Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Catfish Haven

[for Plan B.]

'Catfish Haven is soulful howling over an acoustic guitar turned way up. Hopeful yearning for better days echoed through amps and a drum kit.’
website bumpf


Three lush wet slashes of acoustic guitar open Catfish Haven‘s debut mini-LP, Please Come Back, before a breathless testifying voice barks, “We’re Catfish Haven and this is what we do…”, as the group launches into some joyous, drunk-on-love hoedown that sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel conducting a symposium on ‘soul’ Dexy’s Midnight Runners. What it is that Catfish Haven ‘do’, is overhaul classic AM Radio rock with a ramshackle, moon-gazing romanticism, tracing an ecstatic emotional leyline from Creedence to My Morning Jacket. It’s pretty lovely, actually.
George Hunter (that voice, that guitar) sits shivering in the Chicago winter, but warm memories shared over crackly telephone line keep the blood from freezing.
“I grew up in a place called Catfish Haven, deep in Missouri,” he begins, a hairy Marcel Proust caught in rapture. “It was a total of seven trailers spread out on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere; you had to take a gravel road to the main highway to get into town. I went to this weird school and sat next to this guy called Gus on the bus, who ate fuckin’ glue. [laughs] It was a crazy fuckin’ time as a kid, man, but it was one of the better memories of my life. Calling the group ‘Catfish Haven’ makes it feel a little more like home to me.”
The music is, appropriately, dreamy, nostalgic, warm. “The fun never ended at Catfish Haven,” he chuckles, whimsically. “It was a real ‘Huck Finn’ experience.”
Innocence and purity and love make up the key threads of Catfish Haven’s lyrical concerns, for which George is unrepentant.
“I like to focus on the positive things in life,” he nods, “and I think the most positive thing in life is love. It’s something you can’t really define, but you know it… Its almost like a religion, you can’t touch it but you know it, but you can’t really explain it, but you understand it…”
It makes sense that you’d spend so many songs trying to unravel it.
“It’s a mystery,” he agrees, before his words take on a more solid, assured tone, “but I have been in love before...” But, having nailed down his elusive obsession quite so firmly, he retracts into a kinda warm, profound vagueness. “…and, uh, yeah… I guess I just try to focus more on the positive things…”
Just over half a decade ago, Hunter relocated to Chicago, hooking up with bandmates Miguel Castillo (bass) and Ryan Farnham (drums), two Illinois homeboys who helped him adjust to big city life. “It was pretty overwhelming at first,” he admits, “But now it feels like home.” And if he ever misses those carefree days, Catfish Haven will continue to offer him a way to tap into that magical, never-forgotten past.

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

Wives

[from Loose Lips Sink Ships. the members of Wives now play as no-age - check 'em out]

A bar in Hoxton, an autumn evening. Outside, diamond drips of freezing rain spot the window, orange streetlamps setting the tarmac aglow, like the streets of London really were paved with gold.

Across several worn leather sofas as crumpled as their slept-in tee-shirts and jeans, the three members of Wives - Californian noiseniks free of mind and mostly empty of pocket - slump with tour-exhaustion like the contents of an upturned suitcase, their faces pale, their eyes dark, their spirits dented but still rallying.

On my left, Randy Randall. Randy sports a patchy beard that only highlights how young and innocent he looks, pale eyes wide open, his ruddy face resembling a young Richard Dreyfuss (circa American Graffiti). Like Dreyfuss, there’s a slightly-insane enthusiasm that revs like a chainsaw in his throat when Randy talks, a growling, gravely buzz of wild ideas and creative freedom, of possibilities. A dude who doesn’t blink before bright light, he opens his eyes wider. On my right, Dean Allen Spunt. Dean’s tired of the story of how an automobile accident with a semi-famous rap-rock star financed Wives’ early recordings, but what the Hell, it’s a good story (and almost true). Amiably laconic flip to his bandmate’s wiry fervour, Dean’s striking and gaunt, like a model might be, or an actor, which Dean sometimes is (catch his lead role in Ben ‘Friends Forever’ Wolfinsohn’s wonderful High School Record, should it ever see the light of screen). He talks with a dry Californian drawl, but his words are as alive with that same irascible creative energy. They make a good pair. Collapsed between them, eyes shaded behind midnight bangs, their drummer. I didn’t catch his name, and he said exactly zilch during the interview. He seemed very, very tired.

Upstairs, in a bare red room, their bruised and busted equipment lay in wait for their show that night. This is Wives’ first European tour. And, as they possibly decided this very evening, their last.

But this isn’t a story about endings. It’s not even a story about beginnings, but rather that ecstatic, chaotic distance between both points, when anything and everything seems possible. But stories need beginnings, and ours begins at The Smell, a communal artspace in Downtown LA, between 2nd and 3rd Street. The only all-ages venue in town, it’s a long brick room with art hanging on one side, and a stage and musical equipment set up on the other. There’s no alcohol for sale but you can always get some vegan food, and shows rarely cost more than $5; the kind of place where kids who turn up to see their first show there walk away inspired enough to book their own show for the following week (and The Smell’s booking policy is flexible enough to facilitate that).

The Smell’s influence on their restlessly, relentlessly inventive music is indelible. They were eighteen when they formed, and numbered Jeremy Villalobos on drums (he left the band last year), while Randy and Dean abused samplers and noise machines.

“It was never our intention to be a ‘guitar-rock’ band,” understates Randy. Asked for influences, he cites “what we wanted to hear; we knew what rock bands sounded like, so the aim was to do something that didn’t sound like that. A new sound...”

“It wasnt just the music itself, it was the way we wanted to present ourselves,” adds Dean. “Where we live in LA, most of the musicians are kinda rock dudes’. Glamorous Hollywood ‘professional rockers’, or jaded indie-rockers. If we were in a band, wed fuckin jump around and have a fit, instead of standing up there like, ‘Im being paid, Im a professional’.”

“We were always the young, excitable kid in a band who wanted to do something different,” continues Randy. “Wed be told, You cant do that, do what youre supposed to! [laughs]. Wed be like, okay, like good little brothers. Then we thought, fuck that! When we met, we were doing none of that. Because wed finally met like-minded people. Lets do that ‘something different’.”

That ‘something different’ began with abstract noise bursts, static electricity painted violently over primal drumbeats. They spent a year in the rehearsal room, experimenting more than practicing, then played that first show at The Smell.

“I think it was a really good show,” laughs Dean. “We played in the centre of the room - which was still unusual then - with the lights off, and headlamps on our heads. People got offended when we played. The Smell is definitely very art-orientated and open-minded, but we were beyond even that… People would say, ‘that’s not art!’ We wanted to make art and have a good time and laugh, and that concept was alien to people. We were, like, we’re gonna do this our way, fuck you for having this ‘old guy’’s attitude. People were taken aback, they thought we were being snotty or whatever, but it was never meant like that.”

A first self-released 7” caught the band sparking and glitching on the avant horizons; a second saw them employing a guitar, though as noise-making device rather than musical instrument. Their debut album, Erect The Youth Problem (recorded at the beginning of 2004) pitched them somewhere to the left of Lightning Bolt, blasting a staunch wreckage of blackened guitar noise at acute counter-points to an ever-evolving, ever-collapsing bustle of drums. This was Black Flag’s Damaged - the Chopped and Screwed version. Of course, it was a noise all it’s own, everything Wives had been aiming for, and had been, for their two years so far: a chaos of barked lyrics as overloaded, disjointed and synapse-jolting as the music itself.

But there’s a sense, perhaps, that this great album was the beginning of Wives’ undoing (because, to spoil the surprise ending, they are now undone); within its coagulation of a previously-liquid, flowing sound, its snapshot of one millisecond of musical evolution, Wives would find themselves trapped, unnaturally static, and at odds with their group’s very essence.

