me really appreciate it when we did do those things.

Have his parents accepted his lifestyle choice? "Yeah, they're cool. They still can't believe I'm making any money from it. They always ask: 'Why aren't you on Top of the Pops?'" And he really should be. Last week, when his sublime Witness (One Hope) single entered the UK charts at 45, Atomic Kitten were at number one with their insipid cover of Eternal Flame.

Which is a better representation of modern young Britain? Yet Roots is sanguine about the mainstream culture that has yet to embrace him. "Radio is all about midrange frequencies and melodies, and Witness isn't too melodic. It's harsh."

But he is convinced he's part of a burgeoning revolution. "There's a whole brand-new class, people in music and the arts and sports ... a new uneducated middle class. We're shopping in Marks and Spencer and using balsamic vinegar, but we've got no GCSEs, no A-levels and no degrees.

"Technology is changing everything," he says, and he should know. He just bought a DVcam so he can make his own movies. "They're just abstract art movies at the moment 'cos I can't work the camera properly. Maybe I should go to one of them weekend courses that teach you how to be the next Steven Spielberg."

Or maybe he could just continue being the first Roots Manuva.

(c) 2001 Stevie Chick

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lauryn Hill Loses Her Self

[this began life as a proposed MOJO blog idea, and subsequently grew into this mess of ideas inspired by a song that I'll admit I've been obsessed with most of this gloomy Summer. I have been reliably informed by my friend Tom that Surf's Up is actually a pretty good film; whatever the truth is on that score, go find this song.]

The best single you’ll hear all year isn’t actually being released as a single, despite being the comeback from an artist whose absence has been so keenly felt, so breathlessly chronicled. Indeed, to hear it at all you’ll have to undergo the indignity of catching Surf’s Up – the cruddy end of a long line of obnoxious, celeb-voiced animated kiddy movies – at the cinema, or chancing your shekels on its otherwise-unappetising soundtrack album, offering as it does such other grody confections as Sugar Ray, 311 and Incubus.

What I’m saying is, if you haven’t heard Lauryn Hill’s ‘Lose Myself’ yet, don’t blame yourself; this absolute gem of a song, pregnant with quirk and joy and soul, seems to be charting a course evasive of all radars, and it’s a terrible shame. Not least as it sounds like a desperate final healing gesture from an artist whose solo debut – 1998’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill – promised such future riches, but in truth foreshadowed the brutal running aground of its creator.

What made Miseducation such a pleasure was the sheer joy of the album, the performances possessed of a most deliciously unforced perfection, an album nodding towards both the burgeoning neo-soul movement, and the Hip-Hop from whence Hill’s group The Fugees had sprung. The production was etched with the lush drama of 70s soul, the rich tympani rolls scoring the epic ache of ‘Ex-Factor’, the itchy clav-funk of ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’, the satin-clad afterglow calm of ‘Nothing Even Matters’, building a canvas referencing the politicised, auteurist soul of artists like Curtis Mayfield and, most abundantly, Stevie Wonder. Still, Hip-Hop’s respect for The Word, lots of them, imbued with undoubted deep personal meaning and squeezed into verses that could barely hold them, was key.

Given the rapturous reception the album enjoyed, Lauryn Hill should have been poised for glorious success; Miseducation having staked a claim for Hill as a true creative force within The Fugees – something often obscured by the considerable success of bandmate Wyclef Jean’s solo and producing careers – its follow up would surely galvanise everything the debut had achieved.

Almost a decade later, that follow up still hasn’t arrived. In the interim, Hill has visibly struggled; the gossip pages have constructed their own myth, and perhaps there is truth tangled in there, of breakdowns, and of artistic struggles, and of turbulence within her relationship with Rohan Marley, father of her four children. While she continued to collaborate with and produce and write for other artists with great success – Mary J Blige’s sublime ‘All That I Can Say’ is as close to the soul confection of Miseducation as has surfaced since – MTV Unplugged 2.0 was decidedly not the album audiences seduced by ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ were expecting, when released in 2002. Gone were all the ersatz soul adornments, any echoes of Hip-Hop; in their place, acoustic guitar and Hill’s voice, rawer than before, older, more characterful. The album wrong-footed many, not least the critics; where Miseducation had been honed, taut, MTV Unplugged 2.0 rambled.

Diverging from the typically-lucrative Unplugged format, Hill’s double set offered more than just tasteful, stripped-bare renderings of her hits; indeed, all of the songs – barring a cover of traditional song ‘The Conquering Lion’ and Bob Marley’s ‘So Much Things I Say’ – she performed were new, unrecorded (and still so, this release aside). These songs were often in an unfinished state, the set peppered with long, meandering, painfully honest conversations between Hill and her audience, where she confessed a lack of confidence, in her self if not her music, and evidenced the struggles she was then enduring. The songs concerned love and religion, war and politics, Hill rocking back and forth, strumming and signifying, tapping into her partner’s bloodline and recalling Bob Marley in her ragged zeal, her raw passion. But where Marley’s songs were anthems, Hill’s were soliloquies, confessionals; she wasn’t offering any more salvation than was contained in any voice honestly airing fears and pain. To these ears, Unplugged 2.0 was a fine album, worth experiencing; five years after the fact, however, and the CD nowhere to hand, I’m struggling to recall any of the melodies. But perhaps the album’s strengths lay elsewhere.

