As far as interviews go, I think I’ve been really lucky. In six years, I’ve never had that experience of the uncooperative, bored, jet-lagged or just plain hostile interviewee. I’ve had to work in cupboards stage-side while rock bands soundchecked, but everyone I’ve met has been interesting and charming. I’m pleased to say that Rachael Sage (singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, artist and designer) extended my winning streak when I met up with her before her performance at the Discovery showcase at 229 on Great Portland Street to talk about her new album “Choreographic” and her current UK tour (among other things). I even added a new Yiddish word to my vocabulary. Here’s how it went:
Allan – Hi Rachael.
Rachael – Hello.
Allan – How’s the tour going so far?
Rachael – The tour’s been really great. This tour’s a little bit different because, in addition to the club shows at night, we’re also doing workshops in the daytime along the tour route at various schools, either performing arts schools or the dance and drama departments of general schools along the way and it’s been fascinating. I’ve never really done that before; I’m not a teacher, I’m kind of inexperienced at that, but I seem to have a special relationship with kids between nine and fourteen so we’ve been enjoying and learning a lot.
Allan – And presumably that means that you’re performing at unusual times.
Rachael – Indeed it does. We’ve had some crazy call-times to meet at the tour van in the morning, like seven-thirty in the morning to drive a couple of hours to perform at 10 a.m. Actually, this morning we played at 9:30. But on the upside, our jet-lag is so confused that it’s non-existent; we don’t know what time zone we’re in. When we go home to New York, it’ll probably be easier to re-acclimate.
Allan – When you come to the UK, do you find the audiences very different from American audiences?
Rachael – I suppose it would be more politically correct to say no, that audiences everywhere and every environment around the world are just about the same, because people are people and we have deduced that people around the world love music the same amount and they all want the same things out of life and there is that unifying theme that we experience. But in terms of audience reactions we’ve found UK audiences and European audiences in general to be a lot more open and expressive when they really, really like something and it’s not necessarily loud whistling or heckling. They’ll come up to you after shows and have that familiarity and treat you like you’re their buddy they’ve known forever and talk to you about their own lives and themselves; it’s just an openness and we love that, that’s part of why we keep coming back.
Allan – I’ve spoken to American artists who think when they start the set that they’re dying on stage and suddenly at the end of the song, the audience erupts.
Rachael – I’ve experienced that to an extreme in Japan, where you think you’re not going over at all; they must hate it, and afterwards there’s the most gentle clapping and they come up to the merch table and they want to buy all your CDs when you weren’t even certain they were into it. People have their own way of processing music and there really is no wrong. As long as nobody throws tomatoes, we’re happy.
Allan – I understand there’s an interesting event you’re involved in at the end of the tour as well at the Royal Albert Hall.
Rachael – The Dance Prom? That’s an event where we’re running a contest and the school that performs the winning routine to one of my songs will receive a scholarship from my record label Mpress Records and myself. I’m not performing at the event, but it’s very much tied in to the “Choreographic” dance theme of this tour. We’re going to be back in London at the O2 Academy in Islington on October 28th, and The Bedford on November 1st. Looking forward to that.
Allan – For the benefit of the MusicRiot audience, tell me a bit about your background, because it’s been very varied, hasn’t it?
Rachael – It has, and yet everything has had the thread of music really. I started playing piano by ear when I was about two and a half/three years old which the exact same time I was thrust into a pre-ballet where really all you’re doing is running around and spinning around and having fun, somewhere for you to be busy while your Mom gets a break, but it quickly bloomed into a full-blown young ballet career and I ended up becoming quite serious as a ballet dancer and at the same time very serious about being a songwriter. I learned to play by ear pretty much exclusively from sounding out all the music I heard every day in dance class. So I would go home and play all these classical pieces and I have no knowledge of the composers or what they were called because it was an informal education, but it was a very thorough education and I think my sense of melody and dynamics really stemmed from classical music.
Jumping ahead, I kept the songwriting up and I pretty much knew, I wanted to be a professional singer/songwriter and composer well before high school, maybe at thirteen/fourteen. Then for my Bat Mitzvah, my relatives got together and bought me a four-track tape recorder. Once I mastered that, I fancied myself as a budding producer, bouncing vocal tracks and having a good time with that, and by the time I went to college, I was very firm that I wanted to be a recording artist and tour the world doing pretty much what I’m doing now, so I guess I was a planner.
Allan – I’ve spoken to artists who agonise about the genre they’re working in and the way it affects sales of their work…
Rachael – There’s an expression in Yiddish that I have to respond to that; it’s spelt F-E-H. Genre’s a useful tool to help maybe turn people on to your music to be able to describe it in an elevator pitch, as they say. Actually, yesterday another writer asked me ‘How would you describe your music in three words?’, and I said colourful chamber pop. The reason I said that was first of all, I’m in England and I feel like you have a unique appreciation of pop music and also that pop music is a broader genre here. If you say pop in America, people assume you mean Katy Perry and here it could mean The Beatles or Elvis Costello, you know, pop/rock, so it’s broad enough to feel like I’m at home in that category.
Allan – With “Choreographic”, you’ve pretty much invented your own genre, haven’t you?