“Once you write a song, you better fuckin’ love it because you’ll be playing it for a while,” observes Randy. “There was no real concept behind the album, it was just a bunch of songs we’d written. It’s funny to still be playing them, two years later.”

“I can guarantee the next record we make won’t sound like this,” adds Dean. “We’ve always considered this an evolving thing. This record’s just one step along the way.”

“I don’t know though,” avers Randy. “The steps take longer now. When we started, it was one week to the next, new songs all the time, each setlist was different. At some point, things started to take longer, so every year there’ll be new songs, then every two years, instead of every week, like we started.”

That sense of time dragging is perhaps what mars the set that follows that night. Or perhaps it’s the broken equipment, the unreliable PA. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that touring the world on a non-existent budget is really fucking exhausting. Whatever, Wives flail valiantly, but their every thrust seems only to tug the plugs from their sockets. Sound cuts out, songs break down… But still, in the impotent chaos, something pure and lustful; moments, like Randy tumbling and twirling into the crowd, guitar jagged and painful, during the brutal stutter of ‘All Dad’s Alike’, matching the desperate venom of the album.

Whatever, another London date weeks later (ending in onstage destruction and clumsy bloodshed) marks Wives’ dissolution. Music - and especially improv music like Wives’ was at its best - is like the shark Woody Allen compared relationships to, it either moves forward or it dies. And perhaps, in this one embrace of how Rock Bands behave - touring, playing songs off the album, standing still long enough for the world to suss out what you are - Wives died.

We broke up because when its time to move on and leave something behind, you just know,” wrote Dean in an email a couple of weeks later. As an epitaph, it suits Wives perfectly, but for a clue as to why they were so electrifying for their short life, seek out Erect The Youth Problem at your earliest convenience.

Corinne Bailey Rae

[from Mojo. Corinne is awesome!]

Late afternoon in New York, on the second day of her first promotional trip across America - three cities, four shows and a plethora of radio appearances in just under a week - Corinne Bailey Rae went missing. Not for long, mind you, but, slipping out from the sound-check for that evening's show at the Mercury Lounge, she spent a stolen hour exploring the streets of downtown Mahattan. With her next video-shoot in a week, she window-shopped for clothes along Bleecker Street.

"I saw this dress on a mannequin," she explains, "and it was this perfect, gorgeous white dress." She asked to try it on, but the stern shop assistant refused, saying it was “just a sample…not for sale”, the dresses “not yet available”. She offered to order one; again, he refused. “It won't fit you,” he snapped.

"But I knew it would fit!" she hisses. "But he still wouldn't sell it to me. I said, 'I'm making a video in England, I'm a singer…'. I didn't say it to 'drop' my name, I didn't tell him my album's at number one, but he just cut me off, got all imperious, said 'I'm not going to ask you your name…' So I left.

The record company rang the store owner later that afternoon. “And he was all, 'Of course you can have it!'"

She grins and frowns at once, tuts a little, looks up at the deep Californian sky. "People can be so phoney, can't they? I hate that."

On the peach stone steps of California's Le Parc Suites, the dishevelled members of Corinne Bailey Rae's band soothe their jetlag-enhanced hangovers in the morning sun. Last night, the CBR tour touched down in LA, and Corinne's band, manager, and accompanying UK label staff and production company ate out at hip Japanese restaurant Katana, before spilling into the legendary Sky Bar, the model-frequented hotspot within the luxurious Mondrian hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Corinne, however, can be found sunning herself by the rooftop pool, reclining in petite elegance on a sun-lounger in a fitted vintage dress, looking for all the world like some off-duty 50s starlet. She chose to skip last night's Sunset Strip sortie in favour of a good night’s kip. The night of the show in New York was a similar story.

"There was a party at this club called Butter," she grins. "I'd stayed up as late as I could, the jetlag was kicking in, and my manager said I shouldn't go because I was tired, and it would be really phoney, full of models, all loud dance music. But it turns out they played loads of great hip-hop and R'n'B, and Sting and Lenny Kravitz and Axl Rose were there!"

That afternoon, a window of opportunity opening in her cramped schedule, Corinne makes a bolt for California's tourist attractions. She dawdles along Rodeo Drive's parade of ridiculously upmarket boutiques, a random Californian stalking her throughout with his digital camera, sensing she must be a celebrity of some kind, he's just not sure who; she pores over the celebrity imprints at Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre, hopscotches along the Star-studded boardwalk, past lunatics dressed as Chewbacca and Mrs Shrek, her eyes trained on the sidewalk, scanning the tributes to celebrities from the past.

Last October, unknown, Corinne scored an appearance on BBC2's Later… With Jools Holland performing her 'Like A Star', her Billie Holliday-esque purr deemed 'fabulous' by Burt Bacharach, and winning her a spot that hogmanay's Hootenanny special. A limited edition EP featuring the song grazed the Top 40 in November, while Put Your Records' debuted at #2 in the UK Singles charts this February, a week before Corinne Bailey Rae debuted at #1 in the Albums charts. A steep trajectory for a New Star.

"I still think, people know the song on the radio, but they don't know me, they don't know what I look like or anything," she says, with a distinct sense of relief. "If it stayed like that, it would be perfect. I've heard that some journalists visited my mum's house while I was in Europe. And apparently someone was camped outside my friend's house in a car. Weird. I'm not gonna be at parties or famous nightclubs, I live in Leeds!"

She wrinkles her nose, bemused by the attention. "I went to my local Borders, and I was on the cover of the Leeds Guide, on sale there, and my album was on display behind the counter. Nobody noticed. I even paid by Switch - my name was on the card! I'm a boring person, I'm not going to be shit-faced, falling out of the Met Bar or anything. You don't see KT Tunstall in the Star, stumbling out of a taxi cab, do

you?"

Outside the iconic 'stack-o-wax' Capitol building, dwarfed by its carpark fresco of jazz legends. A nearby LA Times reporter canvasses for her opinion on rumours that EMI might be selling the building and carving it up into condominiums; she politely

and proudly explains that, as an employee of Capitol Records, it would be improper of her to offer a quote, adding an off-the-record, heartfelt "It'd be a shame."

Corinne's not here for the dreaded 'meet'n'greet', just to take in the view from the roof. But while she tries to remain incognito, quietly walking the circuitous hallways of the cylindrical skyscraper, heads of departments like Sales and Marketing spot her and pull her into their offices, for impromptu meetings where she grins and chats warmly, easily with the industry bods, while still ensuring things are done her way.

"Sometimes, when British artists come over here - especially black artists whose music doesn't fit what people consider 'black music' - the label will want to remix the record for America." she offers, forty-five minutes later, finally surfacing atop the Capitol Building, walking to the edge of the rooftop and taking in its panoramic view. "I'm not willing to do that. That's what those meetings I just had were about... I'm really pleased that all the people I've worked with so far seem to 'get' how I want to work it. I don't want massive posters all over Sunset Boulevard, I want to keep it low-key. I want people to discover me. I just want to play my songs, and see what people think. I like the fact that my album is more singer-songwriter based, played on guitars, raw. It totally doesn't make sense to the R'n'B scene here. So it's good that it's different.

"If it stays underground over here… I'd be overjoyed to be an 'underground sensation' here," she smiles, contentedly, looking across at the Hollywood Hills. "I'm not trying to dominate the world."

Hours after the Austin Music Hall show the night before she flies back to Leeds, to normality, at a showcase for supportive, influential US radio station KCRW in the plush 18th Floor ballroom of an upscale Austin hotel, Corinne strums an acoustic and sings from a tall stool, her band playing deftly behind her. Its a startlingly confident performance; but then, Corinne has been singing for a very long time.

