Owl John – Oslo, London – 06/08/14

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE LINE OF BEST FIT

Try as he might, Scott Hutchison just can’t dampen the excitement around his solo dalliances. In the press he’s done in the run up to the release of the eponymous MP he’s recorded under the name Owl John, he’s spoken of the project in the same tones one might discuss a mid-course palate cleanser. It’s something to warm him up for the next Frightened Rabbit album, to clear any unpleasant memories lingering from the last. The trouble is: it’s bloody good. And while most of the legions gathered in the paradoxically sweltering Oslo tonight won’t yet have heard said record, they’ve come in anticipation of hearing a songwriter at the top of his craft. As they filter out into the Hackney night, the warm glow surrounding them suggests they’ve not been disappointed.

Hutchison and Frightened Rabbit burst onto what was a thrilling Scottish music scene nigh on a decade ago. Seeing Hutchison play his first London solo show on the same bill as a slimmed-down Twilight Sad seems fitting. The Twilight Sad were Frightened Rabbit’s closest contemporaries when they emerged. The fellow FatCat alum have ploughed an arguably more experimental furrow than their pals and that path has been thrilling at every juncture. But it’s a treat to hear the barrel-lunged James Graham, accompanied by only an electric guitarist, sing some of the finest cuts from that most haunting of debut records, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters. Sonically, they’ve explored darker and moodier angles since then, but few albums have encapsulated the angst of the journey to adulthood more noirishly than this. “Cold Days From The Birdhouse” is as immaculate as ever, while the bellowed chorus line of “And She Would Darken The Memory” (“Head up dear the rabbit might die”) sounds oddly appropriate given Hutchison’s recent admission that his band’s future has been up in the air.

On tonight’s evidence though, Owl John has yet to tire of his day job. He will, on another night, have been cursing his decision to open the floor to requests so early in the show. No sooner has he delivered the opening one-two of new track “Hate Music” and Midnight Organ Fight‘s opening gambit “The Modern Leper” than he announces the order of the evening: “I’ll choose a new song, then you can choose an old one.” Those that buy him a drink have more chance of succeeding in their requests… queue a smorgasbord of whiskeys, rums and Jaeger-bombs making their way to the stage, amid a barrage of badgering and demands. But the mood is playful, and as a model, it works as well as any and adds a real levity to the occasion.

Most of the new set gets a run through, while Hutchison only half keeps his pledge to ‘play the hits’, as it were. For the other half he cherry-picks some of the rougher diamonds from his band’s oeuvre, including the superb “Fuck This Place”, which originally featured Traceyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura on vocals, and the rousing “Scottish Winds”, plucked from the same EP. Other highlights are the sublime and loquacious “State Hospital” and “The Wrestle” from the Winter of Mixed Drinks, an album which goes up in my estimation every time I hear its tracks played live.

Some of the new material fits seamlessly. The gorgeous “Ten Tons of Silence” and “Los Angeles Be Kind” could really have been lifted from a Frightened Rabbit record. But it’s great to see Hutchison hammer out the slightly more discordant “Red Hands” and aforementioned “Hate Music” with such aplomb, for these are the two most interesting and tangential of the Owl John tracks.

Ultimately though, the sense that Hutchison is blowing off some steam prevails and helps make this such an enjoyable performance. “I can’t normally hear the crowd singing when I’ve got a band behind me,” is his response to a few rancorous crows at the front after “The Wrestle”. “”Poke” is gonna suck…” And right enough, the squawks return, missing both tune and time through the obligatory finale, but they fail to put the dampeners on a night which reflects the material it’s designed to promote: tuneful and scruffy, but full of unmistakable quality.

Lost Map’s Howlin’ Fling

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE SKINNY

It was bookended with a pair of boats, some seals, a few dolphins and what seemed like a sea-load of jellyfish. In between, scattered among the woods and the hills, the streams and the rocky, volcanic residue, were hikes and days without rain. There were cobweb-annihilating dips in the Sea of the Hebrides and dawn choruses from the sheep, cows and birds – all full-time residents of the Isle of Eigg, welcoming the pilgrims from the mainland.

A pilgrimage: that’s what, looking back, a trip to Eigg feels like. Those who made it were seeking fresh air and good music. They left with their lungs full and their ears singing, the smell of campfire lingering on their hair and clothing, a place reserved in every heart for the wonderful Isle of Eigg.

Lost Map could have booked anyone for the debut Howlin’ Fling. The tickets were bought before a band was announced. But they didn’t: they put together three days of the highest quality sounds. This was a weekend loaded with moments that will live long in the memory.

Even before an official note had been played, the spectacle of Sam Amidon with his banjo, joined in the Friday afternoon sunshine outside the tearooms by uilleann piper Griogair Labhruidh and fiddler Gave McVarish, set a weekend-long tone which reflected the ethos of the island: laid back, collaborative and bloody good craic.

Amidon returned for a set in the Marquee on Friday evening and, naturally, was joined by his wife Beth Orton. The pair had been holidaying with their young children on Eigg for the week and, when the time came to perform, seemed as smitten with the place as the rest of us.

He is something of a musical archivist, Amidon. He sings songs plucked from the annals of Americana and writes pastoral folk nuggets of his own. In these eyes, his catalogue thus far has peaked with the sublime I See The Sign (2010) and from that, we heard delicious renditions of the breezy Johanna The Row-di and the austere Way Go Lily. When he didn’t have us blubbing with his funereal dirges, we were snickering at his endearingly goofy humour, including a “Bruno Mars-inspired” tribute to the recently-passed Charlie Haden.

