How does it feel doing a homecoming gig?
Matt: Fantastic. It is quite rare these days that we get to play in Liverpool so to be here now is fantastic. It’s brilliant to be playing with people we evolved with musically, people who were on the same scenes, who we saw in the clubs and bumped into in the streets. I mean, I was walking down the street today and I bumped into a mate that I hadn’t seen for over six months. After spending nearly a year on the road it was just great to be able to catch up and chat.
The venue is really intimate and personal, not the kind of place you will be playing in the future. Does it evoke many memories?
Paul: We’re not as big as you think mate (laughs).
Yeah but you’re the current darlings of the underground scene, with plaudits all over the music press, you’re surely playing bigger shows elsewhere?
Matt: Well not necessarily. We’re signed to Moshi Moshi, who are a relatively small independent. We don’t have the support of a cash cow major behind us, pumping millions of pounds every year into the band. You can only go so far on a small label.
So is the plan to leave Moshi eventually?
Matt: No, to the contrary, we love being on Moshi. They’re a cool little label and we what we don’t have in conglomerate style financial backing is made up for in ultimate creative freedom. There’s a nice community vibe about the label too, it’s more low key and organic.
So what’s your current situation?
Matt: Well, we’re recording a new album with Moshi, which is at the writing stage at the moment. After that we’ll see what happens. We’ve recorded lots of the music but at the moment they’re mostly instrumentals awaiting lyrics and vocals.
Listening to you there are hints of Gang of Four, Wire and The Talking Heads present, but also a world music feel to the rhythm, who are your main influences?
We’ve incorporated lots of drone timings which allow us more harmonic variations and make the music flow/blockquote>
Matt: It’s good that you picked up on the Wire, Gang of Four thing.
Paul: I like Gang Of Four.
Matt: We are into those bands, but our influences in that direction are more the bands that they (Wire etc..) influenced. People like the minutemen and Black Flag.
Black Flag? So are you guys Hardcore aficionados deep down?
Matt: Well, I used to be in a hardcore band, and all our mates are still in hardcore bands, In fact we were a bit of a hardcore band in the very early days.
So how have we arrived at the Hot Club of today, all melody, angles and funk?
All: The evolution is primarily because we love melody and harmony. We’ve incorporated lots of drone timings which allow us more harmonic variations and make the music flow, which are hallmarks of our sound.
The name is loaded with cultural reference points, can you elaborate?
Matt: Yeah, it’s a obscure reference to Django Reinhardt, who is one of the most renowned Jazz guitarists of all time. Also it’s a bit camp, which we liked.
The law of the sea can strike itself as an apt metaphor for the ebb and flow of a defiantly inconstant music industry; the push and pull of the ocean tides, the ever-evolving cycle below, the bitter taste of the salt-spiked air, undercurrents of groove bringing home tales from the mainland…
The grey swathed sky blankets the south coast like a silent sigh, as a quietly progressive Catamaran breaks it way through Portsmouth’s waters towards the Isle Of Wight. Progression can be deceptive as the pull of the ocean is lost to the gentle hum of the interior. Greeting Clash on-land, the isolation is hardly lost to six-piece native band The Bees as they stand side by side on a shingled shoreline just minutes from the Victorian seaside town of Ventnor, backs on open skies.
We’ve got a high threshold of what’s good. Influences come from everything.
Two local boys on rollerblades stop to take in the peculiar sight of professional cameras at work: eyes widening at each flash. “Who are you?” they yell out to muffled laughter below, “are you a metal band?” Anonymity seems to suit The Bees down to a tee. After all, disguises can themselves, be a blessing in disguise…
“I will always say that it’s the environment and living on the Isle Of Wight and being near our friends and family is our biggest influence,” one sixth of the Bees collective muses from beneath his jet black cowboy hat. “It’s good to get back to the sea,” the harmonies sing on new record ‘Octopus.’ Back to the sea is exactly where the band have returned. Just as their Isle stands defiant against the pull of conformity, so the philosophy is passed down from land to land-dweller. The Bees strike individuality in their deep understanding of where they come from, and where indeed they would like to be.
“That was definitely influenced by The Band,” Paul enthuses over a pint as we wander down a winding country lane towards the Crab And Lobster, a simple stone’s throw away from band members’ Paul and Aaron’s dwellings. “They were a revelation – their whole ethos. The whole industry changed but they stuck to their guns and did what they did. We want to do it like that. It’s a good affirmation of what we feel.” The organic surroundings of the isle seem to seep into every pore of the creative process for all concerned. Defiance is a sea song, and all six members are blood-tied to its sound. Talking of the veritable pull of the music industry, bassist and vocalist Aaron “Fletch” Fletcher pinpoints the divide perfectly. “They place all their eggs in a star basket. They want a star. And we look at our great influential bands – it’s never about one person ever. But that’s something that the label doesn’t encourage. Because they want it simple.” Paul picks up the baton as he concludes thoughtfully: “Money is always the destroyer at the end of that day.” Pausing slightly he reaches for his pint. “That, or a bad drug habit…” to laughter all round.
The complexities of the music industry seem a far cry from the humble beginnings of the band in a carefully constructed shed in vocalist Paul’s parents’ back garden. The story began with Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher, and with a small scale debut album ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in 2002 which took both the UK and the boys themselves by complete surprise. “The album totally shocked us,” Fletch explains over his late afternoon pint, “it had a bit more claim than we imagined. We didn’t expect anything. We got the Mercury nomination, that was a big motivational boost.” An unassuming Citroen advert took track ‘Minha Menina’ to new kaleidoscopic heights: a whirling tropicalia mixture of harmonies and melody that spurred Aaron to produce his own version of Portugese for the track: Fletchagese. The sudden popularity of the band’s multi-cultural sound prompted a plethora of men in suits, all desperate to sign them up to a major label. As Paul describes, “We’d been on a label previously, which had got a bit messy. When we got signed by Virgin, we literally signed a contract, did a gig for them and then went to Abbey Road the next day.”
The giant leap from shed to studio was complete as the islanders found themselves in the most famous recording studio in the world, which naturally breathes a sound all of its own making. The album produced was aptly named ‘Free The Bees’ in 2004. The question to be asked is whether The Bees ever found the living breathing history of Abbey Road a handicap, in the sense of making individual island music? What seems evident is that the professionalism of the space certainly seeped into the pace of the record, creating an energised collection of songs at break-neck speed. “Time’s more important in a big studio like that, cause it’s got to be done and you’ve only got a certain amount of time to do it,” keyboardist Tim Parkin muses quietly. “Whereas when you’re at home, you’ve got more time to sit back, reflect and think: is this good? But if you’re under studio time, you’ve gotta have it done quite quickly, and that can forcibly make things go quite faster.” For Fletch, the time spent at Abbey Road gave them a whole new insight into the fascinating world of recording equipment and production techniques. “We are really into how to record,” he enthuses, “so going to Abbey Road was like a goldmine – the greatest living equipment there is.”