And so on to ‘Lose Myself’, being as it is the next chapter in Hill’s discography. It follows a faltering Fugees reunion, begun at Dave Chappelle’s 2004 Brooklyn Block Party and undone somewhere along the way, with Pras indicating Hill was the stumbling block. It follows rumours of completed sequels to Miseducation, rejected outright by Hill’s label as uncommercial. It follows high-profile meltdowns, like a 2003 performance at The Vatican where Hill spoke out onstage against child abuse within the church.

It is, in many ways, a redemption song, a song about returning to somewhere after a long and fateful journey that has left Lauryn changed, and seeing all anew, as never before. It’s a song of renewal – romantic, spiritual or artistic. Indeed, it’s never clear whether Lauryn is singing to her God, her lover, herself, when she sings “I had to lose myself, to love you better”; the truth is probably an amalgam of the three.

These are words sung after longer than forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, words heavy with a jittery confidence, the narcotic first buzz of healing after a long time spent just ailing. Lauryn’s left the acoustic in the cupboard this time around, switching instead to a fizzy, brash 80s sound, a symphony of neon burbles and singing synths and disco pulse; almost comically upbeat, roller-rink music. Lauryn’s voice, singing over this, chews up a blizzard of words like Subterranean Homesick Dylan, so much to say after so long spent silent, catching her breath long enough to return to a delectable see-saw refrain of “All… I… Ev-er…Wan-ted was Love”.

For all the souls bared in modern R’n’B, the heartbreaks raised to operatic cataclysms, the moral quandaries played out on mellifluously melodramatic canvasses, few are as transparently, as openly confessional, as cathartic, as Hill. Mary J plays out her every private heartache in such a public arena, but still albums like No More Drama don’t lay her persona as open as Lauryn does when she picks up the lyric book. The drama played out within ‘Lose Myself’ is a grand, deep and torturous one, for sure, a long dark night of the soul reaching its end (but not quite ended, underscoring the track with a further poignancy), a soul questioning itself and struggling with the answers.

She touches upon every troubled corner of her life, her music (“I used to do it for the love of it a long time ago”), her relationship (“I used to love without fear a long time ago”). Her current disharmony, her distance from this idealised sense of self, is played out as a lover who “Took a true love and tried to make it dirty”, but is in truth Lauryn’s own distance from her muse, as much as from her heart. Indeed, this seems the song’s key message about Lauryn and the troubles she’s been going through – that these battles haven’t been fought on a single front, that they’re all linked with and related to each other, and that’s why it’s been so hard.

In its airing of grievances, its tale of a tough road travelled, and its hopeful belief in redemption, there’s a gospel spirit to ‘Lose Myself’ which bests any blues lurking within, and yet ‘Lose Myself’ is no gospel song. There’s no chorus of voices backing Lauryn; she may have reached the end of her exile, but whatever wisdom she recovered from her journey was won single-handedly. The spectres she’s had to confront are opponents she could only best alone, because they were inside of her; the “paralyzing fear of facing failure” in her art, in her relationship, in her love for God. It’s this fear that’s most palpable, the source perhaps of her other heartaches, all presented as insoluble riddles. “Couldn’t stay but I never meant to desert you,” she sings, torn up by the conflict.

Bound up in these dichotomies is that which makes creativity, spirituality, love so very frightening, and so powerful – that it can leave one so changed, that it is so much of a risk, that none of these are games for cowardly or dishonest hearts. So many untruthful souls out there, ready to trick an honest one for kicks alone, it gets so even good love gets treated with fear and suspicion. “There’s something awkward about the selflessness it takes to give love,” she sings, teetering on the edge of a cliff she feels she needs to fling herself from, to find peace and redemption; a leap of faith, in her God, in her love, and in herself.

The trope of dream or fantasy as means of irony reached its apex in pop with The Temptations’ dulcet, hazy lullaby ‘Just My Imagination’, hyper-realist scenes of romantic bliss ultimately revealed as the simple pipe dreams of a perennially lonesome soul. “When her arms enfold me, I hear a rhapsody,” croons Eddie Kendricks, in blind love. “But in reality, she doesn’t even know me.” It’s tempting to see ‘Lose Myself’ as a song possessing a similar poignancy, that it’s a prophecy made in hope of self-fulfillment, that the song is, rather than a simple song of celebration, more a song willing the deliverance Lauryn sings of to come about. It’s a song of yearning for an end to all the lessons, a song hoping that enough wisdom has been hard-won that she can go on living again, rather than just breathing; that she’s healed, not just healing. Maybe love, spiritual peace, are just different degrees of hope and delusion anyway. The song also seems to suggest that this newfound equanimity is fragile, tentative and, like the love of which Eddie Kendricks so sweetly sang, ultimately chimeric. Certainly there’s a shiver, a vulnerability to the hope ‘Lose Myself’ expresses, a flinch skulking behind the bravery.

The sense of Lauryn reconnecting with her music, with her artistic voice, is as problematic. ‘Lose Myself’ is a wonderful song, but also definitely weird, and not exactly built to take on a popscene so tooled for perfection. It sounds cheap, the beats bursting too loud and almost overshadowing synths that sound like cheap Casio presets. But ‘Lose Myself’ triumphs as much because of this ‘demo’-esque quality, as over it, establishing an intimate tone recalling Neil Young’s ‘Will To Love’, a desolate home-recorded fragment which could never be bettered in its shields-dropped resignation. The simplicity of production – unadorned vocal, synths playing out the melodies and dynamics but little else, the sketchy feel – recall the raw honesty of Unplugged 2.0, sweetened with enough pop sugar as to be supremely palatable.