When Orton arrived, accompanied by Amidon of course, she played a set mainly plucked from her magnum opus: Central Reservation, which she’s recently toured to mark its 15th anniversary. The title track in particular stirred memories of Orton’s late-90s breakthrough. The songs are simple, and Orton seemed nervous, but the quality was unmistakable.

Having Steve Mason and his full band on the island was something of a coup for Lost Map. The lot of them could be seen wandering around the island for the day and a half before their show and Mason clearly had time to explore. “I’ve played some crazy places in my time, but this place takes the biscuit!” he quips, before taking a select few cuts from last year’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time. His patter is as politically-charged as the tunes: “This one’s about Tony Blair, the slimy Middle East envoy… cunt…” he snarls before launching into the soaring Fire, which, along with A Lot of Love, was the highlight of a fine set.

The anthropomorphic trilogy of WOLF, Woodpigeon and eagleowl got Saturday going in fine style, with the latter displaying a previously unknown acrobatic bent by rounding their set off with a human pyramid. Seamus Fogarty’s been working on a more electronic live show, as befits his debut album, and it sounded splendid in the Marquee: he’s got a rare talent for sticking peculiar field recordings in the right place. Few would find any place for the horse racing commentary. Fogarty did, and it sounded great.

Leeds four-piece Adult Jazz impressed with an exciting, busy taster of their debut record (out this week). The singer has a touch of Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) about him, but the music is less simple to pinpoint. Swedish raconteur Jens Lekman is a man who has appeared on few bills in recent years, so to see him on the roster at Howlin’ Fling was a surprise and pleasure. In inimitable style, he conjured up songs on just about anything, including a couple of cuts from the still-excellent Night Falls on Kortedala from 2007, before offering to serenade anyone in the crowd who saw him wandering on the island with his guitar.

Boxed In, led by Steve Mason’s keys player Oli Bayston, provided some late night krauty, synth pop par excellence, to make sure there wasn’t an idle toe in the Ceilidh Hall. And despite arriving on Eigg after a weekend of calamity, the Phantom Band were in sparkling form.

They’d had their guitars nicked prior to playing Latitude Festival, before making their way to the island, and then their band broke down on the way up. Hats off to Redbeard and co then, for tearing up the stage and keeping the spirits high. Special mention should be reserved for The Howling from debut set Checkmate Savage which, even for non-nomenclatural reasons, stole the show on Howlin’ Fling’s Saturday night.

Eigg is a broad church and somewhat fittingly, Sunday brought the most varied line-up of the weekend. None were more idiosyncratic than Japanese performance artist-slash-one-man-band Ichi. “This song is about kumquat,” he goes, delicately, before launching, even more delicately, into a song about the aforementioned fruit. A set ornamented with ping pong balls, steel drums and xylophone was just the tonic for the fragile heads of the Marquee. Certainly the most fascinating performance of the weekend.

Having seen them in impromptu sunshine session at the beginning of the weekend with Sam Amidon and enjoyed numerous campfire songs after dark, the appetite was well whetted for Griogair Labhruidh and Gave McVarish’s set in the Ceilidh Hall (obviously). Each of the pair is equally dextrous on their respective pipes and fiddle, with Labhruidh’s emotive and enduring voice telling tales in Gaelic that even those without a word could fathom. Along with fellow traditionalists, the more fleshed-out local band Metta, they brought the house down – a welcome addition to Sunday’s bill.

By the time he took to the stage as the Pictish Trail, Johnny Lynch – he behind the Lost Map record label and, by extension, Howlin’ Fling – had already dazzled with his mad skills in programme-writing ability, compering and wolf howling. Hearing him perform tracks from the brilliant Secret Soundz Volume 2 on the island in which they were recorded was a treat. Also poignant was the opportunity to see one of the last Meursault live shows, after Neil Pennycook announced that he was to hang up the moniker and move on to pastures new. They’ve kept us on our toes for the guts of a decade and a rollicking show in the Marquee ensured that Pennycook went out as Meursault pretty much the same way as he came in: screaming.

That was supposed to conclude the weekend’s festivities, but having missed an earlier ferry, the honour was bestowed on the irrepressible RM Hubbert. He’s produced a couple of the most beautiful Scottish albums in recent years: contouring his battles with depression through gorgeous guitar instrumentals. And why he doesn’t shy away from these themes while playing live, his patter is droll and warm. Culminating in a solo take on his modern classic Car Song, originally recorded with Aidan Moffat, Hubby’s set was the perfect way to round off the weekend.

It would be fairly easy to hammer out another 5,000 words on how fantastic this weekend, these people and this island were, but it would probably be in vain. Suffice to say, it’s hard to think of a better place to spend your time than on Eigg. That there happened to be such a feast of amazing sounds to enjoy at the same time was a wonderful bonus.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté – The Barbican, London, 30/05/14

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE LINE OF BEST FIT 

I guess since you’ve landed here you’re expecting to read some sort of review of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté’s show at the Barbican tonight. The thing is, I’m kind of struggling. For while the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully provides 464 meanings for the word ‘set’, 396 for ‘run’ and 250 for ‘strike’, I’ve been through it with a fine-toothed comb, and there isn’t a superlative in there that even begins to capture how glorious this performance was.

I guess I could start with some basic observations. Toumani and Sidiki: father and son. Both play the kora, which is “a West African instrument with twenty-one strings, combining features of the harp and the lute”. (OED, all is forgiven). It looks like a bulbous cross between a banjo and a miniature double bass, and the different styles in which the men hold their instrument may or may not be a generational thing, but it certainly fits the narrative, so here goes.