I always loved to sing, when I was really young, she offers, afterwards. But I never thought of myself as a singer; my voice was croaky, low. To me, a singer was someone like Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston. It wasnt like Sister Act 2, Id never had any Hey, that girl can sing! moments!

She sang in church throughout her childhood; though, she points out, not a gospel church as many assume her skin colour would dictate. Her mixed-race background causes confusion in many she meets, like the European journalists who ask her what she learned from her black side and her white side (There isnt that division, she sighs, Its not like anyone displayed ethnic traits.). She played violin and learned classical composition. When grunge hit, a fifteen year old Corinne responded to the simplicity, the immediacy of guitars, drums and vocals - Suddenly song-writing didnt seem this impossible, impenetrable thing.

She formed a band, Helen, with her best friends and boyfriend. They played youth clubs and venues in Leeds, revelled in the thrill of writing a song one day, and playing it that night. NME gave them a favourable review, David (son of Don) Arden became their manager, and said he had a development deal with Roadrunner Records on the table. Then their bassist became pregnant.

It didnt sink in, she remembers, the disillusionment still smarting. I guess wed seen Neneh Cherry on TV with a bump and thought, we can still do the band. David said we shouldnt mention it to the Roadrunner people, that we should start searching for a replacement. We told him we didnt need a replacement. Two, three weeks passed and he never called. And when the record company never called back, we wondered, did he even have the deal? It was devastating.

By 1997, aged eighteen, she was studying English literature at university, working part-time at a local jazz club called The Underground. Sometimes the bands would invite her to sing with them, a ballad perhaps, or God Bless The Child.

My mum had bought one of those free-binder-with-issue-one partworks, called Jazz Greats or something, she grins, And the first volume came with a Billie Holliday CD. I was like, why didnt you play me this before?? I fell in love with that music, this different scene that Id never heard, that I felt a lot closer to.

Her music took a new direction. While in Helen, labels had tried to lure Corinne into a solo deal, which shed steadfastly resisted. Now, she worked on crafting her song writing, perfecting her sound. Good Groove, a production company co-owned by former Radio 1 DJ Gary Davies, had enough faith in her talent to finance the recording of the album; meaning that, when they shopped her around the record labels at the beginning of last year, it was with the final product, the album, already finished to her exact specifications.

It was a case of Do you like this or not?’” she smiles. Some labels didnt even talk to me, they spoke to my manager. They were off the list. EMI understood it. They werent saying that we needed to re-record the album or anything. We put a lot of thought into the recording, we left all the imperfections in there, the bum notes, the string section coughing or dropping their bows Once its all layered together, those details make it sound somehow richer. I didnt want it to be some perfect, airbrushed image, I wanted everything to be real.

At the KCRW showcase, she charms the invited industry bigwigs with both her music, and her natural onstage manner, cracking jokes and just enjoying the moment, like this wasnt a critical juncture in her career, in her life, like there wasnt anything at stake.

I wanna have a life, you know? she offers, afterwards. Im married, I want to see my husband, I want to see my family, I want to write other music and I want to live, to enjoy it. Im not a pop star, Im not going to cane it to sell as many records as I can. Thats not me.

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

Monday, February 12, 2007

Gaz Mayall

[really proud of this feature from The Times, and really enjoyed meeting the wonderful Gaz Mayall]

“My name is Gaz Mayall, and I am a musicaholic,” confesses the dapper, effervescently-youthful 47 year-old Boho, over grilled Salmon at his regular table in Portobello’s legendary Spanish eaterie, Galicia. Son of pioneering British bluesman John Mayall, who launched the careers of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, Gaz was born into his addiction, fondly remembering hassling a Santa-costumed John Lennon at an Apple Christmas party back in the 1960s, and watching Paul McCartney tickling the family ivories way past his bedtime. But Mayall Junior has never rested upon his father’s laurels.

“I’m like a musical farmer, I like to rotate the crops,” Mayall grins. He’s a label owner (Gaz’s Rockin’ Records), producer, singing musician in his own ska band, The Trojans, and has assembled acclaimed ska and rhythm’n’blues compilations. But he’s most fondly famed for his long-running club night, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues, 25 years old last July. The Pogues, The Stray Cats and Fishbone have graced its tiny stage, while celebs like David Bowie, Boy George, and even Bruce Willis (who grabbed a mic to sing soul standards) have all soaked up the vibe, as Thursday night bleeds messily into Friday morning. A Soho institution and regular attraction at the Notting Hill Carnival, it’s a rough-at-the-edges celebration of Mayall’s passions: ska, blues and rock’n’roll.

Mayall’s first spoken words were “boogie woogie”, but it wasn’t until his parents divorced and his father moved to the hippy utopia of California’s Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s, that he truly caught the music bug.

“I found this box of old boogie 78s my dad had left behind,” he remembers, “And I got a real taste for it. Then I moved onto old rock’n’roll. I was obsessed, scouring Portobello market for boxes of cheap records.”

Coming across a box of Bluebeat records, he mistook the early Ska imprint for a rock’n’roll label and chanced 50p on the find, soon falling for the likes of Prince Buster’s joyously foul-mouthed ‘Big Five’. Reggae’s R’n’B-influenced ancestor, Ska was omnipresent over the PA systems at snooker halls and football grounds through the 1970s. It quickly became his new obsession.

His mother soon remarried and relocated to the Cumbrian idyll of Llanddewi Brefi, location for TV’s Little Britain. Mayall dropped out of school at 14, living in the basement of their rented-out Notting Hill home. Selling sharp vintage clothes at Kensington Market, his loyal clientele thrilled to the rock’n’roll and ska constantly spinning on Mayall’s Dansette record player.

The punk scene did little for Mayall, turned off by its aggression, and its often-fatal affection for heroin. But the subsequent Two Tone movement, fusing punk’s energy and ska’s skank, suited him perfectly. Violent football hooligans had closed Oxford Street’s Two Tone club, where Gaz sometimes DJ’d, but Vince Howard, owner of Gossip’s (a nightclub on Mead Street which began life as a seedy drinking den called The Gargoyle frequented by Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon) offered the Hillbilly boho a home in Soho. On July 3rd 1980, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues was born.

Mayall delights in Soho’s grubbily colourful history. “My dad played blues all-nighters in the early 60s, at Wardour Street’s Flamingo Club. The owners, Rick and Johnny Gunnell, paid off the police every week so they could stay open until 6am, refilling regulars’ colas with illicit whiskey from under the bar.”

The Gunnells also managed British soul sensation Georgie Fame. “When Georgie had a hit with ‘Yeh Yeh’, he tried to switch management. Rick stole the keys to Georgie’s brand new Jaguar, and rammed its repeatedly into the pillars of an underground car park. He handed Georgie the keys back and said, ‘If you leave me I’ll do the same to your fingers and you’ll never play the piano again!’”

The Gunnells knew they were small fish in a big pond, however. “One night, some bruiser got drunk and caused trouble, so Rick threw him out of the club and gave him a hiding. At closing time, hoods grabbed Rick and bundled him, blindfolded, into a car. They drove him to a deserted warehouse where the Krays informed him that the drunkard was one of their lads. Sensing he was in deep schtumm, Rick told them the lout had been out of order. The Krays apologised, had the bloke’s jaw broken, and set Rick free.

“People talk about sacred places and ‘leylines’,” Mayall continues,“ Soho is like that for me. It’s the heart of London. Thank God these buildings have preservation orders, so all that history that survived the Blitz won’t be replaced with glass and steel shopping malls, like in Shepherd’s Bush.”