But there’s something about this song that feels intriguingly broken, naggingly ‘wrong’. Certainly, the sentiment of suffering for salvation leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth; in places, there’s an uncomfortable echo of The Crystals’ infamous domestic-violence torch-song ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’ in ‘Lose Myself’’s sadomasochistic moral, in the self-abnegation and self-flagellation Lauryn feels she needs to undergo in the name of regeneration. And herein lies the essential poignancy of ‘Lose Myself’: the victim throughout, of a careless lover, an absent God, an abused creativity, she feels resolution will only come with her surrender to these forces, an absolute capitulation, losing her ‘self’ to better serve her man, her God, her muse. And so, rather than the brave, bright statement of survival the song seems on first inspection, it is in fact a symptom of sickness, a brief flash of something darker and cloudier than vulnerability, a window upon a very tortured soul, albeit one seemingly functioning – at least fitfully – on a creative level. The song seems strangely lucid, in its exposure of Lauryn’s tragic self-delusion; she isn’t waving hello to a brighter future, she’s drowning.

Which now leaves me a touch uncomfortable about loving this song quite so much. I’m not revelling in Lauryn’s pain by proxy, am only minutely thrilling on a voyeuristic tip, certainly no more than any listener does in the presence of raw and unmediated soul music, which ‘Lose Myself’ most definitely is. It reminds me of songs from the album I’m most likely to turn to when feeling inconsolably blue, the first volume of the late Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures compilation series. Selecting tracks from the soul hinterlands, slow-dance 45s and torch-song jukebox disks, Godin collated an album of brutally bruised soul, stirring grand, near-operatic drama and tragedy. Songs like Kenny Carter’s ‘Showdown’ (a man has to tell his best friend he loves his girl), Larry Banks’ ‘I’m Not The One’ (a man realises he isn’t good enough for his woman), Jimmy Holliday’s ‘The Turning Point’ (a man acknowledges he will be haunted by lost love for the rest of his life), and Irma Thomas’s ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’ (a woman justifies her undying love for a man who cheats on and abuses her) painted, with scything strings and wounded but valiant vocal performances, epic stories of eternal paradoxes, problems without solutions, cognitive dissonance that made sense only to the protagonist, insulating them within their tragic loneliness.

‘Lose Myself’ fits within this lineage, even if its deceptively-bright synthesiser bounce stands in stark contrast to the scratchy soul of Godin’s selections. Like these great, grand soul songs, ‘Lose Myself’ is a story told without fear of how it will be received, a heart turned open enough to let its wounds breathe freely; and, like the great soul songs, Lauryn lays that wound open for all to see, to let others draw wisdom from her story, even if the path her protagonist takes seems ultimately a harsh and negative one. Set to a stricken but upbeat melody, sung with a sense of life that belies the pain contained within that voice, these songs hum with a potent dramatic irony, making something positive and alive from the most deathly and dark emotions, and delivering something truthful, with an unforgiving honesty. And like those great songs, ‘Lose Myself’ looks likely to remain an obscure gem, prey for the aficionados excavating this era of soul in the decades to come.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick
Blinkered idealism defuses a time bomb blindly
Sorting through a tangle of mixed messages
Selecting only the strands that flatter bluffing fingertips
Ensuring eventual explosion

Grace Paley, 1922-2007


What has happened?
language eludes me
the nice specifying
words of my life fail
when I call

Ah says a friend
dried up no doubt
on the dessicated
twigs in the swamp
of the skull like
a lake where the
water level has been
shifted by highways
a couple of miles off

Another friend says
No no my dear perhaps
you are only meant to
speak more plainly

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pissed Jeans

[for Plan B, and put up here mostly in honour of the friend mentioned in the piece, who is a dude I haven't hung with in far too long. A bit nervous uploading this one, now I know my mum reads my blog; Mum, I don't think you'll like this one, it's a bit rude]

Hope For Men (Sub Pop)

I’ll never forget the night I was devirginised by The Jesus Lizard, sometime back in the 1990s at a dingy, mirror-walled basement in Charing Cross called the LA2 (now known as the Mean Fiddler). It was everything I’d dreamed it could be, from bassist David Wm. Sims’ murderous stare and relentless foot-stomp, to David Yow’s encore appearance clad only in a nappy, which he soon shed. It was at this point that my companion that night (name withheld to protect the shameless) returned after sortie down the very front, a look of impish, irrepressible pride on his sweaty face. “I just took a piss in the moshpit,” he beamed. As I gazed at the dark patches on his trousers, and then switched my gaze to Yow, naked and fucking the stage, I had to admit it was a pretty Jesus Lizard thing to do.

I share such golden reminiscence at this juncture because that same guttural, animalistic mindset is also the preserve of Pissed Jeans, a quartet from Allentown, Pennsylvania whose second album, Hope For Men, is a more abrasive scour of ugliness than I’ve heard in a long time. They are noise rockers, adept at both noise and rock, never allowing one ingredient to get the better of the other. Often, they sound like two different groups playing at once, recognisable and gnarly melody fighting chaotic din for your attention, a tension that keeps this forty minute set so addictively taut.