Rachael – Oh my goodness, thank you. I didn’t invent the word, unfortunately. I guess what I did, what’s interesting is that my music was being used and embraced by the lyrical dance community in America and also over here well before I was aware of it and then a few of my diehard supporters started sending me YouTube links where I would see these full-blown dances to my songs in competitions and winning awards and I didn’t really know about that competitive dance culture because the in dance culture that I grew up with, there were no contests; it was strict ballet and that wouldn’t have been allowed, but it was fascinating to see these young, very prodigious, hard-working kids performing and interpreting the music in a way that that was completely different from how I might have envisioned it and sort of humbling. At the end of the day, you create it and the minute it comes out of you, it’s really not yours anymore; it’s collective ownership and I love that. Eventually when the show ‘Dance Moms’ started using the music, it brought me back to that time in my youth when dance was a huge part of my life and it defined who I was as a person and I hadn’t really thought about that time for a long time. When you’re a former ballerina, you kind of put it behind you because there’s some bitter-sweetness; it was painful and very gratifying, like breaking up with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. You move on and you let it go, but this was a good time to revisit it and come at it musically from a more positive angle, I would say.
Allan – With “Choreographic”, there must be certain elements that make it work for that kind of interpretation.
Rachael – Yes, what happened originally was that they were using all these different songs from various albums of mine and of course there were different types of songs on those albums, but the ones they were using were usually very pianistic and very arpeggiated. I guess the average person might say there were hints of classical technique in the piano playing, and then also a lot of stringed instruments, cellos and violins, so I picked up on that. More than anything when I sat down to make this album, I tried to come at it more from a visual perspective of what I thought would work in a multi-media context with dance and music and I could only go by what my imagination was offering. I have done some choreography in my day, it’s not my forte, but I’m such an avid fan of dance and choreography in general that I have a pretty good sense of dynamics and what might be danceable, so that’s really where I was coming from. I also had the visual in my head of perhaps, one day, bringing one dancer or several dancers on tour with me and doing more of a show that’s theatrical as well as pop and that’s still in the works. We’re thinking about mounting something along those lines in New York in January.
Allan – Presumably, as well as the musical side, it has to have a fairly strong narrative as well. Your songs tell stories.
Rachael – Well, the genre of dance which has embraced my music most has indeed been lyrical dance, which is this term I had no familiarity with and I see these young girls, sometimes boys, but not as often, interpreting the music, usually very literally. I have a song called “Barbed Wire”, which was performed on ‘Dance Moms’ and the song itself is about someone in your life who can’t make up their mind and they’re very ambivalent, and how frustrating that is for you when you are certain how you feel. I think adults or maybe contemporary professional dancers might have interpreted it with more of an abstract approach, where you felt the emotion but it wasn’t quite so literal and of course the ten/eleven/twelve year olds literally had a backdrop of a barbed wire fence and were climbing it and interacting with it, and that was so interesting because it hints at the idea of doing a live show where the average person sometimes does need those very accessible touch zones to identify with a new art form.
Allan – Is it true that you actually wrote the album here in London as well?
Rachael – I did, yes. I wrote it in Camden. I had two festivals pretty far apart for me. I like to fill every single day, because I’m a busy OCD kind of an artist and I don’t like days off; they make me nervous. We were coming up on those shows and we had choice between trying to pick up some radio in between or just leave that gap and I said ‘You know what, it’s time for me to write a record.’ I’ve never quite set that deadline for myself before. I usually just let it happen organically; over the course of a year, I write twelve songs and then I have an album and then I’m ready to go record, but I had recently reunited socially with my co-producer from many, many years ago, Andy Zulla, who did my first few records with me, and we hit it off again so beautifully and we got all excited to collaborate again. He said to me ‘When you come back from England, if you have a batch of tunes ready, I can record with you in August and then I’ll be busy again after that, but keep me posted.’ That was a driver as well; I wanted to come back armed, like a fashion designer would feel: ‘I want that fall line all ready to go’. I had five days in Camden, so I holed myself up in a hotel, ditched the car and the tour van and stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I’d go walking every day and just take in the energy of the city and then I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep unless I’d written at least one song. So that’s the story of how this record was written. It was during Glastonbury Festival too so that was what I watched if anything on the television and it kind of inspired me as well.
Allan – Apart from music and dancing, you have other artistic interests as well, haven’t you?
Rachael – I do, and that’s also why I was drawn to the word choreographic, because I’m a visual artist and I’m a graphic designer, but it evolved more out of necessity than anything else because I run my own record label and when you do that you have to wear a lot of hats, so there have been times when I felt I would just do better designing my own artwork because I had a specific vision. I just figured it all out and so there’s that graphic, visual aspect to my work and there are many artists I admire who have that as well like David Bowie, Kate Bush and David Byrne, so many artists, even John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett, who I admire and I’ve become very interested in their artwork as well and that helps me to have a window into another side of them. I hope that people explore that aspect of my work as well and I have a section on my website, ’Visuals’, where you can see my paintings and collage, and just recently I developed some wearable art; I’ve been painting on jackets and dresses and things like that and it’s just another fun outlet for me creatively.