Sidiki – Diabaté junior – holds the kora closer to the body, youthful and casual. Toumani, the master, leans in close, hunched over his instrument in concentration, carefully eeking every last note from its body.

And then there’s the Barbican. As ever, the venue is majestic. The sound is crystalline and full. While the comparisons to the lute and harp are technically valid, the depth of sound the instrument provides is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. There can be no better arena in which to hear it. Closing your eyes, it’s possible to imagine a full orchestra on the stage. Alas, it’s only father and son, perched on simple stools in flowing Malian boubous, playfully and dextrously riffing on a three note melody.

The show starts with Sidiki on the stage alone. He opens with a high, pressing sound, working different layers of texture through the piece, before finally allowing the fullest, loveliest melody you’ve ever heard to burst into bloom. Even on his own, he makes the noise of ten men. When he helps his father – walking with a visible limp – onto the stage, the pair repeat the trick for what seems like a heavenly eternity.

The dynamic is marvellous to watch. Father and son know each other’s musicianship inside out and a game of cat and mouse ensues over another three note melody. Toumani takes it one place, sends it back to Sidiki who plays it out in another key, at another speed, repeat until, surely, all the possible combinations have been executed.

“Sidiki is a pop star in Mali,” says father, chiding jokingly but clearly proud that his son has joined him on this tour (and on the fantastic album Toumani and Sidiki). Few words are spared over the course of the night, with the music allowed to speak for the both of them. But those that are shared carry a poignance that help crystallise the beauty of the evening. Toumani explains that the music isn’t just the product of a generation, but of hundreds of years of the Diabaté clan.

Only one song gets any introduction, as Toumani encourages us to close our eyes and listen to “Lampedusa”, a song written and recorded in the wake of the tragedy off the coast of the Italian island of the same name. 360 Africans, many of whom had been raped and tortured by traffickers, died as their boat sank as they made their way to Europe for what they thought would be a better life. “People in Africa think only good things happen in Europe”, says Toumani.

Two notes chime throughout “Lampedusa”, forming the core of the melody. Life and death. Joy and pain. Hope and despair. Over the course of five minutes, Toumani and Sidiki capture essence of tragedy, the maddening futility of death, the infuriating disposability of life, better than a thousand editorials. It’s impossible not to shed a tear through closed eyes, and as the last note chimes out, it hangs in the air for what feels like a lifetime. Tonight was special; a performance never to be forgotten – a performance to make you tear up everything you thought you knew about what live music should be.

Interview: Embrace the Strange – The Phantom Band return

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COVER STORY OF THE SKINNY MAGAZINE, JUNE 2014

“Rick can be quite hard to get a hold of,” is the apologetic response from the Phantom Band’s record label as The Skinny struggles to pin down singer Rick Anthony (aka Rick Redbeard) and guitarist Duncan Marquiss. The band is preparing to release its third long-player,Strange Friend, an album that’s been more than three years in the works. Most of the band hold down ‘proper’ jobs and pursue a dazzling array of side projects. He needn’t apologise: these are busy guys.

We eventually track Rick down to Inverness, where he’s preparing to kick off a mini-tour of the Highlands and Islands with Adam Stafford and Yusuf Azak, for Edinburgh imprint Gerry Loves Records. Things have gotten off to an inauspicious start. “We had fairly catastrophic car trouble,” he says with a nervous laugh, while ordering some fish and chips. “About 30 miles from Inverness, going 60 miles an hour, the fucking front wheel burst, we skidded along the road. If that had gone the whole wheel would’ve come off. Fucking pretty hairy.”

He’s on a brief hiatus from Strange Friend-related affairs to play tracks from last year’s fantastic solo debut No Selfish Heart and admits that it’ll be slightly peculiar to be on his own again. “We’ve been so geared up for the Phantoms stuff, rehearsing and talking about what we’re doing for the Strange Friend record. Suddenly I’m back on my own with my guitar again, trying to relearn my songs. I’m always doing my own stuff in the background, writing and playing. It might be weird… yeah it seems like a slightly strange diversion to take at this point. But the opportunity to come up to Shetland and play some tunes was a pretty good one.”

Drummer Iain Stewart is originally from Orkney, but as we talk, Anthony is about to pop his Scottish island cherry. Later in the year, he’ll take his troupe back to the Hebridian Isle of Eigg for Lost Map Records’ Howlin’ Fling festival, and he’s anticipating a different sort of response than your average Edinburgh, Glasgow or London show. The first Phantom Band show in Inverness was, he recalls, “fantastic, wild” and “pretty tasty”. One over zealous fan joined the band on stage to sing (or more accurately scream) along to Crocodile. “Everyone was just kind of going along with it,” he says. “In the bigger cities, you get people waiting to see if it’s okay to enjoy themselves. Often people that aren’t in the big cities don’t really give a shit.” Crocodile, incidentally, is an instrumental track.


“WHAT CAN WE USE TO SPICE UP THE PHANTOM BAND? LET’S PRETEND THEY’RE ALL WIZARDS… THEY’RE ALL DRUIDS AND REHEARSE IN A FUCKING STONE CIRCLE!” – RICK ANTHONY


When we get through to Marquiss he’s also keen to discuss live shows. Both men are excited to see how the excellent Strange Friendevolves on the stage. “We kind of improvise when we’re recording,” he says. “The way it works out, there might be a sound on the record which doesn’t ever get repeated in the live show. In some ways it’s a shame if it’s really good, but it also makes it more interesting.”