Opener ‘People Person’ sets vibes to ‘bad’ from the get-go, with a knitting machine beat that feels like a drumstick hammering your temple, guitarist Bradley Fry seemingly tossing his guitar about a room carpeted in twisted steel and broken glass, furnace-mouthed frontman Matt Korvette babbling street-person talk somewhere near the microphone. Korvette sings pretty much like Jon Spencer did right back in the early days of Pussy Galore, a throat-shredding snarl thick with disgust, marshalling a group who sound as if they’d like nothing better than just whaling at their gear for an hour or so with chains and crowbars. In places, it sounds exhilaratingly like that’s exactly what they did.

Pissed Jeans are a tissue of grisly pigfuck reference, from the chainsaw-juggling sleaze of Jesus Lizard, to the molten sludge-blues of late Black Flag, to the ecstatic grind of Melvins; they share with these bands an artful, blunt fascination with subterranean ick, with a musky, ugly sense of manliness, all threats and derangement and debasement. Pissed Jeans smear fine new shapes in the mud and pus and cum and shit and sweat and dirt that is their milieu.

Neil Kulkarni once described Jesus Lizard as the sound of “homosexual panic”; certainly, Pissed Jeans are the sound of a soul in a state of deranged terror, an exorcism, a catharsis of an animalism we’re taught to abandon for civility. Frustration, fear, anger course through all this unruly sound, unleashed and, for a moment, expunged. Malevolence like this shouldn’t be kept inside to fester – the dissonant ooze of noise-poem ‘The Jogger’ profoundly unnerves – so consider this like Fight Club for ‘rockers’, maybe.

Certainly, the hurtling, ricocheting din feels good, especially when the raging shriek quietens down enough so the planet-flattening riffs can breathe, or when the raging shriek swallows those riffs whole. I dare say it feels as good as taking a piss in the mosh-pit of a Jesus Lizard show and spraying your jeans with urine, although I wouldn’t know, as I’m not the sort to do such a thing. I listen to Pissed Jeans instead, and revel in the debasement by safe, hygienic proxy.

(c) Stevie Chick 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007


[for London Lite; TY is an absolute diamond]

Rap’s a genre obsessed by location, location, location. Few can forget the infamous East Coast/West Coast ‘beefs’ of the 90s that pitted Californian gangstas against their Big Apple brethren. The biggest noise in mainstream hip-hop the last couple of years has been ‘crunk’ – a lewd and loud rap hybrid from Atlanta with a peculiarly Southern swagger.

By contrast, Britain seems forever doomed to be rap’s ‘country bumpkin’ cousin. We have vibrant local rap scenes, we’ve concocted unique hybrids of the genre, like grime. We’ve even sent the cream of our homegrown talent – Roots Manuva, Dizzee Rascal, The Streets – over to ‘conquer’ the States, and while they’ve won the respect of the rap cognoscenti, America’s charts remain untroubled by Brit-accented emcees.

But tales of street-life in Stepney can’t hope to compete with the grimy glamour of Brooklyn or South Central, and the British accent remains too alien for American rap-fans to embrace (even though seminal 80s rap legend Slick Rick was born in South Wimbledon). Since British rap-fans mostly follow the American trends, even success at home can elude the most deserving Brit-rapper.

TY is aware of all of this. The Vauxhall-based rap perennial hosted the Lyrical Lounge club-night at this venue in the 90s, where young rap talent performed with live musicians to electrifying effect. His third album, ‘Closer’ (on the unimpeachable Big Dada label), matches droll wit, fiery verbals and an inventive, futuristic funk sound that should be swamping the radiowaves. If it vexes him that he’s unlikely to achieve the limos’n’Cristal lifestyle, he’s keeping it to himself, saving the space in his lyric book to mull over grander themes like love, frustration, and the numb horror of the Damilola Taylor murder.

Like his erstwhile labelmate Roots Manuva, TY’s music rejigs the hip-hop template to reflect local sounds like reggae and British R’n’B. Similarly, he doesn’t fake an American accent (like some of Brit-rap’s sorrier forebears). He speaks in his own voice – loudly, clearly, wisely. And that, more than the glitz, the guns, the glamour, is what hip-hop is truly about.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Daniel Johnston

[for London Lite]

Innocence and darkness figure equally in the music of Daniel Johnston, a Texan singer-songwriter whose frail, homespun pop has won the hearts of rock superstars, and whose unlikely, unhappy life story was the subject of award-winning 2005 documentary, The Devil And Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is, in many ways, the ultimate ‘outsider’ artist; diagnosed as manic depressive soon after moving to college, he returned to live with his parents, recording his rustic, simple songs on a tape-recorder, selling his home-made cassettes through record stores in nearby Austin, Texas in the mid 1980s. These songs, while achingly amateurish in execution, won Johnson a cult audience, seduced by the lyrics which referenced both the comic book heroes he loved in his youth (Captain America, Casper The Friendly Ghost), and the obsessive, unrequited love affairs that composed his adulthood.

The Cult Of Daniel has only grown with the passing years; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston tee-shirt to the 1992 MTV Awards, indirectly winning Johnston a deal with Atlantic Records a year later (he was dropped after the album sold barely 6000 copies), while an all-star tribute album in 2004 featured covers by the likes of Tom Waits, Beck and The Flaming Lips.