Gaz himself fell foul to such ‘urban regeneration’ in the early 1990s, when Gossip’s went ‘upmarket’ and banned live musicians, for graffitiing the dressing room. Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues promptly moved a road down to St Moritz, a Swiss restaurant with a basement club steeped in nightclub history.

“People who came here when it was a mod club in the 60s, or a jazz joint in the 30s, come back to visit,” marvels Mayall, “And they all swear it’s never changed. The owner, Sweetie, is a real Soho legend. Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band, the 101ers, played here and wrote a song complaining about him, ‘Sweetie Of The St Moritz’, that’s on my new compilation album… If you check the wall by the stairs in the club, Sweetie’s got Joe’s original lyrics framed on the wall.”

St Moritz is the perfect home for Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. A perennial in this decidedly here-today, gone-tomorrow field, Gaz’s ponders the New Romantic scene dominating clubland when the Rockin’ Blues started up.

“It was all so pretentious, I wanted to offer an alternative to that,” he smiles. “We do what we want. Where else will you hear Little Richard, and old ska, and drum’n’bass, and some Louis Armstrong record from 1928? We’re like musical chefs, mixing the ingredients.”

He laughs, and stifles a sleep-deprived yawn. “The late nights, the loud music, the smoky atmosphere, all this ‘bad’ stuff keeps me fresh and bubbling. It’s good for me!”

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

Jose Gonzales

[for MOJO, Summer 2006. Ah, Barcelona...]

Riveted and silent, festival-goers fill every seat and clutter the aisles of Parc Del Forum’s Auditori. Outside, in the blazing Barcelona sunshine, the fifth annual Primavera festival plays host to the neon lunacy of the Flaming Lips, the ear-quaking roar of Mogwai. In this cavernous room, however, illuminated by a single spotlight and armed with only a stool, a microphone and an acoustic guitar, Jose Gonzalez holds his audience spellbound with dextrous finger-picking and a lulling hush of a vocal, conjuring an intimacy reminiscent of Nick Drake.

Those in the audience familiar with Drake’s music possibly discovered him via a 1999 Volkswagen television commercial that used his ‘Pink Moon’ as soundtrack, remarketing the tragically-cultish artist’s back catalogue with startling success. Gonzalez himself is a late-convert.

“It was after one of my first shows, in 1999,” the soft-spoken singer-songwriter explains, shortly after clambering offstage. “Some guys came back afterwards saying, ‘you must have listened to a lot of Nick Drake.’ But I’d never heard him! Since then, that‘s all changed… ‘Pink Moon’ was my point of comparison when recording my debut album ‘Veneer’. Thirty minutes of just vocals and guitars, and it still worked - why shouldn’t it work for me? I don’t really know much about his life - I keep meaning to see that documentary. I’m too lazy with my rock history…”

Famed in his home country of Sweden, Gonzalez was similarly brought to wider attention last year when film-maker Nicolai Fuglsig scored footage of several thousand multi-coloured rubber balls lazily bouncing along a San Francisco street with Jose’s acoustic rendition of ‘Heart Beats’ (originally by eccentric Swedish electro-pop duo The Knife), to advertise Sony’s BRAVIA HDTV line. Taste-making teen-drama The O.C. had already featured Gonzalez on its soundtrack, his ‘Crosses’ scoring the tear-jerking finale of its second season and laying groundwork for success in America.

“It’s all about getting the music heard,” reasons a sanguine Gonzalez. “The companies want your music to sell their products, but they’re also offering a chance to present your music to an audience that would never hear it. There hasn’t been the backlash to the advert that I expected; a Dutch fan sent me a 2-page email, he was really angry. He asked, ‘Would Nick Drake have been applauded if he’d sold his music to an ad company?’

“The thing is, I get a lot of fan-mail via Myspace, people writing that they went out and bought the album after hearing the advert. We released ‘Heart Beats’ as a single,” he adds, proudly, “but people bought the album. It’s about the music, not just one song.”

Parc Del Forum, at the foot of Barcelona’s bustling La Rambla boulevard, is a breath-taking sweep of concrete overlooking the harbour and the sparkling Mediterranean. Wandering about its surrealist sculptures, the Yeahs Yeah Yeahs sound-checking on some distant stage, the bearded, drab-casual Gonzalez blends in with the festival-goers, chatting in Spanish with some fans before switching, with impressive fluency, to Swedish to talk to his manager, and then English for us.

Born to Argentinian parents, Gonzalez grew up in the suburbs of Gothenburg, Sweden, surrounded by other Latin American families. He picked up the guitar aged fourteen, at his father’s urging, inspired by Bossa Nova, The Beatles and Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez.

“There was a summer where I sat down every day for hours a day, teaching myself,” he laughs. “When I get into something I get into something. I learned Spanish classical guitar, which is related to flamenco music, in how hard you hit the strings and the body of the guitar. It’s aggressive, dramatic. I like the drama! [laughs]”

You don’t seem a very aggressive person.

“One of the first interviews I did, I was asked to describe my music, and I said, ‘Aggressive’. And they laughed! I suppose it sounds very mellow, but there’s a degree of aggression to how I play, in the way I feel when I‘m playing.”

In his teens, Jose played bass for Gothenburg punks Back Against The Wall, indie-rockers Only If You Call Me Jonathan, hardcore act Renascence. Creative fulfilment eluded him, however.

“I never felt comfortable making music with anybody else,” he sighs. “People that know me think that Im private. I’m very protective. Before I can share any idea with someone else, I need to work on it until I feel it’s presentable. That’s why I recorded Veneer at home.”

He began writing the songs that would compose Veneer in 1998, playing guitar alone for hours, discovering the chords and melodies as he went along. The newest song, opener ‘Slow Moves’ was written in 2003. Early sessions were recorded on a 4-track cassette-recorder, before Gonzalez upgraded to a computer loaded with Cubase software. Every track was recorded in his tiny, 21 square metre Gothenburg flat. When Swedish label Imperial Recordings originally released Veneer, in 2003, Gonzalez quit the PhD he was researching in DNA replication in Herpes viruses for his music. Last April, British label Peace Frog released Veneer in the UK, Hidden Agenda repackaging the album for America five months later.

“When I wrote Veneer, I wasn’t considering the audience,” he muses. “A listener, maybe, but not a million of them. It’s different now. Veneer is a really moody, introspective album, so people think Im moody and introspective. And theres probably a little truth in there. [chuckles] I faced this in 2003, when my album was released in Sweden - going from nowhere to a Gold album at home was a much bigger deal than making the transition from the success in Sweden, to the success I’ve had internationally. I spent a lot of time thinking it through then, and it was hard.”

The spectre of recording Veneer’s sequel looms large. “I’m pretty sure I want to make another, similar album, and I’m pretty sure people won’t respond like they did to Veneer. If it sells a tenth of the first album, I’m okay with that. I’m amazed so many people liked Veneer; the things I like usually aren’t successful, and the things that are successful I usually can’t stand. Most people’s first albums are their best, anyway,” he says, almost glumly, “the second album is just a self-conscious attempt to repeat what worked first time around. That’s the topic of my song, ‘Deadweight On Velveteen’: ‘Vulgar, when brought to light’.”

The album’s half-written; however, Jose plans to be on the road for the foreseeable future (“I don’t have a girlfriend or a cat anymore, so I don’t mind not coming home for months on end,” he explains), and he can’t write songs on tour. And then there’s the album he’s planning with Junip (post-rock band formed with school friend Elias Araya), his vocal work for downtempo duo Zero 7’s new album, the music he’s recorded for Swedish teen drama Livet enligt Rosa… Those waiting on a second Jose Gonzalez album had better be patient.