Second album The Wants was wonderfully terrifying, moody and uncompromising. By comparison, Strange Friend is much less dark (it would be wrong to call it ‘light’); more airy. Some of the krautish elements have been waylaid, replaced with more straightforward melodies and lyrics with less opacity. “Perhaps it is less dark,” offers Marquiss. “I think the songs on the new album are parts of tracks we’ve been working on for a long period, that’s what the band do. OnThe Wants, a lot of the material was a bit more aggressive. The Wants was written in a studio as we were recording it. It was a collage work. There’s a bit of that with Strange Friend, but it’s also the product of us playing together. We were playing live together a lot, so playing while we were writing. Maybe that’s given it a bit more life, made it more organic.”

While nobody marched into the studio announcing they wanted to make a pop record, there was a feeling that having toured The Wantsextensively, the band wanted to do something different. Anthony says: “The second record we came away after playing live and realised a lot of the tracks had a darker feel, which is only one aspect of what we do. We never thought of ourselves as a gloomy band. I think subconsciously when we were writing this stuff there were tracks that we previously wouldn’t have pursued, because they were too light. We decided to tackle those and I think this one is my favourite record. There’s a lot more going on in terms of mood and atmosphere. The first record had a lot of tracks that are slightly lighter, slightly more upbeat. It’s okay to write music that’s fun and we were trying to do that a bit more on this record, but everything we do is subconscious.”

Whether or not Strange Friend becomes the band’s ‘breakthrough record’ remains to be seen, but the ingredients required to trouble the mainstream consciousness are all there. Writing this in spring, it is no great leap to envisage the album popping up in end of year lists by the time we complete this lap of the sun, as was the case with the two that preceded it. The media coverage the band currently receive paints them in an interesting light. Words like ‘alchemy’, ‘druids’ and ‘sorcery’ are often used to describe their genre-bending style and sound. Anyone would think a Phantoms recording session plays out like an episode of the Masked Magician, with added acid.

“If only that were true,” laughs Anthony. “It’s weird, people find things they can write about us. None of us have a serious drug habit, we’re possibly not the most interesting around so they think: ‘What can we use to spice up the Phantom Band? Let’s pretend they’re all wizards… they’re all druids and rehearse in a fucking stone circle.’ At the start a lot of people were obsessed that we were this genre-meshing beat act, putting everything in a big cauldron and conjuring up this big sound. Maybe our writing was like that but we’d never thought about it like that at all. We’d always played music that was natural to us and people were like ‘wow this is really interesting, so different.’ We thought: ‘Is it really?’ We don’t think it is. We don’t really get where that all comes from. And we’re definitely not druids.”

Perhaps the band’s dynamism is simply a result of having a range of very different personalities on board, each with their own tastes and ideas on how things should sound. Anthony and Marquiss are markedly different. Both are genial, but conversation is more forthcoming from the frontman. You get the impression that everything Marquiss says is carefully considered and reasoned, Anthony slightly more spontaneous.

Both have individual pursuits away from the band, but seem to view their relationship between the Phantoms and their own work very differently. Atacama, perhaps the standout track on the new album, is the one which closest reflects Anthony’s solo work. Despite this, he’s adamant that the two pursuits are inherently different entities: “I don’t put the two things together at all, I keep them very separate. Something like Atacama, the body was written by me and Duncan and we played it and everyone joined in with their parts. The actual decision to do the track wasn’t me saying: ‘Let’s do an acoustic track.’ We all have our say on what we thinks works in terms of the material we have. That was a late one. It wasn’t a unanimous thing to put on the record. It was one I liked and thought it worked on the record. I think it’s something different sonically, it’s important to have different moods, atmospheres and stuff going on. That track gives you a bit of space. When you’ve got a lot of quite dense material it’s good to have a bit of space.”

Marquiss, conversely, is more open to exploring the links between his work as a visual artist and the music he helps create with the Phantom Band. The Scottish Arts Council website carries this quote about ‘Hello’ – an image sketched by Marquiss in colouring pencil and graphite: “ There is a threatening but seductive quality to Hello, a classic trope of horror, sci-fi and fairytale narratives.” It’s a line that could easily have been penned about the Phantom Band’s last record. “It’s interesting,” he broods. “I suppose it’s inevitable that there’ll be some sort of crossover, but I would imagine it’s all unintentional, all subconscious.”

His work with the band requires some level of diplomacy: each member has equal say on how things end up sounding. With his art, closure is much easier to attain. It’s just him. “If we didn’t have deadlines, I think the band could end up recording forever,” he says.

But where The Wants was thrashed out in a studio and carries that sense of urgency and pugnaciousness with it, Strange Friend has a more natural arc and plenty of room to breathe. The time away appears to have done the Phantom Band good. But, as anyone who has heard the new record will no doubt agree, it’s fantastic to have them back.


As The Skinny was going to press, the clean-up operation after the blaze that ripped through Glasgow School of Art – destroying the work of innumerable students and much of the Mackintosh library archive – was well underway. Rick works as assistant at the library and has been heavily involved in the salvage mission. The GSA has a unique place in the Phantom Band’s history, with many of the band having studied and met there and been shaped creatively by the experience. In the aftermath to the fire, the band’s official account tweeted:

“Terrible situation with the Glasgow art school fire. Phantoms work and studied there. Heart goes out to the final year students. So sad.”

The Skinny seconds the band’s sympathy for all those involved in the GSA – especially those students who lost work in the fire. It’s fitting, however, that the first show on the band’s Strange Friend tour takes place in the GSA, which is scheduled to reopen just in time to host the gig, on 3 Jun.