Their collective passion for the raw unpredictability of music is palpable. As the band take Clash back to Paul and Aaron’s house, their shared love of musicianship lies within the woodwork. Quite literally. Part of the adventure of life in a band are the mysteries that lie beneath each new instrument they pick up. No piece of woodwind is off-limits, and every stringed device is a land left to pluck. As Fletch walks me down to their basement, Tim Parkin warms up his trumpet in the kitchen above as the kettle boils. The brass sounds rise and fall through the brickwork. Winding down beneath the floorboards, acres of pine caress the walls and floors like flora and fauna around the room. Outward appearances of a Scandinavian sauna soon sparked the boys to jokingly refer to it as The Steamroom, quickly filling the cocooned space with vintage instruments, amps and recording equipment. It is a fitting blend of The Shed of the past, and the inevitable glamour of their Abbey Road future. As Paul shows Clash the sights, their own description of a “botched shed” seem far away from the reality of what they have achieved beneath their living quarters. Paul Butler sits down and reaches for a strikingly ornate sitar propped up in the corner of the room, before plucking away like an incarnate George Harrison as we discuss his love of Ravi Shankar and Alice Coltrane. His fearlessness of the unknown permeates through the work of The Bees. On new track ‘The Ocularist’ alone, he picked up the cello and the sitar for the first time and conquered them both like a seasoned pro. “I think if you can make a noise out of an instrument, you can play it,” he philosophises perfectly as notes and sounds flutter past us, settling up in the rafters above. When told about the over-riding respect contemporary bands feel for The Bees, Paul looks visibly touched with the unexpected accolade. Asked to pinpoint the reason why they seem to have become the musician’s band, Fletch steps to the rescue. “They’ve never met us,” he deadpans.
The Band were a revelation – their whole ethos. The whole industry changed but they stuck to their guns and did what they did. We want to do it like that.
Five years on and all six members of The Bees seem more than ready to release their third album ‘Octopus’, due to be unleashed on 19th March on Virgin Records. The record is a true return to form for the band: a thirst-quenching cocktail of sights and sounds that coil and unravel to a myriad of eclectic influences. No genre is left unturned, and the result is a joy to the eardrums. For the band, the aim is simple: “As long as it’s good. We’ve got a high threshold of what’s good. Influences come from everything.” Each track spirals from a different point. Non-conformity takes on a life of its own as opening track ‘Who Cares What The Question Is?’ signalled by a lone Texan guitar riff, it dives straight into a Ringo-inspired Beatles melody full of humour. A change in direction for The Bees is in their exploration of West Coast California sounds, perfectly suited to their Pet Sounds harmonies. Whereas ‘Love In The Harbour’ pony treks into being through Buffalo Springfield harmonies, submerging itself in the sound of Neil Young and Harvest; ‘(This Is For The) Better Days’ grooves into a thoroughly Stephen Stills Manassas sensibility. The 70s funk riff and beats reverberate to a cruising pace all of their own making.
“I think everyone here is a fan of Neil Young,” Fletch represents for the group. “Me and Chris were in the kitchen one day and we came up with that little riff, and we just jammed it out.” As the band are quick to joke, “we needed some country.” Whereas ‘Listening Man’ slows the pace to a laid back Reggae footprint, fellow tracks ‘Stand’ and ‘Left Foot Stepdown’ bathe themselves energetically in Spanish Siesta inspired trumpets and Latino rhythms, always underpinned by dub-reggae beats. Delving further into the record and ‘Got To Let Go’ unveils a sensational jazz trumpet solo of Miles Davis inspired proportions. It is a true revelation in sound: unravelling from nowhere and smouldering the track. Each musical venture oozes an organic live feel. “There’s a lot of jamming,” Fletch explains as we discuss the process of writing a record. “If anyone has an idea, we’ll all snap onto it. That’s the ethos really: loads of trial and error.” Standout favourite for the band is unanimously ‘The Ocularist’, a true achievement in writing and production. Gentle 70s travelling guitars trickle over a ghostly sitar, aching back to the mysticism of hero Ravi Shankar. It is here that the connection between nature and song is truly met: calming harmonies move rhythmically like the tides of the sea as landscape naturally seeps through the track. “That’s a magic track,” they all assert, “that’s our favourite track.”
As an entity, the record stretches its eight arms across every musical category and squeezes from it every last drop. To ask, why Octopus? The response is quickly reversed. “Why The Bees?” And so the ethos is set…
So far from the mainland, the need for questions quickly evaporates along with the constantly shape shifting air, diluting itself in the rock pools below, fading away and out with the tides. The music transcends all of these things, because it is all these things: an island unto itself…
Four summers ago the radio waves were awash with the sun-kissed sound of The Thrills, their woozy ways had us all California dreaming for the duration of the hazy season.
The Dubliners cruised through the success of their debut ‘So Much For The City’ – its key singles flooring festival crowds across the globe; ‘Big Sur’, ‘Santa Cruz’ and ‘One Horse Town’. Its follow-up, ‘Let’s Bottle Bohemia’, turned up the heat but stalled in the critical stakes, and the five Thrills got burnt in the process.
After two years hidden away without a peep, it was more a question of whatever happened to The Thrills and not Corey Haim. What did happen was they convened to make the album that was to make or break them, retreating back to not only their hometown for inspiration but their own lives before music changed everything.
With such anticipation awaiting their return, The Thrills chose to stage an intimate comeback show at Clash’s Sunday Sessions party in London to showcase their most personal work yet. The songs on new album ‘Teenager’ deal with the innocence of youth and here they were about to debut these songs live to a bar full of all-day revellers.
It was all about the energy. It was all about getting us back in a room and all the takes had to be 110% exciting; there was no room for anything else.
Some hours before, Clash gathered the band together, fresh off the plane from Dublin, and tried to allay their fears with the distraction of an interview and the comfort of words…
Last time we spoke was upon the release of ‘Let’s Bottle Bohemia’, which ultimately faced a response that paled to that of your debut. How was life for you after that album and what did you think of its reception?
Conor: There was definitely a mixed reception to the last album. It was an awkward record. But whenever we get approached by random people in the street it’s usually to say that it’s their favourite record of ours. When your first record goes well it’s very easy to get a little bit cocky. We were very sure of ourselves at the time – in a good way – and we were on a roll. I think, yeah, we probably thought that everyone was gonna love the record and get it. Some people did and some people clearly didn’t, but that’s what gives a band character and it’s part of a band’s story to deal with that. We took it in our stride… There was a couple of dark nights, I won’t pretend, but by and large I think we got over it and picked ourselves up.
There must have been the challenge to live up to your debut on your second album, so how did the pressure fare this time around?
Conor: Well see, this record actually feels like a debut record.
Daniel: It feels like more pressure than both of them.
Conor: Yeah, there’s more on our shoulders on this one. I think we’ve given everything to this record – we really put our heart and soul into it…
Daniel: With the first and the second, I don’t think we ever were even thinking about pressure. With the first one, we signed and we went so quickly to record an album, and everything just happened then. The second one, it was almost just like the momentum got us through that. Only after the second one was the first time that we actually had time off to actually sit down and go, ‘This is what’s happened…’
The second album followed the first quite quickly, and then there was the lengthier time between then and now. Do you wish you’d been able to get this one out before now?
Conor: To be honest with you, we never intended to take quite this long on the new record, but we certainly intended after the touring and promotion of the second record to take a break – we definitely needed to do that. Everyone needed a time out. We had a few rough ideas and we hit a wall with them almost immediately. So everyone dispersed for a few months and started getting their lives organised. And then we regrouped, and when you regroup it takes a few months to get back – you don’t just pick up where you left off, you have to build up and get back into the stride of things.
There seems that ever-present theme of escapism on this record. Your debut was an escape to the US from home, the second was slightly darker, an escape from the trappings of fame and attention, but this one is escaping back to the sanctuary of home and so you’ve come full circle. What does Dublin represent to you now?