“If you ask me what I’ll be doing in a year’s time, I can tell you,” he smiles. “I’ll be on the road. I’m more interested in where I’ll be in five or ten years. I have a plan: I want to record one more solo album, maybe two. And an album with Junip, and maybe a side-project of some kind. So that’s four albums, over five or ten years; that’s enough. And if they all flop, and I get bored, I can always go back to studying Herpes…”

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

Fucked Up

[from Kerrang!]

Vaulting the barricades of decorum and good taste, Fucked Up are a brilliantly brutal hardcore quintet from Toronto, Canada. As their name suggests, compromise is not on their agenda; following a slew of cult-classic seven inches, the group’s debut album, Hidden World, pulls no punches, welding savvy, political lyrics to anthemic, gravel-gargling punk.

“The 7” singles were often produced under hellish conditions,” explains guitarist 10,000 Marbles. “The album sessions were like Shangri La by comparison – we had two or three months to record. The label even paid for an on-site Tarot card reader!”

Such luxuries haven’t dampened Fucked Up’s lust to provoke and confront. Marbles describes their combustive gigs as “a real mess, a writhing mass of sweat and blood”, while the group are renowned for their forthright lyrics and sleeve-art.

“The artist has a responsibility to provoke,” offers Marbles, “To shed light on things that have become obscured, to shock their audience into a new mental state, and make them aware of new and dangerous things.”

“A lot of bands dumb themselves down to appeal to a popular audience,” adds singer Father Damian. “When they do address politics, it’s usually to offer a dumb simple solution to a huge problem. But the world is not ‘OK’. I don’t for a second think we have the ‘answers’, but we hopefully at least make people think about the questions.”

Hidden World’s music is similarly fearless, piling up the revving high-decibel guitars, with most tracks blasting past six minutes. Impressive stuff for a band whose initial ambition was simply to be “abrasive and caustic, in the tradition of the early Discharge singles.”

“This band has taught me that anything can happen,” reasons a thoughtful Damian, “But the fact that the hardcore kids can dig our long songs is a miracle.”

(C) Stevie Chick 2007

The Drones

[Cover Feature, Loose Lips Sink Ships #6]


This is how I remember rock shows being: baking hot, cramped, earachingly loud and uncomfortably sweaty. The stage is only visible through bobbing heads and past a mist of steam, and sweat, and dry ice coloured by harsh beams of amber, scarlet and mauve light, so all we can see is a raging, fiery colour, the heat suffocating, intense.

Onstage, the rock’n’roll band play hard and clumsy and loose, and very, very loud. The venue is the Garage in London’s Highbury, where I spent many happily self-destructive evenings back when I went to a show a night (doubtless explaining this eerie sense of nostalgia), where those vibrating walls of black mesh either side of the stage are, in fact, part of a colossal PA system designed with the sole intention of rattling flesh from bone. I love this place. I love this band.

Cutting through this atmospheric reverie, Gareth Liddiard, a tall, sinewy man with a striking nose and liquid-acid eyes ringed by exhaustion that make him look the spit of a young Pete Townshend, pounds and shakes a chord that sounds like wrought, rusted iron from his guitar, and howls one more time into the microphone, stomping his boot hard onto the gaffer-taped stage in time with drummer Mike Noga’s primordial beat, so hard his body shakes a few sluicing beads of sweat from his forehead and slickered mop of hair, like every blow of stick upon drumskin were impacting on his spine, knocking him from an even keel, so he tumbles around like a marionette with a slit string, helpless, tortured, exultant, released. The mesh walls roar and shake with the resultant noise, crashing cymbals shattering into silver mist, bass heavy like a submarine scraping the ocean floor, twin guitars shrieking and squalling in reflexive pain, like parallel shards of lightning, or two fluctuating waves on a seismograph, electric with drama and meaning. And that voice, shredded, swerving and screeching like a drunk driver about the melody, accusatory, righteous, angry, spiteful and bitter, but really really fucking alive, and desperate, like it hasn’t anything to lose, like it already lost everything.

Urgency, romance, tension and feedback crackle through the air, as the group tear through the set, rough in execution but pure in spirit, loosely lashing at the songs to give space for those aching, blood-splattered guitars to breathe and roar, pulling together in glorious, unified crescendos of arcing, screeing wail. And they so look like a rock’n’roll group, Mike feral and caged behind racked drums, bassist Fiona Kitschin coolly scanning the audience from the side of stage, lending piercing backing vocals that twist into seductive harmony with Gareth’s, guitarist Rui Pereira raucous and violent with his instrument, a wild genius, and Gareth, trapped in a one-way screaming match with his microphone, poised with such a powerful authority (which comes natural, I guess, to someone who’s spewing a lifetime of his own bile up for our entertainment, knowing that some of us at least will dig this, and wanna thank him for it).

The song is ‘Baby Squared’, a brash, brawling garage-rock poesie to maddening love, spiked and sparked up like if Neil Young and his Crazy Horse ever dug the music of the Sex Pistols as much as Johnny Rotten’s pop-cultural significance and shared-outsider status, the amps so loud they’re glowing, the guitar tones serrated to their very centres, bolts of frazzled and angular fury bouncing out a nagging, neo-classic melody. You’ll find it on Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of All Your Enemies Will Float By, the second album from Melbourne’s The Drones, a rock’n’roll band characterised, as their album title suggests, by a heady mixture of black humour and bitter recrimination.

“It’s a rawer emotional element,” muses Gareth Liddiard earlier, over an afternoon pint, of The Drones’ exquisitely anguished blues (which are, incidentally, teeming and crazed with life in its most brutal forms, in case the moniker ‘The Drones’ suggested altogether more egghead pleasures). “It’s all about booze, isolation, cheap amps and cheap guitars. And there’s an emotional element to it as well, a lot of grief filters through. It depends on your mood, but it can be cathartic, to get that shit out there. If I’m having a good time, if I’m happy, I never feel compelled to write a song, and that song would probably be pretty fuckin’ boring anyway.”

Gareth struggles a little to describes what the Drones do. It’s just rock’n’roll, he offers, safe in the knowledge that we both understand that, in the right (calloused) hands, ‘just rock’n’roll’ can be a scorching, singular, special thing. But for the benefit of the uneducated masses out there, he elaborates. “It’s, uh, semi-traditional weird folk blues, and we bend shit, pervert it, tailor it to suit us.”

The Drones are a group steeped in rock’n’roll. Gareth talks affectionately of his youth in Perth, of tuning in to the local radio, and the great stations in Melbourne that pumped out a neverending mix of ugly/beautiful noise, so by the age of ten these wise radio waves had already grounded the young Gareth in the likes of The Stooges and Led Zeppelin, along with local legends like The Saints and The Scientists.

“I remember hearing ‘Immigrant Song’ on the radio, as a kid,” he remembers, “And I didn’t catch the name of the song, just that Led Zeppelin was the band. And I was desperate to hear that song again. So I started saving up my pocket money - I got ten bucks a week, and tapes were ten bucks, and there were nine Led Zeppelin albums. It took me nine weeks, and Led Zeppelin III was the last one I bought, because it was hard to track down, and there it was, first track, side one, this insane heavy-metal thrash song that sounded like it was from the future…”

Born in Australia, Gareth moved with his family to London shortly after he was born. They lived there for a few years before moving back to Perth, but Gareth remembers seeing Blondie on the television, as a kid, one of his early memories. “It’s a pretty atmospheric and intense song, it really hooked into me as a kid,” he grins. “The video was pretty hot too.