Allan – I’m always fascinated that most of the very gifted musicians I know have various other artistic interests, like photography, as well…
Rachael – Probably keeps them sane…
Allan – One last question, is there any particular song that always make you cry?
Rachael – My favourite contemporary folk artist is Glen Hansard. I was recently at his concert at Carnegie Hall and I was weeping like a little baby. It’s on his new record. He composed the music for the movie “Once”, which was such an incredible music film and the song’s called “My Little Ruin”. He’s an Irish songwriter who was with The Frames with and there was a Broadway show created from “Once”, which won the Oscar for best song and it ran in the UK and Ireland as well. He’s in the vein of Damien Rice, that kind of vibe, beautiful string section, acoustic guitar and I’m a big Irish music fan. Anything Irish makes me cry.
Allan – Many, many thanks Rachael.
Rachael’s album “Choreographic” is released in the UK on November 11 on MPress Records. You can also see photos from Rachael’s performance at 229 here.
I had the opportunity to meet up with MusicRiot favourite Hannah Aldridge just before her sold-out show at Green Note in Camden which is part of her current tour with Lilly Hiatt, taking in Northern Europe, England and Scotland. We talked about her new album, her previous album “Razor Wire” and a lot of other things along the way:
Allan – Good to see you again, Hannah.
Hannah – Good to see you too.
Allan – Back in the UK and you’ve been doing a European tour as well.
Hannah – I have, yes.
Allan – How did that go?
Hannah – It’s been really good actually. We did the Netherlands; I went back to Hamburg and played and I’ll be doing Norway at the end of it. It’s always fun to do Europe in general but it was fun this time because I explored a new market, which was the Netherlands. I haven’t played there before; it’s definitely different and it’s good to keep moving forward and forge new territories, so that was the goal this time.
Allan – I think Northern Europe really gets Americana doesn’t it?
Hannah – Well, I think from my perspective, the people who really appreciate what I do are people who can speak English well enough to understand the lyrics because, as much as I don’t want to admit this, my music is not quite as interesting without the lyrics. I wouldn’t call myself a really interesting guitar player or anything and I wouldn’t want to listen to me if I couldn’t understand what I was saying. That’s such a big part of it, and what I’ve noticed is that people who speak English fluently are the ones that gravitate towards what I’m doing.
Allan – And you’re doing a mini tour of Scotland this time.
Hannah – I am doing Scotland. I was trying to think if I’ve ever done a show in Scotland. I’ve been there, but I don’t think I’ve ever played there.
Allan – I think, like Northern Europe, Scotland really gets Americana as well and I don’t think country ever really went away in Scotland.
Hannah – It’s really interesting the UK how every country has subtle differences in the music they like. Ireland is very different than England in terms of musical taste and Scotland I assume would be the same, but I’m not really sure what to expect because I haven’t played there.
Allan – Well I grew up in Scotland, and Scots like good songs. They like a good melody but they like a message as well.
Hannah – Well that’s good to know; hopefully they’ll like what we’re doing.
Allan – And I think the rooms that you’re playing tend to attract appreciative crowds.
Hannah – I’ll look forward to it; that makes me feel good about it.
Allan – Just to go back in time a bit, which artists would you say influenced you when you were growing up.
Hannah – That’s interesting, because I didn’t really start writing music until my early twenties, so nobody really influenced me growing up because I didn’t want to be a musician until my twenties. That being said, there were a lot of artists that I listened to growing up that now influence me, Bonnie Raitt being one of them and Tom Petty being another. I was thinking earlier, someone asked me in an interview what three artists have shaped me as a musician and I looked at him and said Gillian Welch, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty.
It’s interesting because sometimes I actually feel like I’m writing something that sounds like a mix of those things, so I do think those people do heavily influence me but, at the same time, there’s so much I’ve listened to since that really shaped me too. I think Gillian Welch gave me permission as a female to write like a man and I didn’t discover her until later; she was very influential. And Bonnie Raitt gave me permission to play with the boys too and to stand up and be respected the same way that a man is and if there are any female musicians I can think of that men are shamelessly devoted to in terms of musicality, it would be Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch, and that’s pretty cool because a lot of the time you’ll hear ‘I don’t know, it’s a girl, I don’t like girls with a guitar’, but Gillian Welch and Bonnie Raitt seemed to break out of that, so that was cool for me too.
Allan – And what about your Dad (Walt Aldridge, Muscle Shoals songwriter and performer), did he influence you either way?
Hannah – In my decision to be a musician or in my musical pedigree…
Allan – In your decision to be a musician…
Hannah – He strongly tried to influence me not to be a musician and, because of the personality I am, that actually pushed me in the other direction very hard and I thought ‘OK, we’ll see’. He’s really tough about that kind of stuff – he’s not easy to impress and it’s a different level when it’s your kid. It’s really hard to be objective about what they’re doing so he really, to this day, he calls and says ‘Why are you doing this? You can do things that pay a lot more’ and I say ‘The same reason you did it’.
It’s really interesting that what I’ve learned with him is that we function better when we don’t talk about music because we have such different opinions on it and we’re in such different markets. He was making music at a time that it was just totally different.
Allan – So, if you had to put a label on your music, what would you call it?