Conor: Just before we signed, I suppose we were all a little bit resentful. We weren’t very happy there; we were bored to bits by it and wanted to get out of there. Then we spent four and a half years touring and on a tour bus, so I think by the end of it we were actually all very much looking forward to getting home. We were living at home again and getting our lives together again, so I think there definitely was an appreciation for it and I think we were more interested in acknowledging it in the songs subtly and we didn’t wanna be projecting anything else; we wanted it to be very natural and real and honest. I do think it’s far more closer to home than the previous ones. But it’s also a record about youth; that’s where we spent our youth so it tied in like that.
The lyrics are very introspective and deal a lot with retrospection and regression. What led you to think back to your youth as inspiration?
Conor: It kind of crept in for a while. Maybe the second record was a little bit cryptic in places, and I kinda liked the idea of doing something that was very direct and honest. It’s usually a mixture of songs or films or books you’re reading. I was kind of enjoying the early Beatles songs. The original idea was an album called ‘Teenager’, and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’… Nothing too grand but that was just of that world and of that time. Maybe if we had churned the record out quickly it would have stayed in that world, but because we spent a bit longer then I think it started to become a record about… It’s still a record about adolescence, but also being able to leave it behind and what I imagine it will be like when you’re even older. So all aspects of it.
There was a couple of dark nights, I won’t pretend.
Teenage life is being played out in music by those that are experiencing it first hand, like The View and Arctic Monkeys for instance. How does your teenage opera compare to theirs? Can you sing about teenage life if it’s a decade gone?
Padraic: It’s not like an album of youth about getting in fights in the street or going to kebab shops like the Arctic Monkeys. It’s an album about youth but from a narrative of an older person. Not old, but older! (Laughs) So it’s not an album about going out and getting pissed, it’s about what you’ve learnt along the way and what it was like, and the regrets that you have about your youth. It’s not competing with those types of bands.
Did you have intentions of how you wanted to change sonically? Where did you want your sound to go?
Padraic: It was all about the energy. It was all about getting us back in a room and all the takes had to be 110% exciting; there was no room for anything else. Everything had to be us and just us.
Conor: Especially with an album called ‘Teenager’. We wanted it to be lively and bold.
Why did you choose Tony Hoffer to produce?
Padraic: It wasn’t necessarily a sonic thing, because the album sounds very different from the first record. [Hoffer produced debut ‘So Much For The City’]
Conor: For a long time we were very against the idea of using anyone that we’d used before, so for a long time we were just putting him to the back of the list. Then we kind of thought about it. Tony’s made a lot of different types of records; he’s worked with lots of different types of people. We had to get over a certain block of using Tony again. We’ve nothing against him personally; it’s just the idea. It’s once you realise that just working with the same producer doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stepping backwards. That’s the thing: he had no interest in making the same record again. He was like, “This has to be different”, and he was very encouraging like that.
You’ve toured with R.E.M, U2 and Oasis. You must have seen rock life to its excess. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen or experienced while out on tour?
Conor: We had a couple of great nights with Oasis. We were walking through Toulouse and we had a day off before the gig. We just heard this voice shouting down at us from about three storeys up, “Fuck off you Irish cunts” – this thick Manchester accent doing a vague impersonation of an Irish accent. It was Liam telling us to meet him at the bar. Unfortunately Kev missed his flight so Kev missed this legendary drinking session. Kev was in a Gatwick hotel…
Daniel: It was the best night of The Thrills EVER and Kev missed it!
Padraic: We were drinking with him for three hours before we even leave the place and then we go to this ludicrously nice Chinese restaurant, the whole band came down to meet us and we all went out together. So Liam goes, “Where the fuck is the other guy?” And we’re like, “He’s stuck in a hotel.” So he goes, “We’ll call him!” So Liam calls Kev, pretending to be Noel, and says, “Do you not like our kid or something? What’s the problem, do you think Liam’s a real dick or something? Is that why you’re not here? I don’t like him either. Do you think he’s a real dick?” And Kev was like, “Yeah Noel, I think he is an asshole, yeah.” And then Liam was like, “Fucker! He just called me an asshole!” (Laughs)
Daniel: I’ve never seen anyone drink and be able to stand up as much as him. I mean he was drinking brandy and beer at the same time, so it was two drinks a time. We met them at 6 in the evening and I left at 4.30 that morning and he was still going. I reckon he was minimum drinking three beers and three brandies an hour, and we were out for about 11 hours.
So, what’s next for The Thrills?
Conor: We’re gonna do some very intimate gigs around the UK and Ireland. We’re doing a good load of festivals and then we’re doing a bigger club tour after the summer and then a European tour and then hopefully we’ll release the album in America. The new songs really lend themselves well to playing live. I think in the early days that was a challenge to make those songs work; we were very much into crafting songs and trying to get into the studio. But these songs, they feel live, and a lot of the new sounds really add a whole new dimension to our live set. When you’ve been away from the touring life for this long you really can’t wait to get out there and play the songs.
Know your enemy. Or so the saying goes. A foreboding phrase that truly encourages us all to divide and conquer, leaving only a few remaining partisans to reign supreme.
That’s the tagline, but just who is the enemy these days? For three-piece band The Enemy, the reality is a little less introspective: Rage Against The Machine may have penned a song against their elitist foes, but for 2007’s Coventry collective, the name was merely a way out of conformity, not a protest against it.
“Everyone thinks there’s loads of meaning behind our name,” lead singer Tom Clarke explains as his phone line buzzes and crackles somewhere abstractly on the road between Norwich and Nottingham. “But we just needed a name.” Geography and reasonings are lost to the hum of the tour bus as the band makes their way to Nottingham’s Rock City to support none other than returning statesmen of rock the Manic Street Preachers. Waxing lyrical about the headliners, Clarke gushes, “They’re fantastic. They’re really on it live – James is an absolute perfectionist and it’s a cracking show every night. They are amazing to watch.”
The musical landscape has altered dramatically since James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore unleashed ‘If You Tolerate This’ into a politically heightened atmosphere. Footage of Bradfield strumming his guitar in front of Fidel Castro seems far removed from the onslaught of Converse-gazing bands who have exploded onto the scene in the past few years. For The Enemy, their story is a newly penned one. Formed in their hometown of Coventry in February 2006, signing to Stiff Records in September of that year. Fast moving, in any band terms. “It’s been really quick for us,” Clarke admits before recalling his reasons for forming a band in the first place. “To be honest, me and Andy were sitting in a pub one night and thought, ‘this is rubbish – going to work every day, coming home, going to the pub, spending more than we’ve earned, then getting up in the morning and doing it all again.’ We said, ‘let’s just try writing some songs and see how it goes.”
Like fellow contemporaries such as The View, Arctic Monkeys and Hard-Fi, small-town sensibilities and suburban conformities are 2007’s staple comment – in stark contrast from the Manics lyrics of yore. Personal favourite for Tom Clarke is his own album track ‘This Song Is About You’, due for release later on in the year. “It’s my favourite song that we’ve ever written,” he muses enthusiastically as the phone line reception to and froes. “It was inspired after a conversation with someone I went to school with, who I haven’t spoken to in ages. I was asking about the people we went to school with and she was like, ‘well Laura has a baby, Sarah’s got a baby, Natalie’s got a baby…’ and I’m going, ‘oh for fuck’s sake…’”
The core spirit of The Enemy lay in their refusal to subscribe to expectation and their reluctance to accept the “real world” as anything other than fiction. Reality for Tom Clarke, bassist Andy Hopkins and drummer Liam Watts, roots itself firmly in rock ‘n’ roll. And the bass line doesn’t lie. “It’s the school lad’s dream. If you ask a 15-year-old lad what his dreams or ambitions are, he’ll say he wants to be in a band or be a footballer. If you ask him after he’s left school, all of those dreams will be gone. You think you’ve got to join the real world – but it’s not the real world, it’s just a pretence. You can get what you want, it just takes a moment of realisation to go, ‘well fuck it, I can do it. If I put my heart into it then I can achieve it.’”