 

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Thoughts on A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

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When I finished this book, I turned back and read the final 20 pages again. It’s irreverent, post-modern and cocksure. Eggers writes with a breakneck verbosity that can, on occasion, seem glib. I wasn’t sure I liked him at all, until I finished the book and felt like crying. Because behind the bluster and the literary arsenal here is a very human story indeed, one with which anyone who has loved and lost can relate.

I first encountered Eggers through the foreword to ‘Infinite Jest’, a book to which this bears some comparison. Both are liberal with their sentence structure. Both pay little heed to traditional prose, much less the covenants of received pronunciation. Both are smart and incredibly self-aware. And, more than anything, both understand the flaws of humanity and how ridiculous it is that such flawed beings become creatures of habit and convention. If we’re all so fucked, then who’s to say what’s right and wrong? 

“Sometimes a book isn’t a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Sometimes it’s the only story you knew how to tell.”

Tahereh Mafi 

This book is written with a sense of freedom and whim that will be the envy of anyone who has sat struggling to put pen to paper. It moves arrhythmically: fast then slow, slow then fast, forwards and sideways; jagged and ragged. The pace changes, on occasion, leave your head a-spin, confused. At times you wonder whether Eggers is too clever for his own good, finding yourself wondering where you last met the character he drops back in, after 100 pages of neglecting them. 

But that feeling of despair you get when Eggers is stood on the end of a pier, facing his past and facing the deaths that have defined his life so squarely in the face packs such a cumulative emotional punch that you can’t help but love his intelligence and applaud the balls with which he attacks this book and by virtue, life itself. 

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British Sea Power – KOKO, London 10/04/14

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Photo by Jason Williamson

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

It ends not so much on an oily stage, but a crowded one. By the time British Sea Power complete their encore in KOKO, they are legion: flanked to the right by a cocksure, 10 foot grizzly bear, to the left by a bashful, tentative polar; embedded in a twist of leaves and foliage; drowning in the whoops of a crowd that wants more. Iconoclasts to the last, trackies-tucked into socks to a man (only violinist Abi Fry is exempt from the garb), they could’ve played all night. Make no mistake, this was some performance – a festival of abandonment off stage and on.

British Sea Power’s career trajectory has always made for fascinating listening and viewing. Last year’s excellent Machineries of Joy was a return to form after the minor mis-step that was Valhalla Dancefloor. The two instrumental soundtrack albums which they’ve recorded and toured live showcased the high level of craftmanship within the band, which often lived in the shadow of their oddball subject matter and stage props. Tonight, the three coalesce magnificently.

The band selects wisely from their back catalogue. A whirring organ-led “Heavenly Waters” segues beautifully into “Fear of Drowning”, both from that most blistering of debut albums The Decline of… (anyone else struggle to believe it’s been 11 years?). The brass-led “Monsters of Sunderland”, a highlight of last year’s record, bombs straight into “It Ended on an Oily Stage”, from Open Season. “We Are Sound” and “Once More Now”, from Valhalla Dancefloor, sound much fresher in such illustrious company than they ever did on record.

It’s a tribal bunch that follows (because some of them surely do) BSP about. The standing area is a sea of booze bedraggled 30-somethings, ebbing and flowing, threatening to sweep everyone around them away. “Remember Me” and “Waving Flags” both inspire attempted crowd surfs, while the gorgeous instrumental “Great Skua”, played to a backdrop of crashing iceshelves and migrating birds, brings a lump to the throat. Frontman Jan attempts a handstand during the encore (“Spirit of St Louis” and “No Lucifer”), and the band depart: bears dancing, crowd frenzied, ceiling quite possibly crumbling.

Joey Barton’s faux-nietzschean patter. The ineptitude of the Metropolitan Police. The chord progression in a Noel Gallagher song. The quality of a British Sea Power gig. It’s nice to know that in 2014, with all our polar vortexes, floods up to *here* and disappearing jetplanes, there are some things in life that can still be relied on.

 

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Erlend Øye – Islington Assembly Hall, London 03/04/14

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT 

The de rigueur hipster beards and black rim specs are present and correct, but there’s a more eclectic bunch than usual gathered in Islington to welcome Norwegian kook-master Erlend Øye: lagered up 20-somethings, doting white-haired couples and, perhaps the highlight, a svelte and be-lycra’d cyclist, helmet under arm, glass of juice in hand. The mix is testament to Øye’s broad-based appeal. Through his work with the Kings of Convenience and the Whitest Boy Alive he has garnered a reputation as a songwriter par excellence and a performer of repute. And while most will have come tonight on the strength of previous records, it’s rare to see such an enthusiastic response for a set composed mainly of new, unheard songs.

Øye has come to perform tracks from his forthcoming record Legao, his first solo outing in more than a decade. He’s joined by the Icelandic Ziggy on guitar and keys, and Victor, a Finn who plays woodwind. The stripped-back accompaniment lends an earthy feel to proceedings. The flute whirls whimsically around in the foreground of Øye’s vocals, riffing and melodious. The sound is light and the songs are simple. In short, it’s not a million miles away from a Kings of Convenience record, which is pleasing for most.

The breezy sound of the early tracks is in danger of being swallowed up by the cavernous, sold-out venue, revellers at the back content to chatter their way through the opening gambits, much to the consternation of those around them (says one loudly, as a flute solo takes off: “I used to play the flute at school.” Response, from a few rows back: “Nobody cares, shut the fuck up!”). But as the show goes on, Øye’s wit wins through. His patter, as with his lyrics, can be dorky and clunky but incredibly disarming. “Who do you report to?” he sings, on the Jens Lekman-esque track of the same name. “It’s warm up here too… thank god I’m standing next to some cool people,” he says, between songs.