Hannah – I wouldn’t call it Americana, because I don’t really know what Americana is and it’s really hard for me to justify putting myself in a genre where I go ‘I don’t know what this is’, but in the same way, whatever genre you would put Ryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch in, whatever box you put them in, I guess I would fit in the same box. I think my description of my music is probably very different than other people’s, which is strange too. My description of it would be Southern rock, something like that. Singer/songwriter, Southern Rock; I’m a confused person. I’m confused when I walk out of the house every day about what to wear because I don’t know who I am half the time, so maybe some days I look like this and some days I look like that and it’s the same with writing. I think I’m constantly on a journey to figure out who I am in general but also as a musician so that makes it really hard for me to say ’This is what kind of music I do’.
Allan – I noticed you’ve created a lot of different visual identities over the years…
Hannah – I have, and think it’s become a part of the whole thing in that I‘m constantly trying to figure out what works for me as a person, and I think, more than any kind of steady identity I could give, that’s actually more reflective of me as a person than anything, that I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in to the world and I think that does change a lot for me. I played a show in Nashville a while ago and a big booking agent came out and they said to me ‘You know, I really, really like your music, but the look just doesn’t go with the music.’ And I laughed and said ‘Really, what is the look supposed to be, because I’ve been trying to figure that out for twenty-eight years.’ (Laughs). I think I’m just always going to be trying to reinvent myself, and I think Ryan Adams gave me permission to do that. He’s made it work, musically, and I hope to do the same.
Allan – Do you see more as a writer or a performer?
Hannah – A writer, absolutely a writer because what I really wanted to be was a staff writer. What I really wanted to do when I started this whole thing was to be a writer for film and TV. I wanted to be the person that sat in my room in my pyjamas and a bowl of cereal and made really dark music for horror movies, you know. It’s really interesting how fate, or whatever you may call it, pushed me down this path of being an artist and I reluctantly was like ‘I don’t wanna do this. I hate being on stage’. I was joking with Lilly (Hiatt) that, literally, before big shows for the first couple of years performing, I would watch Michael McDonald videos before to keep me from having anxiety, because you can’t have anxiety while you’re watching “Ya Mo Be There”, you just can’t. I would really have to push myself to do these things because I felt uncomfortable. Now, I love performing, I think it’s great and I see all the wonderful things about it, but it was definitely not something that just came naturally to me. I felt very intimated buy it and really I‘ve always enjoyed the process of being creative. So, I think in that way, I’m definitely more of a writer than a performer, you know.
Allan – “Razor Wire” (Hannah’s debut album) felt like a really personal album and it felt like there was a lot of autobiography in there as well…
Hannah – “Razor Wire” was an autobiography of where I was in my love life in a lot of ways. At that point in my life I was going through a divorce and I was trying to find out if I was capable of ever loving again and what that meant and if was a complete screw-up and all of these things and meanwhile also writing about my experiences with these other guys I was going out and dating and then at the same time. Songs like “Black and White” were what was going on in my personal life with Jackson (Hannah’s son), being a young mom, those kind of things. “Razor Wire” was definitely very autobiographical.
My new record that I’ve been writing also is, but in a very different way. I kind of went backwards and started writing about my life before that when I was a really heavy drug user and a really bad drunk and everything that led me to that point and trying to sort through all those feelings, growing up super-religious and feeling alienated by that and also fast-forwarding a bit to the age that I am now, approaching my thirties and being fearful of that. So that chunk of time was “Razor Wire” and I think the new record is a bit of a prequel to that. I think it’s what I write best; I’m not good at that third person stuff, so it was definitely a very personal record.
Allan – I played a copy of “Razor Wire” to a friend in radio and he said that there were three hits, if you could actually get them out there.
Hannah – That’s the thing that’s tough about it. It’s all about PR when you get to the point that I’m at now. It’s about somebody recognising that you’re worth putting money into because you’ve got the songs and you’re slowly building up to that point, but I watch it happen with people all around me and you go ‘Well, I’ve got good songs too’. All you can do is just (Lilly and I have talked about this a lot since we’ve been on the road together) stay focused and say ‘I’m gonna keep writing good songs’ and know that it’s not about me, whether or not it’s a hit. It’s about the fact that I don’t have millions of dollars to put into promotion. One day maybe I will, but until then all I can do is continue to write great songs.
Allan – If the catalogue of songs is there and the break comes…
Hannah – Absolutely. You can have the publicity but without the songs it doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen that happen a lot with people around me too where they get that shot and they don’t have the material to back it up. I’m not saying I absolutely have the material, but I think that it’s important to really focus, until you get your shot, on working up to that so that you’re ready for it. If I had the opportunities I wanted when I first released “Razor Wire”, I probably wouldn’t have performed well on Conan O’Brien or performed very well at The Ryman, which are the dreams that I have, but I have to recognise that I have to put in the time to get there so that when I do have those shots, I really kill it and that takes time. All of this takes a lot of patience.
Allan – I guess Maverick (festival in Suffolk) is one of those opportunities isn’t it?
Hannah – Sure. Maverick is really cool. I love playing there because it’s one of those things where I get to connect with a lot of different artists and the other thing that’s really cool about is that everybody that I see around England, I can see them all in the same place and that’s really cool. I see some really devoted fans, the promoters that have helped me so much, the Americana UK people and artists and it’s really neat for me because it’s everyone in one vicinity and I really enjoy Maverick Festival every single year.