You can get what you want, it just takes a moment of realisation to go, ‘well fuck it, I can do it. If I put my heart into it then I can achieve it.’
Their philosophy is perfectly summed up in recent top 10 single ‘Away From Here’, a rock anthem that packs a punch against the 9 to 5 of conformity. Infectious choruses and unaffected harmonies are what The Enemy do best – their unashamed optimism and post-punk spiked spirit peppers each song. ‘40 Days And 40 Nights’ is a soaring example of simple grinding guitars, frame worked by Futureheads inspired vocals which also takes its lead from Britpop idols Oasis. But it’s the classics that the band will cite before any others – it’s not difficult to pick up the mod call influence of The Jam within Clarke’s gut-wrenched vocals on ‘Had Enough’ (out now). For the band, musical influences stretch far and wide: for Andy, The Jam and The Clash take precedence, whereas Liam bats for the “weird” sounds of bands like Brand X and Genesis. For Clarke, it all began with The Rolling Stones. “The first time I ever became aware of rock ‘n’ roll was finding my mum playing ‘Honky Tonk Women’ loud in the kitchen. I just started dancing to it and I didn’t know why. After that, Oasis came along. But then you start looking at the people who influenced Oasis and you find T Rex and Sex Pistols and The Who.”
Escape for The Enemy was guitar-shaped. Now set on a path that swerves any such conformity, they’re putting their newfound melodious rebellion into action. Which begs the question: Who needs friends when you have The Enemy…?
“This record has become a fucking… motherfucker!”
As promotions for your forthcoming album go, this isn’t necessarily the kind of pithy soundbite a label is gunning for from one of their recent signings. But then The Bug (AKA Kevin Martin) doesn’t seem the kind of bloke who places much currency in conformity. “I’ve not even named the LP yet,” he continues with PR shredding accuracy. “Ninja Tune are cussing me. It’s getting really close to the bone now, I was meant to have it finished in February…” Pass me the mozzie spray; I’m going in.
An aural Exocet that seems intent on disorientation when encountered unprepared, Kevin Martin’s output as The Bug is a permeable fusing of dub, ragga, dancehall, bashment and digital epoxy which ignites in unison to quite staggering effect. Having emerged from the depths of the thrash-noise scene via a soundsystem epiphany, Martin’s first solo outing as The Bug was for the Aphex-affiliated Rephlex records – with ‘Pressure’ searing an indelible mark on a roster that until then had been a synonym for LED-blanched electronica.
“Well I don’t really feel that there’s anywhere I fit in easily,” Martin sighs as we discuss his perception buckling tenure on first Rephlex and now Ninja Tune. “For me, everything I’ve aspired to musically is to be original and independent: trying to create a sound that no else is doing. When Rephlex approached me I didn’t know much about electronica and thought it would be a bit square and dull – full of chin strokers. The same applies to Ninja Tune; I didn’t think they’d want something as intense as I do… But the fact they were both into my music is so cool.”
Passionate about his subject in a way which is criminally infectious, Martin has suitably broad tastes – albeit with one caveat… a hardcore stance. “Basically I’m interested in that 5% of every genre that is hardcore – music that hasn’t sold its ass for cash, where artists are devoted to a sound and the development of their own voice. I don’t really give a fuck what the genre’s called, as long as I can find 5% doing it for the right reason.”
The cerebrum behind pseudonyms such as King Midas Touch, Ladybug and Techno Animal, Kevin Martin’s releases as The Bug represent just one shade in his sonic spectrum – yet even narrowing it down to the relatively confined palate he has set aside for this project has proved more difficult than anticipated. “I really have felt the pressure of ‘Pressure’,” he laughs. “When I did that it was my first solo record and I was quite fucked off with the music industry in general. So when people reacted favourably to it I was surprised… The trouble with that is I feel more responsible to follow it up well.” So how long have you been recording for? “Two and a half years now. When I started out it was just going to be me, Warrior Queen and Ras B on vocals, a tight clique. But somehow it moved away from that and became more adventurous. I got lost in the album and now have too much material. By the end I hope it will be what I want.”
Sent up as a lavishly packaged flare warning of the oncoming storm, ‘Jah War’ was the first single to be taken from the forthcoming album and featured a porous vocal contribution from Roll Deep’s Flowdan atop the ruffneck tsunami whipped up by The Bug below. A bona fide needle wrecker, ‘Jah War’ also boasted a Loefah marshalled remix on the back, which made startlingly explicit the dubstep lineage that marbles Martin’s work. “It was Kode 9 who initially pointed me in the direction of the genre and with hindsight I guess that ‘Pressure’ was pre-dubstep dubstep. It certainly has shared influences. In fact, the next King Midas Touch album is going to be coming out on Hyperdub (Kode 9’s imprint). I really respect the label and everything people like Burial are doing. I think it’s a really interesting time for music in general.”
I don’t really feel that there’s anywhere I fit in easily.
Connections with the dubstep cabal don’t end there, with the revelation that one of the scene’s most formidable and recognisable MCs is lending his glottal-burnt delivery to the new album. “Spaceape is on the record and fucking incredible,” Martin reveals. “Some MCs can be idiosyncratic and quite difficult, but not him. Everything we did worked so well it’s actually spawned a whole new project that we’re going to develop together.” So who else can we expect to hear on the still unnamed Bug missive? “Killer P, Ricky Rankin, Flowdan, Warrior Queen…” Is there anyone who you’d still love to bag for a collaboration? “Dizzee Rascal, Thom Yorke… I’ll tell you who has continuously thwarted me; Roots Manuva. As an MC he is astonishing.”
Closing with a discussion about how ragga seems to have breached the mainstream levies since The Bug first surfaced as an entity (“back then the only person I could talk to it about was DJ Scud – now it’s become almost common place”), Martin concisely pinpoints the driving force behind all artists who have a lasting impact. “Music isn’t just a disposable trend. Look at punk, hip-hop, reggae… There’s a politic there, a message, an intensity. People like Kode 9 and Vex’d are ensuring it doesn’t just become another kind of club music. They’re keeping it interesting.”
Late, loud and pragmatically combative, The Bug is the kind of artist who takes his music seriously – creating an infallible aural firebrand that will attract discerning moths the world over. Prepare to bug out!
Big Chill Festival 2010
The Bug is performing at this year’s Big Chill festival. Join Clash on the road to the Big Chill Festival with news, interviews and features. Visit ClashMusic’s Big Chill hub for all the latest news on the festival HERE.
Buy tickets for the Big Chill Festival on ClashMusic.com
It’s all gone a little bit dark down in Dallas.
Once famous for their all white robes, universally representative of peace and tranquillity, The Polyphonic Spree are back with a new look and something important to say. Looking more like a gang of militarised fascists than a group of harmonious spreaders of love, The Polyphonic Spree are set to take on the world with their new album, ‘The Fragile Army’. And although it still sounds like The Polyphonic Spree of old, there is definitely something different about it. Something has changed.
When Clash speaks to the leader of the gang, Tim DeLaughter, he is working on the score to a new film in his hometown recording studio, The Triplex. It is safe to say that he is excited about the new album and the development of his band which has matured after the success of 2002’s ‘The Beginning Stages of…” and the disappointment of 2004’s ‘Together We Are Heavy’.