Johnston’s condition has threatened his career, and indeed his life, on occasion: in 1990, flying back from a performance at Austin’s South By South-West music festival, a manic Daniel damaged the plane enough to force his pilot father to execute a desperate crash-landing. Live performances, meanwhile, veer from the sublime, to the sad, to the ridiculous, depending on Johnston’s mood.

Despite all this, though – or, for some, because of it – Johnston’s cult audience remains loyal and continues to grow, fans drawn to songs so poignantly and perpetually caught between the innocence of childhood and the disillusionment of adulthood, between blind romance and painful truth. Tonight, he performs at London’s Union Chapel, a grand setting sure to compliment the childlike simplicity of his songcraft. If the mercurial Johnston’s on form, it promises to be an unforgettable night, and those with the stomach for a more intimate experience of Daniel’s performance should be informed that he will be playing The Windmill in Brixton the following night.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Sly Stone

[a preview for Sly's performance at the Lovebox weekender; wish I'd made the show, whatever it was like]

If it seems like the 60s superstars were doomed to Icarus-like fates, few soared as high or plummeted as sharply as Sylvester Stewart. As Sly, he led The Family Stone through a dizzying run of smash singles and acclaimed albums, their upbeat riot of soul, funk and rock evoking the optimism of the era as surely as their integrated line-up – men and women, blacks and whites – terrified the more bigoted corners of the establishment.

While their classics – ‘Dance To The Music’, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’, ‘Everyday People’ – remain dancefloor dynamite, darkness always stalked even The Family Stone’s brightest hits; 1969’s ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ was a sly comment on the riots that had razed poor neighbourhoods that year. Their next album, 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, offered a turbulent, enervated funk reflecting the mania of Stone’s increasingly drug-damaged lifestyle, as well as an America at war with Vietnam and itself.

Stone seemed to have surrendered to the chaos of his life; a regular on the TV chat show circuit, he was visibly addled but still ineffably cool, but often failed to arrive at his own concerts, prompting riots and lawsuits. The Family Stone dissolved, while Sly’s subsequent solo albums failed to stop the rot; seemingly relinquishing his throne to Prince as the 1980s dawned, Sly retreated to obscurity, any comeback seemingly a crack-pipe dream.

Then, early in 2006, Sly improbably resurfaced at the Grammy Awards, performing briefly during an all-star celebration of his music. With his shocking white Mohawk, hunched posture and neck brace, he more resembled a Gremlin than the Sly of yore, but that he even turned up at all was, by Stone’s standards, miraculous.

A year on, with the Family Stone catalogue re-mastered and re-released, Sly is back on the road. Early reviews of the tour suggest Sly only appears for a few songs of the reconstituted Family Stone set, but Youtube footage of Stone singing ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ a month ago suggests that remarkable, sublime croak is still intact. A Lazarus-like resurrection is probably too much to hope for, but this Icarus still has enough feathers to take you higher.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Scout Niblett

[from Loose Lips Sink Ships, featuring amazing photography from Steve Gullick. Scout has a new album out soon, and I've been feeling a little 'kidnapped by neptune' myself lately, so I thought I'd upload it.]

The drivers oozing down the dew-slicked blackness of the road stare incredulous through their windscreens, slowing down at the same spot as if on cue, rubbernecking like this were the scene of an accident. If you could see the traffic from the sky, the cars might almost resemble some multi-coloured, tin-plated worm inching slowly along the tarmac, bunching up somewhere near the middle.

On the shores of a concrete island, a girl holds her tiny frame aloft in a perfect handstand stance, concentration etched on her face, skin reddening, her sandy hair grazing the grimy pavement. Which would be remarkable in of itself (this being the dead of night, in the bleakest middle of winter, and not some gymnastics event), even if she weren’t wearing a luminous orange tabard (which she is) like a member of airport security gone astray, or a day-glo Hallowe’en skeleton costume (which she is) that makes her look like one of Kreese’s lackeys from The Karate Kid. As the cars pass silently their headlamp beams pick out the reflective material on her tabard and skeleton, so she glints and flashes and glows in the darkness.

Her name is Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett, and she does things other people mostly don’t, like singing songs accompanied only by her own drums, recording mournful covers of reggae classics, penning poems of encouragement to Charlie Brown’s insecure playmate Linus Van Pelt, and performing handstands while dressed like Bones from Superted round the back of a dingy North London pub.

The world being what it is, a number of these things Scout Niblett does tend to aggravate people no end. Internet message board I Love Music features a thread running to 125 replies (last count) rather hysterically titled ‘Scout Niblett: the *WORST MUSIC* in the WORLD..…’, where Emma is, in turn, labelled ‘grating’, ‘retarded’, a ‘shrill little harpee’ [sic], ‘twee to the max’, and a ‘prima arsehole’.

“There’s some people, I’m sure, that don’t get it,” she shrugs later, drawing concerned stares with her tabard and bones in the pub. “But the people who get it love it! It’s extreme… Some people just write me off, some people think the music’s brilliant. There’s no middle ground.”

Those in the market for pigeon-holing have earmarked her as mere post-Cat Power fallout, but that can’t be right, because I never loved Cat Power like I love Scout Niblett (and I love cats, ask anyone), and I never looked forward to Cat Power shows like I hunger for Scout Niblett shows (actually, I never looked forward to a Cat Power show, period, after my first, but that’s another story).