“I remember, back then, pop was really depressing and dark. There was great stuff, like Bronski Beat. Now, its all ‘you cant have sad shit in pop because youll scare everyone off‘! But back then, everything was all echoey and dark, and that really rubbed off on me, I dug that. It spoke to me. And hearing shit like Prokofiev, Peter And The Wolf. There was more of a ‘Brothers Grimm’ bent to popular culture back then, it seemed.

“My family had all the Beatles records. I know people who deny the Beatles The great converter is ‘Helter Skelter’, though. Im always, like, Dude, listen to this. Its so intense Its fucked up. I wouldnt fuck with Paul McCartney, hed fuckin take your head off. Boy has got some thumbs

High school was an education in itself, in music and, uh, related chemistries. “Stooges, Hendrix, Zep, The Byrds occasionally,” he lists. “Marijuana, acid, that sort of shit. Lots of Sabbath, smoking pot to Pink Floyd - which is the best thing anyone could ever do. Listening to Syd Barrett on acid was our education. My old man had Smash Hits, that Hendrix compilation. I listened to it on my walkman travelling to school one day, and it begins with ‘Stone Free’, and the first minute or so is kinda dull and sounds shitty. I thought it was terrible. Then it stops, and the wah-wah kicks in, and I went on this insane psychedelic journey, like I saw people falling out of the bus I just thought, oh my god One of the greatest moments of my life. My brain just went pfffffblrrrt!

“And after that, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Karen Dalton, Charlie Parker Everything really. If its good, its good. If its shit, its shit. I listen to the good stuff.”

Gareth is, as you might sense, a pretty opinionated music fan, though with a broader embrace than The Drones’ monolithic rock might suggest. “ I never liked posers, although a bit of pretence is cool - like The Smiths, theres a bit of showbiz going on there. No bullshit, and a bit of imagination, rather than the same old shit. People trying to make their own thing - AC/DC and the Stones are the only people allowed to rip off Chuck Berry, anyone else, forget it. Its been done to death. Being in Melbourne, we know Jet, and the keyboard player on our record is Jets keyboard player. Its a semi-small town. I dont hate anyone for doing that shit, but it can be a bit naff,” he sneers. He shivers a bit. “Youd bore yourself stupid, wouldn‘t you?

“My family werent great communicators,” he remembers. “Obviously, I needed something that gave me what I needed, what I was lacking. And that was music. I remember hearing Bob Dylan as a kid, just thinking, fuuuuuck. Musics one of the best ways to communicate; as an art form, its probably the most popular, the most universal. Even some idiot selling fish and chips could understand music He probably likes Tom Jones [laughs].”

The Drones began in Perth. Gareth brought his girlfriend, Fee, on board, to play bass and sing backing vocals. And Gareth’s old buddy, Rui, played guitar and violin and sang. “I’ve known Rui since High School, we’ve always been fucking around with music,” grins Gareth.

Gareth, Rui and Fee loaded their gear in a van and drove across country, to Melbourne. There, they hooked up with drummer Mike Noga, and plugged into Melbourne’s vital, history-soaked music scene. “There’s a history of really cool shit there,” he enthuses. “The Saints, Radio Birdman, The Scientists, Nick Cave… Groups from Melbourne play without compromise, we have this kind of autonomy because we’re so isolated, so far from the rest of the world. There are major labels in Australia, but they’re only interested in the most banal pop shit, if you’re doing anything remotely interesting or worthwhile they’ll never be interested in you. Which is good, because that means there’s no incentive to sweetening your sound, no razzing it up to impress a Major.

“Talk to the old crew from Melbourne, people like Kim Salmon or Nick Cave, they’re all getting on for fifty or whatever, and then there’s us upstarts coming up beneath them. And they’re all saying, ‘we hate tradition’, but, for better or for worse, they all started something, and once you’ve heard it, you can’t get away from it. And we were brought up on it.”

Wait Long By The River is The Drones’ second album, preceded by 2002’s Here Come The Lies. They’re a productive band, with two more finished albums in the can; “Productive, when were allowed,” he adds, grouchily. “For the last two years weve had this fucking legal shit with our old record company, we had to bail on them, paid a huge amount of money to do it.”

Their music is at once familiar and unique. The rock’n’roll they grew up on is a key influence, and Crazy Horse references abound. The Drones’ masterful slow songs glide like spectres doomed to eternally haunt the brooding opening chords of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’, sombre, sincere, unbearably melancholic. Their faster songs adopt a more ‘punk’ lick, tribal stomp drums, charring plane-wreck guitars blasting away, but still that coruscating guitar tone remains. And, over all, the heavy karmic weight of ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, the betrayed rancour and recrimination of ‘Down By The River’ dominate.

“Some things are so basic and so ingrained,” he explains. “If you get a Les Paul, put a bit of distortion on it through a Fender amp, and play basic chords with your fingers, with a straight drum beat behind you, you’ll sound like Crazy Horse. Shit like Dirty Three, its so basic that its genius. You cant get away with it, the moment you run a violin through a Marshall youll sound like the Dirty Three. Like, the minute you start fucking around with your tunings, you sound like Sonic Youth. You cant help it, man! It’s base stuff. And Neil Young, once youve heard him, how could you not sound a little like him?”

They definitely plug into a tradition of ragged and glorious Australian punk bands, murderous rabbles like The Beasts Of Bourbon, The Birthday Party, The Scientists, The Saints, and Dirty Three. “These people are friends, we know people like Rowland S. Howard, and Spencer Jones of the Beasts. We hang out, and weve borrowed gear off them. Growing up watching these dudes murder guitars mustve rubbed off somehow. The Beasts were an awesome band, so rough and ugly. Its mean, its what rocknrolls meant to be, what it threatens to be that Their shows were like Black Flag shows, ambulances would be waiting when you got there. It was pretty rough stuff. Not that violence is cool, but it’s kinda fun.

“Our fans are cool, it gets pretty rough down the front. Weve been touring with Deerhoof,” he continues, brow furrowing, “playing to the ‘indie’ crowd Deerhoof are an amazing band, and I love what they do, but they play is pretty much devoid of anger or aggression - its indie stuff. Whereas, we come from a place thats nasty, mean-spirited - which can be fun. Everyones thought You fucking cunt! when someone fucks them over, but not everybody comes out and says it. Its like the Sex Pistols, they were mean-spirited, but it was fun.”

Regret, frustration, and depression are prime fodder for The Drones’ art. The guilt-etched dirge, ‘The Freedom Of The Loot’, is a fantastically bleak song of crime and injustice, of good people made to be bad, and how lives down mean a shit in the face of cold cash. Later that night, Gareth’s face is twisted with rage as he sings the hopeless, scorning refrains, his voice splintering, bruised. He sounds like he’s gargling a mixture of his own blood and grievances, like Joe Strummer with an ounce of vim in his nostrils, like in ‘The Right Profile’ when he perfectly apes a speed’n’booze-blocked, stammering Montgomery Clift, only it’s disgust that’s tearing Gareth’s words to a messy mulch in his mouth.

It is perhaps unsurprising to discover that booze figures largely in The Drones’ lives, given their occupation. “Alcohol and music go together, traditionally,” he laughs. “Take flamenco music… All those dudes playing it are pissed, you know? They get drunk, they play music, they dance. The greatest elements of any culture are booze, music and art. But then there’s the downside of booze…”

It’s this side that The Drones’ music most evokes: the sour outlook of a hangover, the regret caused by drunken indiscretions, painful emotions amplified by booze.

“Im 29 now,” reasons Gareth, “My twenties were a series of horrible disasters, so I was probably an alcoholic, for better or for worse. I need to figure that one out. You just get depressed, because youre drunk. If youve been drinking for three days, you dont have to have been drinking hard, but youll feel like shit, and youll fix it with more booze. If you have three or four days off the booze, you feel so fucking good, happy, and then you go straight down the pub and have a great night and youre back on it. It’s a vicious circle. Australia has a massive drink culture And don’t forget drugs. Youll be fucked if you overdo it. But theyre fun too.