“We’re becoming a great vintage,” asserts the ever-optimistic DeLaughter. “I believe we are coming into our own. We’re seven years into this group now and it’s starting to get a really good feeling about it. The best is definitely yet to come – I’m feeling we’re going to be one of those bands who is going to make a great contribution.”
So what’s changed exactly? “I think the music is a departure from the previous two recordings”, explains DeLaughter, “this one’s more electric and a lot more representative of us live. In the past we would have played these songs as a high-energy rock show, but on record the songs didn’t translate like that. It was all about sitting back, taking it in, smoking a joint, or whatever. This approach is more derivative of our live experience and instead of having fourteen-minute songs we get the point across a lot quicker with short, sonic blasts of our sound. I guess this a more accessible record for radio.”
Indeed the songs are shorter, more traditionally pop and less ostentatious simply for the sake of aesthetic grandeur, something which should appeal to people put off by what could previously have been regarded as unnecessary or selfish.
There is also a shift in the direction of the lyrics. In previous Polyphonic Spree outings you would have been hard pushed to find lyrics that are not optimistic, that are not spreading joy and love into the world. On ‘The Fragile Army’ you will, and none more so than on the title track, which includes pessimistic references to “leaving people on the floor” and a band that tells us “it’s time for you to lose your excitement”.
I put it to DeLaughter that he would never have written this five years ago. “I watched Bush’s state of the union keynote speech and it really hit home,” he explains. “As an American, it’s been weird going through what we’ve gone through with him as our President and seeing what a mess he has made for a lot of people. You would have to have had your head in the sand not to have been affected by what’s been going on. As a songwriter it just finally made it into my writing. It was just something that came out and it immediately turned into a battle cry for us, ‘it’s time to lose your excitement’; it’s time for you (Bush) to go. He’s left us in such a horrible state and left a judgemental character over our country overall.”
The best is definitely yet to come –we’re going to be one of those bands who is going to make a great contribution.
But as is his wont, DeLaughter likes to see hope in even the most unlikely of places. “It’s now at a point where I’m noticing the people of this country are coming together, the left and the right in a kind of unison. Everyone is tired of what’s been going on, we’re all speaking the same language and all feeling the same. I guess there’s an urgency to make a change and we’re all wanting the same thing rather than having the left and right bickering. To me that is really exciting because that’s when good things happen: when people start getting involved, instead of relying on some leader to tell them what is going to happen.”
So, the new Polyphonic Spree are a Polyphonic Spree of more focused, ‘radio friendly’ songs, less naïve and more politicised lyrics and, according to DeLaughter, more spontaneous and creative in the recording process. “This record was different, it wasn’t like anything we’ve done in the past,” he assures me. “The songs were written in about two weeks without the rest of the band and we recorded it like a traditional rock record with the drum, bass and basic layers first. What was spontaneous and intense about the project was the fact that the group hadn’t heard the songs till we asked them to record on them. For me it just added an extra element – getting that first reaction, asking what’s your first take on this, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind and let’s go for it and put it down. That’s how we wanted to approach it. We went for it and it turned out great.”
Not that you’re likely to see the Polyphonic Spree at their most intense and on the road in the UK for a while. “It’s so difficult for a group like us to ever tour. We’re more than one band but we only get paid the fees for one band. It’s been real, real hard. We just can’t afford it.” But again, DeLaughter is able to turn this rather constricting position into one of optimism. “That’s something I’ve learned about this group,” he explains. “We’re extremely tenacious and we get over even the worst situations. We’re constantly overcoming adversity in this band and it only makes us stronger.”
They may look different and they may have realised that sometimes the baddies win but The Polyphonic Spree still believe that it will be all right in the end. Tim DeLaughter’s fragile army is growing from strength to strength.
It’s no small feat to be dubbed “America’s greatest living poet” by Bob Dylan, hardly an outside contender for the title himself, but then Smokey Robinson is truly a songwriter that has united his country in song – all 4000 of them!
Smokey – William to his parents – was born in Detroit in 1940. By the age of 25 he was Vice-President of Motown Records (serving under best friend and founder Berry Gordy), the lead singer of one of the label’s most successful acts, The Miracles, and had penned dozens of hits for most of its roster, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Four Tops.
Speaking to Clash upon the release of his new album, ‘Definitive Collection with Timeless Love’, Smokey clearly has no intention of resting on his laurels just yet.
You were born in Detroit in 1940. What are your earliest memories of your childhood and was yours a musical home?
Well I lived in a musical household in as much as my Mom and my two sisters – I had two older sisters – they were always playing music. My Mom sang in church and we had a little old upright piano there. There was music there.
How did music change with the advent of the “teenager” in the 1950s?
Rock ‘n’ Roll came out in my pre-teens. It changed the face of music, I guess, in that music got louder. Prior to that, those songs that are on that ‘Timeless Love’ CD of mine [a collection of early 20th Century standards], that’s the music that I heard. Those songs were written at a time when the song was king. When somebody wrote a hit song, all the artists either sang or recorded that song. The songs were the focal point because when those songs were written, everybody recorded them. The same songs were sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie’s Orchestra, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like today, you know, someone would come out with a hit record and if the song is good, maybe ten or twelve years down the line somebody will sing that song again. But the artist is basically the focal point nowadays. Back then the song was the focal point. So when somebody wrote a hit song – the Gershwins, Cole Porter or somebody like that – everybody sang that song.
Can you remember the very first song you wrote?
I don’t remember all of it but the first song I ever wrote I was 6 years old and it was for our school. I went to Dwyer Elementary School in Detroit. We had a class called Auditorium and in that class we did plays and stuff like that. So I was in this school play and my teacher had written this little melody and she let me write the words for it and I sang it in the play.
By 1955 you had formed with school friends The Five Chimes. This obviously wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll band, which were so prevalent in Fifties’ high schools – what kind of music were you playing then?
By that time I was old enough to buy my own music and Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol. Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter and people like that were the guys I was listening to. Then I had a bunch of groups that I listened to: The Dells, The Moonglows, The Spaniels, The Platters and people like that.
Touring as The Matadors in 1957, you met someone that was to have a profound effect on your life. Do you remember where and when you first met Berry Gordy?
How could I forget that? Of course! I met Berry Gordy at an audition that we had gone to for Jackie Wilson’s manager. At that time, Berry Gordy had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson. Whenever I bought records I always wanted to know who wrote the songs that I loved. So Jackie Wilson’s songs had been written by Berry Gordy. He was a songwriter in Detroit. He happened to be at that audition and that’s how I met him. We sang five songs that I had written rather than singing the stuff that was currently popular by other people. That caught Berry’s eye. He was very interested in the fact of where we had got those songs from and he came outside after the audition was over and approached me and I told him that. This was prior to Motown and all of that.
Soon after you changed your name to The Miracles with Berry managing you. Around this time it’s reported that you were the one to suggest to Berry Gordy he set up his own label. Why didn’t you do it yourself?
I was just a kid, man! (Laughs) I was only like 17 or 18 years old so I couldn’t do that myself.
What were Berry’s intentions for the label that was to become Motown?
I’m sure he wanted it to become what it became, man. But at the time we didn’t know it was going to become that. His speech to us on the first day of Motown – there were five people there; there was him and four others of us – he said: “We are not going to make black music. We are gonna make world music. We are gonna make music for everybody. We are gonna make music that everybody can enjoy and everybody can love. We are gonna make music with great beats and great stories.” That’s what we set out to do and apparently that’s what we did.
While writing your own material you were also hard at work writing for other artists. Would you consciously change your writing style at all when writing for someone else?