Allan – You mentioned the new album briefly. How’s that going at the moment?
Hannah – It’s going awesome. I’ve got everything written and I’ll be recording as soon as I get home and I’ll be done by July 30th and from there it’ll just be setting a release date. I think it’s gonna be great; it’s funny because the producer the producer that’s doing the record this time around, I wrote “Save Yourself” with, he’s someone I’ve played with and he’s someone I’ve written a lot of songs about as well. We grew up together actually and he’s so in tune with my music that it just made sense to get him to produce the record and he’s taken the songs and shaped them in a way that I can’t do. That’s really cool because I’ve never had that before where I wrote a song and gave it to somebody else and let them manicure it a little bit. It’s like adding a whole new level to the songs and that’s really cool. I’m really excited to hear how they all end up.
Allan – Well the one that I’ve heard, that you played here last time, “Goldrush”, hit me instantly and it’s rare that a song does that.
Hannah – I’m glad that you like that. I really like that song. Usually I have a good gut feeling about a song when I like one or, if it makes me a bit teary when I sing it the first couple of times, I know it’s good. Actually I had two killer co-writers on that song and that concept was so complicated for me to sort through in my mind that I called two people that I thought ‘I know they can help me’ because I don’t want to take that song idea to just anybody because I knew it could be a really cool song, so I called up two people I knew could really help me tie up the loose ends on it. I sat and talked to them about the idea and said ‘This is what I’ve got written and I don’t know how to tie this in’ and they helped me put that together so I’m really grateful for them helping me do that. I do love that song. I think it’s a good one, I think it’s meaningful and I think it approaches a topic that people don’t wanna talk about, which is getting older, so I’m glad that you like that one.
Allan – And you’re going electric this time round…
Hannah – I am going electric this time round. I was nervous as could be. I had dreams before this tour that I got out on the road and my electric didn’t work, because I’m so comfortable with my acoustic guitar, but I’m making a point with this record to really push myself and I’m trying to push out of that box that people are putting Americana in because I don’t have to be this certain thing because you’re put in Americana, it’s so broad, you know, and I really wanted to push the boundaries of what people thought of me as an artist and maybe what they think I’m gonna put out musically. I wanna stay within reason and not get too crazy, but try to get myself out of my comfort zone. I felt like a lot of these songs are meant to be played on electric and it doesn’t make sense to go out with an acoustic and try to play them; they just don’t translate so I’m literally learning in front of people on this tour how to deal with this electric guitar because I play it at home and I write on it, but I don’t go on tour with it very often, and if I do, I have a band behind me, it’s not just me standing up there with an electric. At this point in the tour, I feel really comfortable. The first day or two, I was sweatin’ bullets up on stage trying to figure out how to do everything, but it’s fun and it adds something interesting for me because it’s so easy to get bored when you play songs hundreds and thousands of times and you think ‘I don’t wanna play this song anymore’, but it’s been fun to revisit “Razor Wire” on the electric.
Allan – One final question. Have you got a song, yours or someone else’s that makes you cry?
Hannah – I have some of mine that make me cry. Other people’s songs? Pretty much any John Moreland song ever written; those make me cry. “God’s Medicine”, “Cherokee”; pretty much all of his songs are so damned good, I would say every John Moreland song and “Hallelujah” does as well; that song always gets to me too because there’s a couple of lines in there that really speak to me on a lot of levels.
Allan – Thanks very much Hannah.
Hannah and Lilly will be playing the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on June 21st, The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on the 22nd and Music in the Suburbs in Glasgow on the 23rd.
We’re big fans of Bob Malone here at MusicRiot so when I got the chance to meet up for a chat on the final night of his UK tour it was a bit of a no-brainer. Bob’s been in the UK for three weeks touring in support of his “Mojo Deluxe” album and the “Mojo Live” DVD and The 100 Club gig was the climax of a hectic tour schedule. So a very noisy 100 Club dressing room is where we got the chance to talk about old pianos, New Orleans and Southside Johnny, among other things:
Allan – So it’s approaching the end of the tour and we met on the first night in Southend. How has it been since then?
Bob – It’s been great; a few funky gigs, a few spectacular gigs and we’ve worked hard. We had a couple of nights where we didn’t have gigs but we still had a radio show or a long drive; we’re a hard-working group.
Allan –Have you had any particularly good gigs?
Bob – This one’s definitely gonna be a good one and Keighley Blues Club, that was a really great crowd and Scotland as well, and we also played on the Isle of Wight.
Allan – I remember when we met in Southend you were talking about Italian audiences.
Bob – They’re full on, right out of the box, from the first song.
Allan –Do you notice any differences in the audiences around the UK?
Bob – Well it sometimes takes three or four songs here. The north is different from the south, as you know. I didn’t until I did these long tours here; England was just England like people think America is just America but here it’s five different countries with completely different cultures.
Allan – Have you played The 100 Club before?
Bob – No, but its reputation precedes…
Allan – How does that feel?