The new material is broken up by a couple of reggae tracks sung by Ziggy (it’s fascinating to hear a genre often associated with monosyllabic choruses tackled in the sesquipedalian Icelandic tongue) and a couple of covers – a gorgeous, finger-picked rendition of Big Star’s “Thirteen” and “New For You” by “unknown” California band the Moore Brothers – before Øye takes the mic to hold court with a Q&A. “Ask me about life: I know a lot, I’m 38,” he says before fielding questions on Italian cheese and his advice on a happy life (live in Italy).

The pace picks up towards the end: the crowd is nods in unison to The Whitest Boy Alive cuts “Upside Down” and “Golden Cage”, while the chorus of “La Prima Estate” is bellowed back at him. The abiding impression is, though, that the music is just an element of an Erlend Øye gig. With his dad dancing, effervescent smile, self-governing barnet and oddball sense of humour, tonight is as much about the spectacle as anything else.

Photo by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen.

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Interview: Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE SKINNY

There was a lovely documentary that aired on BBC4 a few years back telling the story of the music that soundtracked Southern California during the late 60s and early 70s. In one scene, Glenn Frey of the Eagles remembers how he’d be wakened every morning to the sound of Jackson Browne sat at the piano downstairs. “He would play one verse, then play it again, and again, and again. Twenty times in a row, till he had it exactly the way he wanted. Then he’d move on to the next verse. Again, 20 times. It went on for hours… I don’t know how many days we listened to this same process before it suddenly hit us!”

It’s unsurprising to hear that Adam Granduciel, the lead man of Philadelphia band the War on Drugs, has seen this same documentary. Nor is it a shock when he calls back the final line of Frey’s story: “‘Ah, so that’s how you write a song!’ That documentary is hilarious!” Granduciel is a disciple of the classics: a musician and a songwriter who has been irrevocably shaped by the golden sounds of that era, right through those of the 1970s and 80s. Barely a review goes by without some mention of Dylan or of Springsteen or Young; not a spin of one of the War on Drugs’ three superb records passes without the listener recalling one of the three.

But it’s also hard to escape the suspicion that Granduciel himself would like nothing more than to sit at his piano all day playing music, albeit to a different end than Browne. “I love sitting down at the piano in the morning writing songs and picking up melodies,” he tells The Skinny from the Philadelphia house that has been his home for more than a decade. “For a while there, I would get up in the morning, make coffee and sit there for hours and play piano, sometimes pressing record, sometimes not.” Rarely, though, would he leave his piano with a finished piece.

Unlike Jackson Browne’s portable and hummable classics, Granduciel composes collages of sound: songs within songs, melodies upon melodies; pieces so sprawling that it’s often impossible to pinpoint an epicentre (tip: it’s much more fun not to try). From debut record Wagonwheel Blues, through Future Weather EP and Slave Ambient, up to new album Lost in the Dream, the band’s sound has been growing more textural, the layers denser and the edges a little more blurry. But, paradoxically, the War on Drugs’ sound has become more and more refined.

Lost in the Dream is marvellous. A product of Granduciel’s vision and obsessions, and of his Faustian pursuit of the right sound. “I was always such a fan of the classic artist: the obsessed, modernist painter or the guy who couldn’t leave his work alone,” he says. “Music was the one thing that as I kept getting older, I was getting more obsessed with… with recording, with getting better. That’s the one thing I do have that unbridled passion for. It’s fun for me to go on these journeys with the songs. People joke that I’m a perfectionist, but when you work at something for a year and start to see the songs take shape, then you start making drastic changes… ok, like mute all the drums, then the song reveals itself a whole new way, that’s really fun for me. All of a sudden you can turn it on its head, make last minute decisions. It’s obsessive for me in that I don’t wanna put it to bed… it’s not that I can’t. I wanna see how far this can go, what else you can do to make it that much more special.”

“I WAS ALWAYS SUCH A FAN OF THE CLASSIC ARTIST: THE OBSESSED, MODERNIST PAINTER OR THE GUY WHO COULDN’T LEAVE HIS WORK ALONE” – ADAM GRANDUCIEL

For the new record, Granduciel recorded demos of each of the tracks on tape in his home studio, a place which he speaks of in a reverent tone. The song Suffering he wrote on a Fender Rhodes piano and drum machine before taking it to the band and working on it for a few weeks. Eventually, he realised that he preferred the demo and took it in its primitive form. “I can do things in the comfort of my own home the way I want to do it and get the mood right for these songs, find the mood or work on a song till really late,” he explains.

It would be logical to paint a Spector-esque image of Granduciel the perfectionist. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the man haunched over a mixing desk, listening to the same snare drum beat all night long while everyone else around him sleeps, such is his boyish love for the studio and for sonic doodling. But he says that he’s learnt to draw a line. He no longer records religiously. “I used to,” he says. “I used to smoke a lot more pot, I used to have all my stuff in my bedroom.” But over the past 18 months, the rising profile of the band, the demands of touring and the desire to produce another record have all helped him acquire some level of professionalism. Even if it is by default.

“I used to do everything in my house,” he says. “But now we have a rehearsal space. At this stage in the game we can’t be preparing for a big tour and rehearsing in my house… every time I touch the microphone I get shocked.”

The house with a big yard holds happy memories for Granduciel. He moved from Oakland, California to Philadelphia in 2003 but being “not overly social,” he doesn’t credit the city at large with having major influence over his music. It was more a case of the music scene beginning to gravitate around his home. He thinks it was in his house that he met Kurt Vile, one-time War on Drugs member and still one of Granduciel’s best friends, and most of his other collaborators.