Yeah, because most of the songs I wrote for other people I had those people in mind when I wrote those songs. So yeah, I did. I considered myself writing a good song but at the same time tailoring it to the particular people that I was recording.
Who was your favourite artist to work for – who do you think did best justice to your songs?
I enjoyed writing for everyone, but probably my very favourite, I had two: The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. I enjoyed working with them so much. I enjoyed working with Mary Wells and The Marvelettes and everybody that I wrote for. I wrote some songs for almost everybody at Motown. I just enjoyed working with the Motown artists. They were my brothers and sisters. We were all in the same stable and we were not only label mates but we were friends and we hung out together and did social things together. So I knew them all very well and I enjoyed working with them.
We are not going to make black music. We are gonna make world music. We are gonna make music for everybody.
Your songs have stood the test of time and are as popular now as ever. Why do you think they have endured so?
My first and foremost thoughts when I sit down to write a song is that I want to write a song. I’m not interested necessarily in writing a hit record; I want to write a song. A song has the chance to live on and on and on forever and ever and for people to re-record it and re-sing it from now on. And a song that if I’d written it 50 years before then it would have meant something, at that current time it means something, and 50 years from now it’s gonna mean something. THAT’S a song, and I always try to write a song.
‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ was covered, among others, by The Beatles. That must have felt great to have the world’s most famous band – who were quite able to write their own songs – cover one of yours?
Oh absolutely it did, no question about it.
How much did the popularity of The Beatles affect the sound and music of Motown? So many people were turned on to music at that time who hadn’t been before.
I’m sure they did, man, as well as Motown had an affect on them. The thing that I loved about The Beatles was the fact that they admitted that. They were the first big huge white act in the world who admitted that they grew up listening to Motown had had an affect on them, and I really appreciated them for saying that.
The success of Motown was really the first time black music had been sold on such a big scale to a white audience. Was this a conscious attempt to break racial barriers?
Absolutely. And we did. Like I said, we just wanted to make music for the world that anybody and everybody could listen to and enjoy and didn’t have any racial overtones or anything like that.
Did you encounter any racial problems?
Oh of course, sure. There was prejudice everywhere. When we went on tour, the first time we went somewhere the people would be separated. The white people would be in one area and the black people would be in another area. The whites would be upstairs and the black people downstairs or vice versa. But when they started listening to the Motown music we would go back again and they’d be dancing together and sitting together and stuff like that.
You threatened to leave The Miracles in 1969 but stayed, although eventually split in 1972. Why did you decide to leave the success and comfort of the group?
Because I had children then. My kids were born and they were very small and I wanted to be with my kids. The Miracles and I were gone all the time, man. And The Miracles and I had done everything that a group could possibly accomplish – we had accomplished it three or four times. I didn’t feel like at that point since my kids were there and I was road weary that I was giving 100% as I always had to the group. So I felt like I was more of a handicap than an asset at that point.
You developed an addiction to cocaine in the 80s, apparently after a fairly drug-free life. What led to this career low and how did you recover?
You know something? It didn’t really affect my career because it was like in secret. It wasn’t a publicly known thing until I wrote my book, and I wrote my book to help other people. It wasn’t like it was an out-front thing that was going on and everybody knew that Smokey Robinson was on drugs. That’s not what happened with me. Mine was very private. With the exception of my close friends and my family it was a private happening. But I wrote my book so that people who are tempted or who get off into drugs could know that you don’t have to be; to expose myself so that people could see that drugs don’t discriminate. They don’t care who you are or what you’re doing. I did the cocaine thing for about two years and I was dead. I go now and I speak everywhere. I speak in schools and churches and rehabs and gang meetings and jails; I speak almost as much as I sing. I haven’t had any drugs since 1986, and I didn’t start doing them until the end of 1983. I just want to help people; that’s why I exposed that.
Your voice still sounds as sweet as it did 40 years ago. What’s your secret?
You know, people ask me that all the time, and I just tell them the first and foremost thing is to take care of yourself. When you’re a singer your voice is your instrument and your voice is the first thing that goes if you’re dissipating and being destructive with your body and with yourself. So I just try and take care of myself. I try to stay in good health; I work out, I run or walk, I don’t drink or smoke or any of that and I just try and take care of myself.
You’re still writing and recording and have notched up over 4000 songs. What keeps the inspiration coming?
God gives everybody a gift. Some people just never discover what their gift is or put the time into trying to find out what their gift is. They get sidetracked by other things that they want to do or that they think that they should be or think that they should be doing, but God gives everybody a gift. So that’s my gift. I know that and I enjoy it. I enjoy my life. I enjoy what I do. I can’t think of anything else that I would have rather done with my life than what I am doing.
A thin plume of smoke twists through the air as Clash opens the door to Josh Homme’s plush hotel room. The enigmatic lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age stubs out his smouldering Marlboro in the dregs at the bottom of his coffee cup, looks up, lifts an eyebrow and says, “Hey man, do you wanna do some coke?” He then waves a miniature glass bottle of Cola in the air and starts to smile.
Homme is sitting on an elegant blond wood chair in a third floor room of the luxury Metropolitan Hotel, on Old Park Road, for a day of interviews to promote the new Queens album ‘Era Vulgaris’. “I hate it – it’s a piece of shit,” he smiles, leaning across the coffee table. “Nah, I’m totally stoked with it. It’s a cliché, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s the longest an album has ever taken us too, it took about two or three times as long as any of the others, it was five and a half months and that’s a long time for us.”
I don’t need things like drugs around to make good music. I don’t need to hide behind anything.
But as soon as the hacking punch of kick drum marks the opening of the first track, ‘Turning On A Screw’, the long months in the studio all seem worthwhile. “We just needed to put everything into this record and stick with it until it was done,” he nods seriously. “I doubt that it’s the most commercial record so far, but that’s not my yardstick for success. Right from the start the drums sound like someone with emphysema. It’s hardly bring-your-grandparents-along stuff, but you never know, stranger things have happened.”
Like bass player Nick Oliveri getting kicked out of the Queens for apparently doing too many drugs. Who would have thought it possible? It smacked of Lemmy getting kicked out of psychedelic metal pioneers Hawkwind, for wolfing down too much speed. But despite missing his friend and long time collaborator, with the band’s fifth album, Homme seems to have finally got over the departure of the man with a penchant for taking his clothes off on stage. “I’m in touch with Nick, even if I’m not talking to him. I’ve been in touch with people he knows,” he half-smiles. “I was with him for a while, but he wasn’t there at the start. It’s been just like a great hamburger, with Nick as the delicious meat patty in the middle.”
But as Homme sits back, dragging his boots across the thick purple carpet of his hotel room, eyes drifting past the tasteful cream walls, minimalist modern art and coming to rest on the flatscreen Sony TV, you can tell he’s got things besides his old band mate on his mind. He tosses the room service menu – featuring a seared tuna sandwich with spicy coconut relish, avocado and Vietnamese salad for £18.50 – to one side and starts talking about the third track on ‘Era Vulgaris’, ‘I’m Designer’. The track features his haunting falsetto vocals proclaiming “my generation’s for sale, it’s a steady job, how much have you got?” ringing out over a crystal sharp riff and drums that could punch a hole in a wall.
“It’s not a finite point or anything, it’s just my sense of humour,” he reassures. “Our generation doesn’t want steel mill jobs. We want creative jobs, there are just lots of people searching for something. I think that it’s valid not to break your back for something that you don’t believe in when you’ve only got one life. I break my back for music because it’s something that I love, but I’m not going to break my back for a bank. I wouldn’t want to be an ATM repairman; there are some things that just aren’t worth it.”