Bob – It feels good. I was soundchecking with the grand piano earlier and the sound engineer had footage of Paul McCartney playing that same piano.
Allan – I think it’s great to see it with the lights up and look at all those great photos around the walls of the people that have played here in the past.
Bob – I love places with history like this; you feel like you’re part of a continuum.
Allan – You’re promoting the Mojo Deluxe album at the moment. What kind of a reception has the album had?
Bob – I think it’s the most press and radio I’ve had on anything I’ve done and it’s my twentieth year of making records, so I’m happy with that.
Allan – After doing what I think of as the day job with John Fogerty, how does this compare? It must be a huge culture change.
Bob – It’s different. I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years; this is what I do, and I’ve been playing with John for almost five years now. With this, so long as the sound man is competent I’m happy. Everyone thinks it must be weird to go from small crowds to big crowds, but it really isn’t. As long as it’s a good musical experience and you’re connecting with an audience; that’s why we play. You can’t really control the size of the crowd and also when I do this it’s a mission; when I play with John it’s his gig. I’m lucky to be there but it’s his gig. I get my solo but other than that, it’s all about him and I’m just in the background.
Allan – Trying to avoid the pyrotechnics…
Bob – Trying not to burst into flames during “Fortunate Son”, exactly.
Allan – So when you’re out doing your own stuff, here and in the States, what would be your ideal band line-up?
Bob – The ultimate, when I’m not touring; when I’m LA, and I don’t have to put people in hotel rooms would be a nine-piece band. I just did a DVD, which I did the way I would like to do it and I had three female background singers, percussionist, drums, bass and guitar. I do a lot of stuff with horns as well, for years I had a horn section, so it would be a nine to eleven piece band and a second keyboard player would be great, to play the organ parts. (If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that the total number of musicians is only eight, but there’s a slide guitar player on there as well. I hope your heart isn’t broken by that omission Marty Rifkin.)
Allan – On your own tours, particularly in the UK, you rely on the venue providing the piano. Have you had any horror stories with that in the past?
Bob – Well, usually I carry a digital piano for when there’s no real alternative, but most of the places I play now, if there is a real piano, it’s usually in good shape, but I’ve been to places that had a hundred year old upright and some of the keys didn’t work but I kind of like to play those anyway, just for the challenge. It’s like going in the ring with this old piano and fighting it to see who wins. I love real pianos because they all have personality; the digital ones are handy and they’re light and they don’t go out of tune, but they don’t have much of a personality. They get the job done.
The one in Southend, that’s got some issues. It’s got some broken strings; it’s one that I fight to the death but I like playing it because it’s an old Bösendorfer.
Allan – I did notice a few problems at the soundcheck that night…
Bob – It needs a rebuild, but still I’m glad to see it.
Allan – You’re classically and jazz trained; was there any one thing that turned you into a rock/blues pianist?
Bob – The rock thing came first. One of those things was hearing “Sergeant Pepper” for the first time, so it’s you guys, it’s your fault. Then I heard Billy Joel and Elton John and not very long after that the New Orleans thing, which blew me away, and then Ray Charles and I became a huge student of that stuff but the rock stuff was always there.
Allan – Were you singing right from the start?
Bob – I started singing when I was fifteen probably. I started singing because I wanted to impress a girl I had a crush on. I just played classical piano but “Your Song” by Elton John was the first thing I ever sang in public; I thought ‘She’ll love me if I sing this song’. I was a terrible singer, some people still say I am, but I learned to work with what I have.
You write songs and there are obviously lots of people with better voices than me but when you write songs you have a story to tell and people always respond to the story and sometimes you’re the only person that can tell it.
Allan – We’ve had “Mojo Deluxe” this year, so what’s next on the agenda.
Bob – Well, I’ve got this DVD coming out and the audio from that was so good, we’re thinking of putting that out as a live record next year and I’ll make another new record, so I’ll probably get the live one out next year and in 2017 I’ll have a new studio album. I’ve got to get realistic about this; I’ve got about half the songs I need for another record.
Allan – I interviewed Southside Johnny in July 2014 in London…
Bob – Southside Johnny was also one of the big things in my youth and I should mention this because growing up in New Jersey, we all knew Southside Johnny. This was the 80s and you couldn’t hear that kind of music on the radio at all and so my first real exposure to r’n’b, blues, horn section kinda music was Southside and I learned from that and went back and figured out all the other stuff. He was huge for me.
Allan – When I interviewed him at Shepherds Bush Empire last July, we spoke about his new album “Soultime!” and he said they were aiming to get it out for Christmas 2014 and that finally came out in August this year.
Bob – Yeah, that’s about right. I toured here last year and I had half of “Mojo Deluxe” out as “Mojo EP”. We had finished recording and it was half-mixed and there were some problems and we couldn’t get the other half mixed in time and the promoter said ‘The whole thing is you have a record out for this tour; we can’t get any press without a record’ so we had half a record out as an EP, just in the UK for the tour.
Allan – And that worked really well as a sampler for the album.
Bob – And by the end of last year the whole thing was done but then we needed a three month ramp for the release date to get it publicised and I was touring through the spring, so we just put the whole thing off and it came out almost a year later. That’s how it works. There are so many factors; if you have a lot of money involved, you can get things done a lot quicker. On a limited budget, you still need time to publicise, so you often end up delaying.