She started playing guitar when she was twenty-one, besotted with Nirvana. “To me, the beauty of Kurts songs were that they seemed so easy to play. They were so simple, but so powerful. When I picked up the guitar, I just knew I needed to do it.”

The first song she ever played was The Pixies’ ‘Gigantic’, picking the bassline out by ear on a single guitar string. At university, she played in a group called Novachichi with Akiko, singing drummer for the awesome Comanechi and Pre, and studied music, art and performance. Regular live performance being a key part of her course, she played gigs when she could, performing at local Open Mic nights in Nottingham. “And Im really grateful for that,” she remembers, “because being forced to do it was so good for me. Im quite shy. I knew Id die if I didnt get into it, that Id die of shyness onstage [giggles], so I threw myself into it, and got really obsessed.”

She’d been dabbling with the drums since 1997, but a fellow regular at the Open Mic nights sold her on the instrument. “He was this old man, he would play calyspo songs on the guitar. Hed been in the military when he was young, so if ever there was a drum kit around, hed sit behind it and start playing the snare drum, singing Beatles songs. He used to play 8 days A Week And I thought it was the most amazing thing Id ever seen, and I wanted to do it.”

Some memories of Scout: her walking through the audience, singing like a proud missionary, as Brother Daniel strummed twisted hymnals dressed like a muppet fruit tree; raging excited in the Buffalo Bar, planning a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ with similarly elemental grungers Winnebago Deal; close to tears one afternoon because her drum-kit has gone AWOL; glorious that evening, backed by her drummer Jason Kourkounis (formerly of Mule, Delta 72, Hot Snakes, Beehive & The Barracudas and Burning Brides), sorting through the heavy girders and sore splinters of her new album, Kidnapped By Neptune, to deliver something raw and richly melodic, vulnerable and empowered, something several leagues more starkly beautiful than her music’s cathartic origins might suggest; the day I realised that wig Emma used to wear all the time was actually a wig…

“I don’t really wear the wig anymore,” says Emma, of the ash-blonde mane she used to sport onstage, which so altered her appearance I thought she wore it to shake besotted stalker fans after the show (inna ‘Scout Niblett has left the building!’ stylee). “It’s kind of been replaced by this orange thing [indicates tabard]. It’s almost shamanistic, that the clothes you wear give you power within yourself. For me, its definitely about empowering myself through what these clothes do for me.

“Its not that they create a different persona Its not me wearing just any wig, its that particular wig, or that look… Like, with the orange jacket, it made me feel safe the minute I put it on. I know that sounds stupid, but I actually do get really strong feelings off certain clothes. And thats why I dont have many clothes, I get really obsessed with the clothes Ive had for years, because I feel like they allow me to be myself. Its not like I wear them trying to be someone else, they actually bring out that part of my self.

“It’s like with music,” she continues. “I love music. Its the only thing that really makes me feel I used to play piano when I was little, making up songs. I’ve just got a real need to express myself, and musics the thing that I love most. I didnt feel I had a choice about it, I just needed to do it.”

The first Scout Niblett song I ever heard and loved was ‘Gymnastic (Fall Over)’. Those crashing drums hit like amphetamine, blood-racing, dizzying. And her voice, unaccompanied, yelling and yowling, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”, all desperate, excited, like you could hear blood-vessels breaking in her throat: this incessant and insistent sense of urgency, forcing these words out of her at such a velocity and volume… An energy that was utterly contagious.

The second Scout Niblett song I ever heard and loved (and this one sealed the deal) was her titular blues for Linus Van Pelt, Emma playing cheerleader for that wonderfully odd and terminally insecure boy from Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, the one who believes in the Great Pumpkin, and can recite whole chunks of the bible from memory, and who looked like an owl when he wore glasses to correct his lazy eye (and that made his sister Lucy cry, but don’t tell anyone or she’ll pound you), and who drags that dang security blanket with him everywhere he goes. I haven’t met a girl yet who wasn’t a little in love with Linus.

“I’ll draw inspiration from anything,” she grins, “Something will pop into my head and have me intrigued, curious, thoughtful enough to write a song. With ‘Linus’, I just got thinking about the whole thing with his security blanket. I wanted to tell him, ‘you don’t need it!’”

Do you have a ‘security blanket’ of your own?

“I don’t know. I guess, like I was saying earlier, my clothes. The tabard.”

But you draw strength from your tabard… Maybe you should let Linus alone, let him keep his security blanket?

“Yeah, maybe,” she muses thoughtfully, before stopping herself. She wrinkles her nose and giggles. “I love that we’re discussing Linus Van Pelt like he were a ‘real’ person!”

The strip’s almost-fifty year lifespan gave Schulz the time to invest these little kids’ unnaturally-extended adolescences with enough anxiety, whimsy, weird detail and emotional depth as to make them seem real. A very adult angst pervades Peanuts; it’s evocation of childhood is so realistic, so telling, because the strip takes a child’s perspective. Adults are always telling kids that childhood is the best time of their lives, free of the responsibilities of adulthood. But, trapped within their own dramas, and lacking the maturity or experience to put their anxieties into perspective, the trials of childhood - insecurity, humiliation, struggle, loneliness - seem very real and insurmountable to the children living it. Fear is a constant theme, emotional isolation another, as these children try and adapt to the very adult complexities of their lives.