 

“When me and Kurt met, this is where we would play and record all the time back in the day, where our bands would rehearse. It’s this weird institution among my circle of musical friends. They’re like: ‘let’s go to Adam’s because all the gear’s there.’ There’s a sense of home here… it’s affordable and there’s a freedom to really not be anything but yourself. Music can be your number one thing, I don’t need four jobs just to pay for my apartment. That’s been a big influence. I guess being in the same house in this neighbourhood which is always changing, being a part of my little weird city community, rather than the music community, is a little strange. I always joke that I’m my block captain. My neighbour takes in my trash can and I take in his, I give him a ride…”

There’s no clock-watching during a chat with Adam Granduciel. He gives the impression that he’d happily chew the fat all day, particularly if it happens to involve music. We talk Townes Van Zandt, who, unlike Granduciel, had something approaching a phobia of recording studios. “Townes probably got so much enjoyment out of playing his songs in a room, on a porch or in bars,” he offers. “He didn’t need to put it… in a capsule. Being a little bit of an introvert, the recorded material is where I get to sit on my couch with my best friends and play them my songs.” We discuss his favourite producers. “Really all the greats: Bob Johnstone of Columbia, Tom Wilson (Dylan, the Velvets)… who produced the Roxy Music records? Eno?”

It’s hard to reconcile the enthusiastic voice on the phone with his own admissions of depression, loneliness and paranoia. Equally, while the War on Drugs’ records are moody, they’re never maudlin. Some of the themes are dark, but they’re delivered in a way that suggests light at the end of whatever tunnel their creator may have been facing into, be it in the form of a joyous whoop, the crack of a snare or the exhilarating key change on a synth. Bill Callahan once sung, in his inimitable deadpan drawl: “Dress sexy at my funeral.” The same sentiment exists on Lost in the Dream. It would be impossible to avoid the dark clouds, but why not skewer them with rainbows?

“I really enjoy pop music and darker records that are rock and roll rather than sombre,” Granduciel says. “Tonight’s the Night, which is so dark, has classic rock and roll elements to it. When I’m writing songs I’m never thinking about the mood… it’s always there. I don’t really write sad musical things, brooding things. But I like the landscape of these large songs and feel that I can step out a little more and express whatever I’m feeling, hoping that it’s not too personal, that it’s still relatable, and that I’m not the only person that can feel that way. That helps the songs be a little more uplifting. I always love a good keyboard hook. I’m playing along with a song – say Red Eyes – and, oh! there it is! I knew it was there somewhere! This is exactly what I wanted that song to be, that’s what makes me happy, this is a great rock and roll number, not over-thinking it, just going for it. As long as I still get joy out of making albums, I’ll feel like I’m moving forward.”

 

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Crimea River

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Pic by Kanstantsin Lashkevich (Flickr)

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GATEWAY

If it wasn’t for the bright yellow and blue rosette fastened to his lapel, the slumped figure ambling down a South London hill towards me would’ve blended seamlessly in with the fog of early evening commuters that surrounded him. As I got closer, I recognised the face, hidden behind a glum glare, from a protest I’d attended a fortnight before. It was Stepan Shakhno, a leading member and spokesperson for Euromaidan London, the UK arm of the Ukrainian protest group that helped overthrow the government in Kiev.

At the protest outside the City offices of a leading state-owned Russian banks, he’d been defiant, telling me that Russia should be sanctioned to the hilt by the west for its incursions onto Ukrainian territory; that the US and EU should subject Moscow to the same scything embargoes they enforced on Tehran. Now though, he seemed less buoyant. “The sanctions aren’t enough,” he told me, in reference to those placed on individual members of Putin’s inner circle and former members of the Ukrainian government.

Shakhno seems articulate and urbane. He speaks perfect English and works in the London offices of German oil and gas explorer RWE Dea. With his colleagues in Euromaidan London, he’s part of a growing group of young Ukrainians who wish their homeland to modernise and grow closer to the west. As we spoke, 1,610 miles away a garrison of Russian troops was amassing on the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian soldiers soon vacated their barracks’ in Crimea and the fear remains that Russia might launch an invasion into mainland Ukraine and perhaps even Russophile parts of Moldova and Georgia.

It’s a situation which has escalated perilously quickly. Late last year, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych postponed the signing of a treaty with the EU which would have given Ukraine access to visa-free movement of people and funds for modernising its infrastructure. The postponement was done so in the face of Russian ‘soft power’: President Vladimir Putin offered Kiev billions of dollars in financial support to renege on the agreement and threatened potentially crippling economic and trade sanctions if it didn’t.

In truth, it’s the kind of diplomatic policy favoured by the west. When a country steps out of line – Zimbabwe, Syria, etc – the west imposes sanctions. When it falls back in again – Burma, Iran – it lifts them. Similarly, when a country is ‘friendly’ to the west, it can expect to be lavished with aid and infrastructure investment (usually in return for economic reform, to bring it into line with the liberal doctrine favoured by the US and EU). Russia, it could be argued, has tried the same soft power model in Ukraine. But when it failed, they decided to take military action.

For many Ukrainians, who have long since lived in the Soviet shadow, it has been too much to take. Euromaidan took to the streets of Kiev shortly after the treaty was pulled and their protests, which have been replicated on smaller scales throughout Europe, led to the almost slapstick departure of Yanukovych.

The anger isn’t limited to the youth. I was in the audience at a commodities conference in London recently when an executive at Metinvest, a steel producer and one of Ukraine’s biggest companies, called Vladimir Putin “a criminal” and pled with the west to not stand idly by as the aggression continued. His daughter, he said, had been among the protestors in Kiev and had been subject to “the tyranny” of Yanukovych’s henchmen on the ground. It was a remarkable outburst from a man who conducts a large portion of his business within the Russian borders.