Allan – One final question; do you have one song that tears you up and gets you really emotional?
Bob – Yeah, “One for my Baby”, the Sinatra song; that one kills me every time. It depends on the day; it could be something else on another day.
Allan – Thanks very much, Bob.
And there you go; a private audience with the great Bob Malone, who was as entertaining offstage as on. Since we spoke, I’ve had a chance to watch the “Mojo Live” DVD and it’s superb, capturing the magic of a one-off performance absolutely perfectly. It has great performances from all of the musicians and it’s a whole load of fun; keep an eye out for it.
Well it’s taken us a while to get this one together after I was left speechless (I know, that’s difficult to believe) as I watched Sound of the Sirens’ unique set of twentieth century acoustic anthems in support of Mad Dog Mcrea earlier this year. When I heard they were coming to London to appear live on the open mic session on Chris Evans’ show on Radio 2, it was an opportunity that was too good to miss. Here’s what happened when they turned up south of the river, buzzing with adrenaline and caffeine and ready to tell the world about it:
Allan – Well, it’s been five months since I saw you at The Half Moon in Putney. Quite a lot has happened since then, so tell me what’s been going on?
Abbe – Doing the mini tours with Mad Dog completely exhausted us, left us on-our-knees-tired, but always worth it because they’re lovely. Then we applied to Glastonbury and Mike Mathieson of Mad Dog, who knows everyone, who knows everyone, who knows everyone, said try these people so we tried other avenues, followed the routes he gave us and one of them paid off. They must be inundated with people applying, so even to get a ‘Oh hello girls, yes, brilliant, we’ll have a look at what you do’, we were excited, and then getting that email to say we’d got in to Glastonbury was just brilliant.
Hannah – We screamed and jumped on couches.
Abbe – I couldn’t see because I smiled so much my eyes closed.
Allan – That started off with one gig, didn’t it? How many did you end up with at Glastonbury?
Hannah – Four in the end, because each stage only has a certain amount of tickets to give out, so once you’re in there, they want acts.
Abbe – So we just ran around begging people to play…
Hannah – And they had us.
Abbe – And it was quite funny because one of the best gigs we did there was the backstage hospitality and catering for all the staff, who were just hilarious and they were so up for a party because they’d been working all day and everybody was in such good spirits. To do the sort of mini-gig in their world within Glastonbury was really fun and then we realised that was the way forward, so we started approaching all the backstage bars like the Circus Tent. Who knows, if we get back next year it would be nice to go and play some more of those.
Allan – Was it at Glastonbury that Chris Evans saw you, initially?
Abbe – I think a few people have put that on Facebook, haven’t they, and people just assume that, but we got in to Carfest (North) through a lovely girl called Chloe who put us on to the Wigwam Stage and when we were there she said ‘I’ve also managed to put you forward for the friends and family glamping area…’
Hannah – I’ve still got my band on for good luck…
Abbe – And we said ‘Oh brilliant, that’s great’ and she said ‘I don’t think you realise what a deal this is; this is an access all areas pass, even I can’t get in to these areas’. So me and Hannah put on these bands and waltzed around Carfest flashing our bands here, there and everywhere and it was just brilliant. So we went to set up and we had to do the sound as well, so we were having this big faff and panic when Bob Geldof walked in. It was just berserk and then we set up and it was a lovely tent; everyone was outside around the fire enjoying themselves, so we just settled in to the fact that ‘It’s cool that we’re here but no-one’s really going to watch and we might meet Chris Evans if he comes by but we’re just the background and that’s that.’ Then in walked Chris Evans and sat about two metres in front of us tapping the table and with his feet tapping. If someone had filmed us, the reactions on our faces would have been so funny but then he stayed for the entire set. Brilliant.
Hannah – Me and Abbe couldn’t look at each other.
Abbe – We’ve developed this thing over the last few weeks where we have to avoid eye contact with each other.
Allan – So that was what led to this morning.
Hannah – Yeah. We played at Carfest, then we got a text message from Chris the next day, back at the van…
Abbe – We gave him our CDs the night before…
Hannah – And we spoke to him and he said ‘What can I do for you girls, I listened to your CD this morning.’
Abbe – To which we coolly said ‘OK’. (Laughter all round). It was really funny because we went back to the tent to get breakfast and he came in and said ‘Hello again, I’ve got your music playing in my car and I’ll take your details and get in contact and we’ll sort this out.’ So we were just trying to be really cool and collected. He’s so friendly, he’s so down to earth; he’s lovely. And he left and the chef who was making everybody breakfast just came over and leaned on the table and went ‘Look at you trying to keep it together’
Then we got a text saying ‘Let’s sort this out’ and we thought ‘Shall we just give him a ring? Who dares wins…’
Hannah – Then we got invited to The Mulberry Inn, his pub, to play and open mic night last Friday which was amazing and we ended up playing our whole set at the end of the night.
Abbe – It was two songs, then it was four. Then ‘No, don’t stop, we’ll tell you when to stop. Right, close the doors, keep playing”. It was brilliant.
Hannah – Then he saw the state of us in the morning the next day…
Abbe – And he still liked us.