It’s not hard to imagine the elfin Emma, dressed up in her tabard and skeleton costume, telling Linus about astrology as she takes the boy from the pumpkin patch to go trick-or-treating. Peanuts and Kidnapped By Venus, Scout Niblett’s third album, share a similarly anxious mindspace.

Self, or the sense of ‘self’, or the periodic loss of that sense of ‘self’ (and how that’s scary, and dangerous, and exciting, and healthy, and entirely natural, and perhaps the work of mysterious celestial forces) is a central theme of Kidnapped By Neptune. The sleeve artwork is mostly black, printed on card not unlike the paper you’re currently reading, sucking in light and reflecting none back (even the CD tray is cast in black plastic). There are only two photographs: the first, on the cover, is a blurred shot of Scout walking, back to the camera, into blackness, the reflector strips on her orange tabard flaring wildly. In the second photograph, the CD inlay’s centre spread, freezing waves erupt in frothy grey and white from the darkness. A closer stare into these choppy waters finds Emma drowning, not waving, her blonde hair lank and sodden and masking her eyes, willing herself softly swallowed by the waves.

The title is a reference to the several years Emma has spent with the Roman God of the sea fucking up her astrological shit. “Neptunes been really strong in my chart,” she explains, “and the whole thing about Neptune is you lose control of who you are. That can be a bit demoralising. But at the same time, its a good thing; youre able to see yourself in a less-fixed way. But its quite scary...

“Because I do astrology, Ive been able to see whats been happening Neptune just affects everything, it makes everything foggy. My whole experiences been not very solid, it’s been up in the air since Neptune came in the frame. It’s been there for two years; its always moving, but because the constellation passes so slowly, when it enters your chart, youll feel that for a long time.”

Emma’s dad bought her a book about astrology when she was six, which she would pore over for hours, researching her sun sign. As she grew older, she got deeper into the subject, composing her own charts by the time she was nineteen.

“I can do charts for other people, too, people ask me to write their charts all the time…” she smiles proudly. “It’s mostly maths, initially, because you have to calculate things. The art of it is trying to interpret what all that data means, what’s indicated by the pattern of the stars on the day you were born. And thats just a matter of sitting down for hours and writing it all down.

“When someone does your first chart reading on your personality, its just astonishing. And it feels so true, what it says about you just hits home. And then, through experiencing things over the years, you can see astrology working in front of your eyes, all the time. Astrology can help you be dynamic with whats going on, instead of just being a victim of it. Its empowering.”

Neptune’s disruptive influence, she says, anticipated several years of personal upheaval; her charts didn’t predict exactly what challenges and misfortunes would beset her, but the knowledge that she would be enduring some choppy emotional waters at least reassured her that she wasn’t losing her mind, that this was just a necessary period of astrological unrest that would surely be followed, at some later date, by calmer seas.

So she endured the insecurity and displacement of pursuing her art, travelling the world, relocating to America, finding kindred spirits in Danielson Famile, in Jason Molina and his country rock renaissance friends, in Swearing At Motorists and in Steve Albini, who records her at his Electric Audio studios in Chicago, his tight-focus, no-Vaseline-on-the-lens technique serving her sparse and brutal blues to the ground, capturing every gutteral growl, every sly lick, ever tender moan. She broke a few hearts, took a couple of lumps of her own, let her self melt a little with someone else’s, and when that didn’t work out spent some time licking her wounds, pulling herself back together again, and working out just exactly who that self was.

Sometimes, in a relationship, the line between yourself and your partner becomes blurred, and you find your own essential make-up somehow altered by this other person, what they mean to you, what they do to you, how they make you feel. And then, one day, they aren’t there anymore, and at first all you feel is the shock of that loss, that absence. But then you start to recover, and have to begin the painful process of working out just who you are again, when you aren’t a part of someone else, and which of these many component parts is really you anyway, and which of them you want to remain.

Which is where Kidnapped By Neptune comes in. Loss, absence, longing and displacement are all constants here, a sequence of songs mood-swinging between anguished melancholy and a desperate sense of self-assertion. It essays this period of ‘losing control of who you are’, as Scout’s world is scattered to the winds, and she sorts through the debris, trying to make sense of it all. Like the stars that make up a constellation were suddenly thrown out of their orbits, and struggled to pull themselves back into order.

It opens with ‘Hot To Death’, all swooning guitars and heavenly croons, a junk-sickly Breeders lullaby, slipping sharply into the cold, sobering nightmare of ‘Kidnapped By Neptune’. Fogged with the chilling gloom of ‘Moody’-era ESG, finding a funk similar to Free Kitten’s mantric ‘Never Gonna Sleep’, it’s a maddeningly-hooked breakdown, or maybe a ‘coming-to’, a bid hello to a self forgotten. Over a martial stomping drum break, an urgently pinging bassline, ‘shoop shoop shoop’ coos come on like The Flamingoes’ deliciously eerie ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ set to a motorik beat. Then, a slaloming low pulse sweep, a repeated refrain of “Where’ve you been? Where-where’ve you been?” melting into an ecstatic, yawning “Yooooouuu craaaaaaaaazy giiiiiiiirl!”. Repeat twice and finish; you cannot imagine how fantastic it sounds.

“I’d had that drum piece, the barumdum tish, in the back of my mind for ages,” Emma grins. “I started playing it It was a drum song really. It felt good to be so sparse, strip everything down to the element. I hummed the melody into my computer.”