So what exact course of actions do the protestors want the west to take? I recently spoke with Chrystyna Chymera, another of Euromaidan London’s spokespeople, who said: “The token sanctions announced by the EU and US simply fail to target the individuals in the Kremlin and their financial backers responsible for the invasion and occupation in Ukraine. Ukrainians and Tartars in Crimea are fearful of their lives as Russian troops, tanks and paid thugs line the streets. We demand harsher sanctions that directly reach the pockets of Putin and those responsible for this illegal invasion.

“Even when it’s doing well, the Russian economy is fundamentally weak and propped up by high-gas prices. Of course Russian gas is important to Europe, but Putin knows that the euros and pounds flowing the other way are much, much more vital to the Russian economy. The UK, Europe and the US have the power to use financial pressure to stop Putin’s aggressive advances and interference in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. It simply a matter of political will, and they have no need to fear Putin’s bluffs that he will cut off the gas. The UK, Europe and the US can severely hamper Putin’s illegal invasion by stopping or at least reducing the amount of Russian gas they are importing.”

But for the members or Euromaidan, the unfortunate truth is that the west will likely use another unofficial form of diplomacy: appeasement. The rhetoric needs to be tough, but the action has thus far been tame. The sanctions placed have targeted peripheral members of Putin’s regime, along with one minor Russian bank, freezing their overseas assets and revoking visa rights. They are more token than anything else, but unless Russia launches a fully-fledged invasion of Ukraine, this is how things will remain. The political and economic will to sanction Russia’s trade and exports doesn’t exist in the corridors of European power. France, Germany and the UK, Europe’s three-largest economies, all import the majority of their energy from Russia in the form of oil and gas. Slapping sanctions on Russia would mean they have to look elsewhere, at a greater cost. Perhaps, one UK treasury employee told me jokingly recently, the stance might change with the weather, when energy demand falls in line with the departure of winter from Northern Europe.

Many Westminster figures are also opposed to tightening sanctions against individual Russians. What would happen to Chelsea FC if its oligarch owner Roman Abramovich’s assets were frozen, for instance? A Dutch banker told me recently that if Francois Hollande, France’s president, were to freeze Russian assets in Paris, then what is to stop Putin seizing those of French banks Société Générale and BNP Paribas in Moscow? It’s not a romantic conclusion, but the kind of realpolitik which rules the world. It’s difficult not to admire the earnestness of Shakhno and his cohorts; equally tough to dispel the fear that their efforts are in vain.

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Withered Hand – New Gods

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

It’s not hard to see why Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, was quick to be labelled ‘anti-folk’ when he first appeared circa-2008: everything about him cried ramshackle and raw. There were the grainy old YouTube videos of Willson playing along with members of Meursault at an Edinburgh house party; the acoustic guitar, plastered with the logo of K Records and other indie stickers; the voice, on first listen frail and injured, and the underdog tales, during which you’re sure that Willson is never more than a heartbeat away from taking himself down a peg or two.

But scratch beneath the surface, and the tag doesn’t seem so fitting. The voice, with time, becomes warm and lovely, as meek and sweet as a wish in a well. Superb debut set Good News was a search for substance, for identity and kinship, for spirituality and love. What, in this hyper-connected, post-everything age of absurdity, could be more societal and folky than the anxiety of social awkwardness?

Album number two, New Gods, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Willson is still capable of turning out the loserisms on request, evidenced by song titles such as “Fall Apart” and “Life of Doubt” (indeed, he describes himself as ‘pigeon-toed’ on the record’s opening line), but he has clearly spent the intermittent five years refining his craft, returning with a sound that’s fuller without sacrificing the tunes, and songs which are more philosophical than slapstick. Willson has taken another step away from the anti-folk misnomer, determinedly embracing a wonderful brand of Byrdsian jangle-pop and in the process, producing a record which makes up for the frustratingly long wait with aplomb.

Good News reflected on a childhood spent as a Jehovah’s Witness and formative years chasing punk music and failed romance. This retrospection returns occasionally – the brilliant “Fall Apart”, in which Willson regrets the adolescent tragedy of feigned indifference – but his pen flows more contemporaneously and broadly here. There are tales from the road, the dustbowl Americana of “California” and the gorgeous harmonies of “Love Over Desire”, and he takes aim once more at the preciousness of organised religion on “King of Hollywood” (“Some of you should get with my God/he hates about everything”). Each song is delivered with customary wit, perhaps less aserbic than on Good News, but equally rich and self-probing.

And while the takeaway from the debut was the one-liners, New Gods is all about the music. The sound has more depth, yes, but nothing is over-egged. There are more hooks than a pirates’ convention, and subime melodies throughout. A few reference points fly past your ears more than once. Darren Hayman has frequently performed with Withered Hand, and Hefner’s influence on tracks such as “Between Love and Ruin” is marked. The classic power pop of Big Star and the Byrds can be heard in the arpeggios and jangles of “Black Tambourine”, while “Fall Apart” and “Horseshoe” have a surprising hint of 90s indie pop about them.

New Gods is an unusually good album, and is best encapsulated by the title track, the kind of song R.E.M. lived in the shadow of for a quarter of a century. “Now tell me we are not all the same,” goes Willson’s stargazing philosophy, slotting beautifully between the dreamy rolls of mandolin and bass. It’s one of the loveliest songs you could ever expect to hear; a lucid moment of perfection from a songwriter whose creativity continues to feed off his own imperfections.

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