“I got stoned when we played Amsterdam, and thought, fuck, I should do this more often. I’d been getting really uptight, like, getting tunnel vision, I couldnt really see things clearly. And after smoking pot, I had a totally different perspective. I thought, fuck, I should do this at least once a month, to keep my ideas fresh. But with booze, its an emotional drug, it can fuck you up with grief and frustration… It’s a double-edged sword. But booze and an electric guitar are beautiful things, turn it way up loud and BLAAAAH.”

The slow-burning blues of ‘Sitting On The Edge Of The Bed Crying’ is a standout, a folksy minor-chord guitar figure cracking a whip over Gareth’s glum lament. “Every now and again I think its borderline mawkish,” he confesses, of the song. “I dont like mawkish songs, so there are times when I think, is this a terrible song? But its not mawkish, its inconsolable. Everyones been inconsolable in their lives… Look at Leonard Cohen, some of the best music ever written was by Leonard Cohen. It comes from a dark place, but its still funny. Melancholys beautiful, theres a sweetness there. Its all about perspective, and different experiences give you different perspectives Its wisdom, you know Thats what I call it. Bad things happen

Sincerity seems important to you.

“You’ve got to be sincere,” he nods, sharply. “You can tell when someone’s ‘faking it’, or not. I remember the first time I heard Black Flag, Keith Morris was the singer, and I thought it was perfect He was being himself, admitting hes a wounded idiot, and just having a sense of humour about it. It was sad and funny, I thought it was beautiful, and very sincere.”

‘Locust’, an eerie and stripped-raw, drunken mourn, eked out on piano, atmospheric guitars and percussion, is an exercise in under-rehearsal (a method which explains the album’s one-take ferocity) a la Crazy Horse, the group played and played, the song building to an unexpected freakout of avant-guitar, electric violin and malevolent drone, before dying away. “There was supposed to be a chorus,” laughs Gareth. “But we went into this big, epic freakout, and we totally forgot to play it! It’s hilarious. The tape just fades out on the album; moments after the fadeout, Mike yells out, ‘We sound like a bunch of pissed fuckin’ idiots!’ But it sounded amazing… What Tom Waits called the ‘hair in the gate’ effect. ‘Mistakes’ are what make art. Who would want to perfect rock’n’roll? That sounds so fuckin’ boring.

“Some people treat rock’n’roll like it’s something to be afraid of,” he continues. “Like the guy who runs Triple M, the big commercial station in Australia, he says the trick to running a radio station is to find a song that doesn’t offend or upset anyone, but that doesn’t quite bore them to death, and just play it a thousand times a day, and you sit back and rake in the ad revenues.

“It’s fucked. People like art, they aren’t afraid of it. But that’s the way things are now; people look at forests and think, ‘Hmm, I could make a lot of money here, gotta chop all these trees down!’ Everything is commerce now, and its fuckin horrible. Everything has to justify its existence through making money, why cant it just exist? Why cant culture just be culture? Thats one of the beauties of travelling through Europe, cultures not there to make people money, its there because its an important thing. Its part of the soul, and we all have souls, you cant deny that.

“Something has died,” he adds, warming to his theme. “You had your industrial revolution, and the machine became so well-oiled, we forgot why we built it in the first place. Its become such a machine, its hard to get through the bullshit. I mean, Jesus, pop culture used to be cool, it used to be Alex Chilton and Andy Warhol; now, its not that at all. Its Simon Cowell, its terrible. Its sad. Shit gets so bad, but it just helps you to see the good stuff more clearly. You got to spend a little time looking for it, is all, but thats part of the fun of it.”

Onstage, later that night, the guitar heroics abound; instruments are battered and held aloft, in some weird cycle of worship and abuse, and hammered into mic-stands, and hoisted towards the crowd. Shapes are thrown, and at one point, Gareth’s contortions send his amp toppling, causing a dramatic pause, a drone-streaked intake of breath before, with preternatural timing, they tear back into the song. I’m loving every histrionic, over-the-top minute of it, this kamikaze ballet of self-destructive rock’n’roll heroics.

Watching Gareth hurtle about the stage, screaming way past the comfort zone, I think of Guy Picciotto’s quote, circa his time with Rites Of Spring, that hurting yourself on a guitar was a more worthwhile gesture than just sitting in your room crying to yourself. It’s heroic, and self-destructive, and it doesn’t quite make much sense, and, well, that’s pretty much the definition of old skool, dumb ‘heroism’ Hollywood fed me for all those years. And if these grisly songs deal mostly with how can fuck you over, plunging their fists into the maw of the depressions that hold the artists down, at least they do so in some glorious, exhilarating fashion, even if that heroism is ultimately doomed, even if they pull off their onstage whirlwind at the expense of their equipment, their health and their sanity. It’s like the war movie where the hero saves his platoon and takes out the enemies, only he kills himself in the process; The Drones play out their inner dramas as blood-splattered death-matches, and its this drama, this stage play, this sense of high adventure and moral intrigue that makes this music, these musicians, so heroic. And, cliched though it may seem, it’s the art that makes the unglamorous grind of being a touring rock band worthwhile.

“Rui was brought up damned poor,” laughs Gareth, finally, telling a story that perfectly illustrates the group’s collective ‘shit happens’ mindset, drawing beautiful art and raw humour from life’s dark stuff. “We wrote this thing for the biog on our website, ‘Rui pereira rides the other guitar like the admiral of a Portuguese man o’ war with a hangover. The master of disaster leaves guitars in plaster and it’s no secret that the Portuguese freak born in Mozambique during the war was brought up poor, which keeps him more than keen to make a scene’. His parents saw the biog and, being ex-poor people, were fuckin’ furious. Because poor people don’t like to be reminded about that kind of shit. We meant it as a joke, but they’d lived through a war, and grinding poverty, and they didn’t need that shit.”

Gareth shoots me a well-meaning look, and tries to explain why he made the joke in the first place. “I tried to explain to them, man, ‘It’s war and it’s poverty…’” he grins, eyes flashing wildly. “‘That shit’s hilarious, man!’”

(c) Stevie Chick 2005

Tom Vek

[for Urb magazine, 2006]

Deep in the grimy armpit of East London, round the corner from Brick Lane’s parade of hip boutiques and curry houses, you’ll find a rickety doorway fashioned from rotting wood, the unprepossessing entrance to the offices of Tummy Touch Records. A label specialising in electronica and house music, Tummy Touch has latterly been better known as the home of one of the more promising discoveries in British underground pop music, a lonesome self-recorder hunkered down with his portastudio, cutting tracks that have won him fame and acclaim the world over.

His name is Tom Vek, and a whole wealth of music hides behind those two short syllables. He’s in his mid-twenties now, though with his elfin-features and his fresh face he sort of resembles Harry Potter. Like Potter, Vek found his purpose early in life; as a teenager nestled in the leafy suburbs of South London, he was fascinated by father’s growing collection of musical instruments and primitive recording equipment, and was soon teaching himself the rudiments of overdubbing with the 8-track tape recorder.

“I played in bands all through school,” he explains, “But I was more interested in the recording process. I’d record friends’ bands on my dad’s equipment - by the time I was fifteen I’d amassed three microphones, enough to record a drum-kit properly.” He smiles, seemingly still flushed with the achievement ten years later. “It was arduous!”