As ‘I’m Designer’ draws to a close in a cascade of scratching guitars and distortion heavy bass, it ushers in the centrepiece of the album. ‘Into The Hollow’ is one of the more laid back moments with sometimes Queens member and former Screaming Trees singer and grunge icon Mark Lanegan gently growling “I’ve always been alone” over the top of spiralling slide guitars and a solid rhythm section.
“I think this album is different even for us, I think it’s like we are a new band,” says Homme, shifting his massive frame in his chair. “The idea was to take our music to the kind of place where we can just play whatever we want and whatever sounds good. I just love good hooks. The album has a lot of different things going on, but musical schizophrenia can’t be cured with regular medication – it would be stupid of us not to change things around, you’ve just got to do your own thing otherwise it starts to grate.”
Less than 24 hours before Clash walked into Homme’s hotel room, he was standing on stage at London’s 100 Club, with a baying mob of beer-swilling fans lapping up every song he could throw at them, from the frantic first track to be released from the new album, ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ to ‘Mexicola’, from their decade old self-titled album. “The new stuff has been going down really well live,” he smiles. “It’s really fun to play, but it’s really hard to play too. This isn’t an easy album, it’s no walk in the park, it’s more of a light jog with a 50% chance of rain. We look forward to taking it out into the fields of America and ploughing the farms with it. We are playing all the cities in England this time around too. I’m not just talking about London and Manchester – look out Wolverhampton and Stoke-on-Trent, I want to play everywhere.”
One of the biggest cheers of the set was for the digital download release ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ with its repetitive buzz saw riff, rumbling bass line and vocal cameo from the Strokes’ cooler-than-thou singer, Julian Casablancas. “I’ve always been a Strokes fan, I love Julian’s writing and he’s done a great job on this record,” enthuses Homme. “He came along, laid down some guitar and a set of vocals and it went really well. The song’s about the crown prince high releasing everyone from the shackles. It’s about a fairy godmother coming along and saying ‘you can sing and you can dance and you can fuck’. It is like the examination of a single note, it’s just ‘pow, pow, pow’, it’s like Morse code just bashing away.”
Flanking Homme at the 100 Club there were no celebrity collaborators. Three anonymous musicians crowded onto the intimate stage alongside him. But ripping through the short set, the absence of Casablancas, Lanegan, Oliveri and even Dave Grohl, wasn’t felt. “He’s a very mean spirited man Dave Grohl – a devil worshipper,” Homme laughs. “I believe he was in a band called Nirvana, but I don’t know if they were any good. I sing some of the songs that Mark sings though,” he continues, “but others I don’t, it just seems disrespectful. If we don’t think we can do it justice, we don’t play it live.”
One very rare foray for the Queens is to dip way into Homme’s past, to the late 80s and a band called Katzenjammer, who later came to be known as Sons of Kyuss, before finally releasing four albums as Kyuss and splitting at their peak in ’95. It was in this influential stoner group that Homme earned his stripes and took enough drugs under the baking Palm Desert sun to leave his body for the vultures to pick dry. It’s also where he formed his friendship with Nick Oliveri and was taught to walk to rock ‘n’ roll tightrope by sandpaper throated vocalist John Garcia. But dipping back so far into his past is something Homme isn’t prepared to do.
I break my back for music because it’s something that I love, but I’m not going to break my back for a bank.
“We played a Kyuss song about two years ago at a show, but it’s a very rare thing,” he frowns. “We did it then because John Garcia was there, but I respect him and I couldn’t play it without him. I hope we carried a lot of Kyuss fans through with us though, I think they are fantastic, but I needed to grow and I hope that some of them grew with us.”
But where the Queens really thrive isn’t on the stage, but in the studio, as proved not just by four solid albums, but numerous collaborations in the ‘Desert Sessions’ series. During the first session, held in ’97, for three days magic mushrooms were gulped down by the handful and a whirlwind of mostly instrumental psychedelic prog rock was laid down. But with Volume 9/10 under his belt Homme produced a more coherent album, and planted the seed of ‘Make It Wit Chu’, which was re-recorded and made it onto the new album.
The song is ‘Era Vulgaris’’s most radical departure from the band’s trademark heavy rock stomp. It shuffles through four minutes and 50 seconds of 4/4 padding piano, with a blues tinged guitar line gently weaving its way in and out of the melody. Lanegan is on vocal duties, crooning slowly over the top as Homme contributes Bee Gees-esque backing vocals. It’s a standout track that provides a clear contrast to the straight up hyperactive rock numbers like ‘3’s And 7’s’, the album’s first single proper, released in June.
“The best habit in the world is no habit,” says Homme, discussing the variety of material squeezed into the record’s 48 minutes. “This album was far more collaborative than ever before. We played the songs through all kinds of different ways, before we finally finished them. One rule is that if one person isn’t 100% behind a song, we don’t play it.”
“This is a modern record, this is what we sound like as a modern band, but our version of modernity is complicated,” he continues before adding: “I think my final words on the subject will be ’what was in my drink’, but I don’t need things like drugs around to make good music. I don’t need to hide behind anything.”
With these ambiguous words hanging in the air, mingling with the smoke from another Marlboro, the interview is over and Homme pushes his ash-filled coffee cup to one side, extends his heavily tattooed fist across the table to shake hands with Clash, then disappears from the room to catch a plane back to the States.
Grime’s image isn’t really one of feet-up-telly-on domesticity. If the popular conception of the UK’s most misunderstood urban music scene is to be believed, MCs are more likely to be sharpening butterfly knives and loading baggies with baking soda to shot to drunks on Coldharbour Lane than they are to be putting a brew on and flicking over to the Big Brother highlights.
It’s a nice surprise to find Lethal Bizzle, one of grime’s breakout artists, doing just that when Clash calls to get chatty about his latest album. Admittedly, the talkative rapper is only watching this year’s televisual cock-punch because he knows one of the contestants. He won’t tell us which: she’s “not representing”, apparently. Bang goes the tabloid exclusive…
There’s a refreshing air of reality about Bizzle that’s unusual in a genre dominated by two-step murder ballads and media firestorms. After teenage years spent “making trouble, getting into trouble”, the ex-More Fire Crew member rethought his relationship with London’s mean streets and consequently its urban music scene. “I’m from the street or the hood or whatever you want to call it. I came up getting played on pirate radio, getting gigs at Stratford rec. But my perspective’s changed. Music’s been my saviour from stupidness and bullshit.”
Dropping illegal high-jinks for making tunes has paid off for the loquacious MC. Although his original outfit More Fire Crew were dropped by their label in 2004, Bizzle didn’t go under: he set up his own label, and released ‘Pow! (Forward)’, the single which scored him a MOBO for Best Single in 2004 and a deal with V2 in 2005. His major label debut ‘Against All Oddz’ dropped soon after, but the MC “wanted to do something different to prove myself. I’d had big club hits with More Fire Crew. I didn’t want to do the same thing twice, and I can do club bangers…”
Lucky, then, that his producer Static came up with grindie, a fusion of grime beats and indie song writing. “I got inspired. It sounded right and I knew it was the next thing.” Relaunching himself with a broader musical palette brought Bizzle into contact with the UK’s indie scene, something he’d not really encountered before. “My first experience of playing to those crowds was going on tour with Mike Skinner. It was so different from straight hip-hop. The kids were crowd surfing and moshing, they were right on it.”