‘Kidnapped By Venus’ is a certain kind of break-up song, greeting the person she was before the love she just lost, a cautious welcome like you might offer to a dear but errant friend who always drags you into their wild and chaotic turmoil when they come around (not that you don’t love every minute of it). Retelling Little Red Riding Hood, with Scout as both predator and prey, it gives way to the funereal, wallowing ‘Pom Poms’, Scout slumped in her own little corner, unloved, murmuring “Everyone needs a cute girl with pom-poms to spell out their name in song”. Skip forward to ‘Valvoline’, those rasping, rigid traps slamming petulantly, Scout shouting, “I am the driver! I am the driver! I am the driver!” And while she’s logged plenty hours behind the wheel of the tourbus, this is not just a song of motoring primacy.

“It meant two things,” she smiles. “It was definitely about driving, but the main thing it was about for me was saying, Im driving myself, Im doing this. Yeah. If that makes sense. Reclaiming my self, I guess.”

‘Wolfie’ is breath-taking, Scout picking out a Crazy Horse blues, mourning a dying love and dreaming what could have been. “My hand held yours, and who was prouder to be with the other?” she asks in hazy remembrance, the waning melody telling a more uneasy story. “I think it was me,” she answers, sadness creeping in. The tempo slows, becomes hypnotically erratic, melting into a wounded strum, roaring into volume then recoiling penitently, as she sloughs into a sentiment that stings, a painful desire. Her face pressed against the railings, yearning for what cannot be, she sings darkly, “In the end, I would have loved you forever. I know it to be true, because though we’re not together, love is never through.” She sounds utterly bereft, like she knows this will never heal.

“Periods of emotional instability are when I do my best writing,” she says. “Like, when Im feeling really alright and happy, I don’t really feel as much need to write a song. Im just someone who has extreme emotions, its not like Im always sad or Im always happy, and I know thats not going to change, so I know Im always going to need to write songs. And some of the songs are celebratory, its not like I cant write when Im feeling good. But its a different kind of energy. It feels good to get stuff down on paper.”

There’s an old Paul Simon lyric lodged in my head, about heartbreak leaving you open, “So everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody feels the wind blow”. And there’s a lot of debris being cleared up across these tracks, a lot of very raw feelings being worked out.

“A lot of what I sing about, I dont really know what it is Im singing about until its done. I never sit down and think, Im gonna write a song about this. Its like my subconscious is trying to get some message to me, through my lyrics. Music’s helped me find myself, and define myself; its always really cathartic for me. And its helped these last few years, when Ive been Kidnapped by Neptune.”

Most striking of Kidnapped By Neptune’s songs is the haunting, electrifying ‘Lullaby For Scout In 10 Years’. A song penned for whoever Emma will be in a decade’s time, it verbalises the fears and anxieties soothed by the Doris Day Easy Listening favourite ‘Que Cera Cera’ (check Sly & The Family Stone’s Stand LP for a soul-slaying take on this old standard), Emma asking herself “Is there someone to hold you tightly in their arms?” over tentative, twisted strings. “If there’s no-one, then drink a glass with me,” she reassures herself, before yelling, over the kind of splintering, charred guitars Kurt Cobain struck on In Utero, “Honey, If you’re still around”. It’s such a startling line, not least for that opening “Honey,” sung like this Emma-from-the-present might be the only friend Emma-of-the-future has (or maybe the only constant from this moment to that), but mostly for even questioning that she might see out another decade.

“I do think about it, yeah, what I‘ll be like in ten years’ time,” she laughs, “But I have no idea what Ill be like. The whole point of that song, to me, is if Ill still be around. Because I dont even know if Ill even be alive or not. Not for any specific reason, just because we dont know.

“I think its interesting to think ahead ten years,” she continues. “Even though we all know were going to die eventually, we tend to have this feeling that were going to be around until were at least 65, 70. But I think it’s good to question that, to question whether you’ll still be here in ten years’ time - I say ten years, but I could’ve written a week. I think it stops you taking everything quite so for granted.”

In the ten years since you started learning to play guitar, you’ve made records, travelled the world playing music, relocated to America, collaborated with wonderful musicians… Could you have predicted any of this then?

“No! Its amazing to me, it’s the best thing... And its funny, considering Im so obsessed with astrology and predicting the future… The paradox is, I love the fact that I cant really predict whats going to happen.”

What if someone came into the bar tonight and said they could tell you what the Scout of ten years time would be like, where you’ll be in a decade?

“I wouldnt want to know. [pause] Well, I would want to know, but I know it would be bad for me to know. Because if you know what’s going to happen in the future, you’ll just give up on the present.”

She’s doing better now, is Emma, better than when she wrote and recorded this album anyway. Neptune is making his slow exit, and she’s making some kind of sense of what’s left, after his disruptive visitation.

“Im very independent,” she asserts. “I think Im like that because I do have a strong sense of who I am, even though I have periods when it feels difficult, and I feel wobbly, trembly. But underneath, theres something Ive got That I know I dont know how to describe it…”

A sense of self?

“Yeah. Maybe that’s strange.”

Not really. You’re sure of yourself, because you know how it feels to be at odds with yourself. How can you know who you really are, what you can achieve and withstand, if you don’t challenge yourself?

She nods. “It’s those times when things are difficult, when you learn who you really are.”

(c) Stevie Chick, 2005