As an adjunct to the bands he played in at school, there was his own music. “I’ve always written and recorded my own stuff,” he explains. “Even though I was playing in other bands, I was never bothered about playing my music live, or having a band play the parts.”

Instead, Vek - a self-taught multi-instrumentalist - wrote and recorded the parts for his music by himself. That music changed and morphed over the years, as he exited the hormonal rushes of teenhood and his tastes shifted from the lucid, luscious grunge of Smashing Pumpkins, to the more cerebral contortions of ‘electronica’ offered by labels like Warp and Ninjatune, tempering his digital soundscapes with dashes of guitar and piano. Tapes of Vek’s nascent experiments - in his words, “geeky synth stuff” - passed along a chain of industry-connected friends, finding their way to Tim ‘Love’ Lee, eccentric electronica artist, DJ and head-honcho of Tummy Touch. The label released Vek’s first 7”, There’s Only One Thing Left Now, in 2001. Vek assuming the pseudonym Souvenir for the release, its warm reception prompted Lee to offer Vek an album deal.

By the time Vek delivered early demos for this album to Lee two years later, Vek’s music had changed again. He’d ditched the computers he’d used for the Souvenir material, was recording on old analogue equipment, and was singing vocals again. Most remarkably, the glacial electronic music of Souvenir was replaced by a jerky, caustic sound that owed more to the guitar-scratching of Post Punk than artists like Aphex Twin.

Lee, perhaps surprisingly, loved the new material, and encouraged Vek to explore this new sound further. Less than a year later, We Have Sound, Tom Vek’s debut album, was completed.

“I’ve always had a lot of faith in what I’ve done,” he offers, a young man who seems assiduously assured of what he is doing, of where he is going. “I’ve never taped over my stuff, I always finish my songs off. I’m incredibly prolific - I’ve recorded an album’s worth of material every year, as much as any signed artist. I never sent demos tapes out - I just clung to this na├»ve belief that someone, somehow, would discover me. I always just kept on doing what I wanted to do, and as the years wore on I got better at it.

“My favourite music has always been the stuff I just recorded,” he continues. “I’m pleased, in hindsight, that the first album I recorded when I was fifteen never got released. It’s a little weird, because I guess it seems like I’ve come from ‘nowhere’, but it seems appropriate somehow… I’ve meandered between styles and sounds and genres for the last decade or so, but over the last couple of years, the edges between all these sounds begun to blur, and this, uh, happy mixture came out.”

This is the key to Vek’s music. While the last couple of years have seen a slew of groups adopt the clothes and sounds of the early 80s New Wave to great commercial effect, Vek’s music is less a slavish Costumed homage to one single era of pop, and more a new music all its own, Vek putting his own individual spin on his influences rather than just simply aping them. Take the album’s ‘Nothing But Green Lights’; a mantric Moebius-strip of punk-funk, it wears its inspiration - Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’ - more openly than most songs on We Have Sound. “It was an attempt to write a song inspired by ‘Once In A Lifetime’, not having heard it in some time,” grins Vek. And, brilliantly, that’s exactly what it sounds like, adopting David Byrne and Brian Eno’s looping sample method, but spinning off in a new direction all Vek’s own.

In the time that’s passed since We Have Sound’s release, Vek assembled a ramshackle group of buddies to tour with Bloc Party and Razorlight, and recently began work on a follow-up.

“Ironically, I’ve found my song writing has slowed down, now this is my ‘day job’,” smiles Vek. “I used to just make music in my spare time, and I’ve managed to retain that hobby-like purity in making it. I only make it when I feel compelled to, when I want to, and now making music is an escape from all the other stuff attached to being a musician and making records. I’m just waiting till the next time I’m so bored with it all that I have to go off and write a song.”

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

The Noisettes

[great band, and great fun to talk to. for Plan B]

So. Tell us how the Noisettes formed.

“My take on it is, me and Shingai met at the Brits School… You know, the school for the Performing Arts in London…”

Fantastic!

“No! Not fantastic! Let the record note that I, Daniel, am making a ‘thumbs-downward’ gesture as I speak! It’s weird at the Brits School… The people who ‘got something’ out of it were very flamboyant characters, who already seemed to be ‘formed’. The sort of people who went on to be The Kooks or The Feeling – The Feeling were in my year. If you’re shy, like me, the whole experience could pass you by.”

Sandwiched on an Xfm ‘Xposure’ bill between a dreadful Streets Xerox and beat-boxing Britrap geezer Killa Kela, three skinny figures crawl onstage and, with immediate contact to the spot-lamps, explode into brilliant, incandescent light.

The singer – shiny things tangled into her hair, strumming at a bashed-up electric guitar – screams and coos at the microphone like she were some minxish hybrid of Nina Simone, Erykah Badu and HR from Bad Brains. The guitarist – chequered fingerless glove on his strumming hand, general air of ethereal combustion – thrashes and swings his lovelorn guitar with abandon, slaloming from punk rush, to noise blush, to blues pain. The drummer – invisible behind a rattling battered kit – just about holds the insane shit together, like Eddie Murphy in Daddy Daycare.

These are the Noisettes, then – a swarming mess of guitar tangle, volatile passion and off-the-cuff creativity. Like most nights, much of the setlist is improvised – they like to throw ideas in the air and see where they fall. They like to tease failure to its face, tweak its cheeks a little, before drawing something magical from the melee. Every moment is a delicious risk, swinging themselves into oncoming traffic, if only to savour the screech of the tyres.

“I met Shingai in 1997. I fancied her when I met her, but I soon got over that, and we started a band.”

What attracted you to her?

“She’s got this thing – when you first meet her, you feel like you’ve met her before. I was talking to a mutual friend, and she was like, Hi! How are you doing? And I’d never met her before. The day after, I was just idly strumming a guitar at the Brits, and she sat down beside me and started singing along, even though I wasn’t really playing a song or anything.”

Shingai is sat in her local pub, calling me from her mobile, chatting with verve and fire and an infectious blaze of giggles.

“I’ve always loved writing, but I often don’t have the discipline to get it down on paper. I write short stories. Me and my twin sister, we come from a really big, single-parent family, so us kids had to make our own entertainment, putting on Punch’n’Judy shows when my mum got home from work at night, and asking our aunts or our cousins to ‘grade’ them.

“I guess what I like about music is that, if you love stories and myths and writing about real life, you can put it to music, and it hits people instantly. My mum was really into folk rebel music from Nigeria and Zimbabwe and South Africa, countries that only got their independence in the last fifty years. It’s got such a hunger… You get such a rush, man, singing along to those songs with your family while you do the washing up.”

Dan says he plays guitar because “My grandma gave me a music-box when I was two, and the melody made me cry. And I’ve always loved that music can do that, that it’s a direct conduit to emotions. I write songs so I can even the score a little!”

Shingai says she sings because “everyone gets stuff that builds up inside of them, and you need a way to let it out. It keeps you healthy in the long run.”

What scant tracks they’ve released so far (a debut album drops later this year) find a group ricocheting with abandon across a broad spectrum of noise and styles, a lusty sweep that befits their penchants for leaps into the unknown. Singhai describes their improvisations as a challenge, “to turn a stumble into a roly-poly, or something. Our songs are weird.”

“Some songs sound quite serene and tranquil and maybe even reflective, while some are ‘Raaaaaaargh!’” explained Dan, before the show. “It’s a spectrum. And we don’t tape our shows anymore. The ideas just fade into the ether… It’s more fulfilling that way, than if we had a tape, because you have something more precious than that – the memory. And anyway, this is all about living in the moment, and that moment only.”

For the Noisettes, that moment is a breath-bated teeter on a tightrope wire, stretched out for as long as they can hold this group together. You’ll want a piece…

(c) Stevie Chick 2006