When it came to putting together a post Mo’ Fire solo tour, Bizzle and his management decided to test the indie waters, booking a show at Camden’s boys-and-guitars hot spot The Barfly and nabbing a place on 2006’s NME Tour. “The Barfly show went well: it was sold out! I was looking around, looking at all these posters for all these bands, thinking ‘No one like me’s ever played here before’… But the kids knew all my stuff, underground freestyles and everything.”
His experiences in the indie clubs highlighted a strange dichotomy between the ‘white’ and ‘black’ music scenes: “Grime is energetic, and people go crazy to it, but the club management don’t get it. In indie clubs it’s normal, though. The police would be causing trouble at grime shows, but the crowd’s no different to the Arctic Monkeys’ lot.” As Bizzle said in Time Out last year, when white kids jump around it’s called moshing, when black kids do it it’s a riot…
Music’s been my saviour from stupidness and bullshit.
After the NME Tour met with similar success (a surprise to all concerned: “Even my label was shocked when I was selling out indie clubs!” laugh LB) the groundwork for ‘Back To Bizzniss’, his second joint for V2, was laid. This reinvention couldn’t have come at a better time. Grime seems to have fallen victim to the same process of swift evolution that’s symptomatic of Britain’s urban scene. Just as two-step was commodified and dropped by the mainstream media before toughening up and mutating into grime, grime has split into the darker grooves of dubstep and the more audience-pleasing grindie, which is proving a popular route out of the grime ghetto and onto Islington’s iPods. Even Dizzee Rascal is biting it on his latest cut, ‘Maths & English’, roping in the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen where Bizzle taps up Pete Doherty and Kate Nash for guest vocals.
Bizzle’s shift in musical style has also coincided with a more mature lyrical attitude. “I didn’t understand my position and my effect on the kids in the past, but I’m in a position where they’ll listen. That’s why I’ve started writing more conscious songs. I’m a big guy now; I’m 24, so I can’t do the same old hype. I’ve got to represent for the kids.” Moving in different circles has also given him a different view of London’s forgotten estates. “I’ve moved on, but I still go and see family and friends. It’s 10 times worse there now, there’s always the odd little dickhead who wants to get stripes…” This view differentiates LB from many of his peers: his ghetto narratives are clear-sighted dissections of particular aspects of city life rather than tall tales full of braggadocio.
So is Bizzle pleased with his reworking of grime? “I’m chuffed with the whole album. I’ve got some of the most honest friends. When they heard the new collaborations, particularly the Kate Nash one, they were like ‘Look what you’ve done!’. I think there’s something there for everyone. It’s a good blend.” The following should be noted as well: ‘Back To Bizzle’ is pretty fucking banging to boot.
Matthew Dear speaks in a laconic, but commanding baritone.
It’s the kind of voice that has stories to tell. Over the last eight years the shapeshifting poster boy of leftfield techno has created a nuanced body of work under a variety of guises, but revealed little of himself. That is, until now. On his extraordinary, soul-bearing new album Dear emerges as a master of ambiguous, brooding pop music. ‘Asa Breed’ is a tapestry of opaque insights and overheard arguments channelled into short, punchy songs: songs about relationships, heartbreak and even murder. “It’s about simple life,” he says. “Simple love.”
Dear was born in Texas, but grew up in Ann Arbour, Michigan, forty miles from the techno Mecca of Detroit. It was here he met Sam Valentini who would later set up Ghostly International, now one of the world’s most revered record labels and a hotbed of avant-garde sonic experimentation. “I met Sam about a year before he started the label. He told me all of his dreams, his mad aspirations, what he was going to do musically and I wanted in.” In 1999 Ghostly released its first record, a co-production between Dear and Disco D, the ghetto-tech pioneer who sadly passed away earlier this year. ‘Hands Up For Detroit’ was a deserved smash and bought Ghostly to the world’s attention. Last year, Dutch DJ Fedde Le Grand abhorrently resurrected the song’s vocal hook for his near-ubiquitous Ibiza anthem of the same name.
It was on ‘Dog Days’, Dear’s breakout single from 2003, that he first sung a full vocal. His 2004 album ‘Backstroke’ again featured his singing, but it felt like Dear was experimenting; testing himself and his listeners. “I couldn’t just turn up and make this album three years ago because I think it would’ve confused a few people,” he explains. “I had to slowly incorporate these sounds and ideas into my music.” He has largely spent the time since ‘Backstroke’ releasing blistering, minimal techno funk under his Audion guise. His 2005 album ‘Suckfish’ was a carnal tour de force. With song titles like ‘Titty Fuck’ and ‘Just Fucking’, as Audion, it seems, Dear has just one thing on his mind. “Yes,” he says. “It is very sexual. It’s very aggressive. But only because sex is raw and so is the music.”
Dear is a man of many faces. In the past he has recorded as Jabberjaw and will soon release an album of subversive, twisted techno under the pseudonym False. The splintering of his musical personality, he says, will stop there. “That’s how many personalities I have going on right now. They’re all totally different beasts. It all feeds different parts of me. Sometimes I like being a singer, front and centre, other times it’s fun just to play other people’s music. Just get the kick of mixing records together.”
‘Asa Breed’ is named after a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, but was titled before the author’s recent death. Dear calls it “a sad coincidence.” However, the title of Vonnegut’s great book is useful when describing Dear’s new album. ‘Asa Breed’ is a puzzle of lyrics, an intricate web of loops. The infectious ‘Don & Sherri’; the mournful ‘Midnight Lovers’, it is an album full of feeling. Songs are largely cryptic, but strangely revealing. On the lovelorn ‘Give Me More’ he reveals, “There’s a big hole in my life”; while over the disco bounce of ‘Pom Pom’ he confesses, “I’ve got to figure out love”. “‘Give Me More’ is one of the older ones,” he explains. “There can be big holes in my life, but they can go away.” On ‘Death To Feelers’, Dear openly questions himself: “I was supposed to make grand observations, but I’ve lost my train of thought.” Writing songs is, he says, “a very cautious affair. I like to keep things very rhythmically oriented. It’s more attitude driven.”
It is very sexual. It’s very aggressive. But only because sex is raw and so is the music.
The album is still largely underpinned by the 4/4 thud and stabbing synthesizers that have become Dear’s trademark, but here the electronics make room for live drums, bass and guitar. “I tried to go back to a lot of the old rhythmic, afrobeat music. Pop music but very groove oriented,” he reveals. “Whether it be Talking Heads or Tony Allen or Fela Kuti: to me it’s very organic and real at the same time.” Yet it is Dear’s voice, front and centre, that is the real star. He is by no means a fantastic singer, but artful multi-tracking and clever phrasing help make him a compelling frontman. Dear is about to embark on a tour to support his new album. He will be playing with a drummer and a bass player as Matthew Dear’s Big Hands. “I think I’d be selling myself short and selling my audience short if I didn’t try to flush it out into a real live experience,” he says. “The name was Mark, my drummer’s idea. He was saying ‘we’re kind of like your helping hands.’ Then I remembered that on ‘Fleece On Brain’ [the album’s first track] the lyrics go “your big hands lift me up again”. I thought that was cool, you know, because without them I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
The album ends with ‘Vine To Vine’, a dusty, country-blues stomp in which our hero narrates his own death, a bloody murder in the old American south. “It’s the most detailed story on the album,” says Dear. “I learned that my father had an ancestor, I think it was his great grandfather, who was murdered in Texas by Texas Rangers. He was murdered for his land.” The song is unique in Dear’s canon for its straightforward narrative. “It’s pretty much the only song I’ve ever written that is about a single event. It definitely comes from the most honest place, the most hard, non-fiction place.” Matthew Dear has stories to tell. Are you sitting comfortably?