Allan – And presumably that’s what led to where you’ve been this morning; at Radio 2.
Abbe – (More laughter) That was the long answer.
Hannah – It was the teapot that did it; the teapot in the van, our RAC van. (Probably too complicated to explain here, but it’s a good excuse to point you in the direction of the show on iPlayer at 1:42:20 and 02:25:55).
Allan – And how it did it go at Radio 2?
Abbe – Amazing! It’s so funny; we were obviously nervous, but I don’t think I‘ve thought about it enough this week because it’s been a case of ‘Right this is happening, get that planned get this organised, do that…” that you don’t actually think about what you’re planning towards until suddenly the day was here and my stomach was just turning in circles. Then we got there and it was fine, don’t even think about it, don’t look at Facebook, don’t look at your phone, don’t look at messages, don’t think about everyone we know sitting around the radio like the 1940s or something listening to us.
And then I went off to the toilet and you see faces that you know so I just did this casual nod like ‘Oh there’s my friend, oh hello, oh wait, no, that’s Moira Stuart…aaargh!’
Allan – I listened to it and I was listening out for any signs of nerves; I couldn’t hear any at all.
Hannah – That’s brilliant. We haven’t heard it back yet so we don’t know how it sounded.
Abbe – There was a point where I felt a bit bleaty; there was a lot of nervous vibrato…
Allan – Was it the intention for you to do two songs right from the start?
Hannah – He had asked us to do one and then the producer said that he wanted us to do two…
Abbe – But then the way it was all structured today with us playing and then Jonas and Jane and Mancie Baker we were just waiting to see what happened because obviously they’ve got their playlist and you can see it all on the computers everywhere and people are running in handing him text messages and notices and I thought there was a good intention but it might not happen because they’re on such a schedule and then suddenly… He doesn’t give you much notice for things does he? Everything’s so casual, like Chris knows what’s going on, but no-one else does.
Allan – Do you know if they filmed any of it?
Abbe – I don’t know. I think there were notices around saying if the red light’s on, there’s a webcam being broadcast, and on the red button (interactive) you can see the DJs, so there may well be something.
Allan – So, to go back a bit, How did Sound of the Sirens start?
Hannah – Many moons ago. We met each other about ten years ago when we worked in a nightclub together and clicked and got on really well. Then we started singing together, probably about three years later?
Abbe – Probably about that. I remember being sitting in your Mum and Dad’s house singing and your Mum going ‘Oh, that’s nice’ and then when you moved house we used to sit there doing harmonies on “Chasing Cars”.
Hannah – We started a band called Route Two, but we soon realised that was a bit of an error.
Abbe – We had two gigs supporting the Fab Beatles in Devon.
Hannah – And the amazing Kev Day (of the Fab Beatles), was really supportive and encouraged us.
Abbe – Then we left that and joined a functions band with Lisa, so there were three of us and then we became Sound of the Sirens when we got bored of singing covers and thought let’s write our own music.
Hannah – And learn to play guitar.
Abbe – Then Lisa fell in love and moved to London and there was good intention there for us to stay together but it just didn’t happen. We got lovely messages from Lisa this morning. She’s been so supportive throughout; we still see her all the time. I think people always want some scandal, you know, what happened to the third one?
Allan – It must be difficult keeping a band together in those circumstances, it’s like trying to keep a relationship together at long distance.
Abbe – Especially when it’s essentially a hobby, when you’re working full-time and then every weekend you’re committing to a band and trying to keep a relationship going and you live in a different city, it’s just never going to happen, but we’re all still really good friends.
So, Sound of the Sirens has been going six years, nearly seven and it’s been me and Hannah for the last three. When Lisa was with us, we just had a very simple stomp box in the middle which Johnny (band chauffeur, organiser, minder and all-round good bloke) fashioned out of MDF with a mic in a box; job done. Then Lisa left and to fill that gap we added in the floor tom and the tambourine.
Allan – Well that’s my next question ruined then. I was about to ask if the percussion had been there right from the start because that’s quite a big element of what you do, isn’t it?
Abbe – I think it is now, more than it was originally.
Hannah – It was difficult trying to choose songs today for Radio 2 without the percussion; it was quite tough because a lot of our songs are driven by the rhythm.
Abbe – (To Hannah) Did you notice this morning that when they said ‘We’ve got the mics set up, girls, can you try and stand still?’. We’re used to floor tom and tambourine to bashing our feet around on everything and it’s really difficult to stand still; we were air drumming.
Hannah – So it did take a while in the beginning; we were often at random beats, flying everywhere.
Allan – So my really big question now is how do you decide who gets to play the floor tom, because you don’t always have the same configuration?
Abbe – I think naturally… I can’t even remember how we did that in the beginning; I think I must have just done the drum on one song and stayed on it, because I drum a lot and play tambourine a lot and I think we just got used to doing the on beat or the off beat, so it’s difficult when you try and change it. There are songs that we swap…
Hannah – Because of the rhythms we’re playing on the guitar, and sometimes trying to do the opposite on the drum felt, at the time, a bit impossible because we were new to it so we just did whatever worked more naturally.
Abbe – I think we probably could do it now but it’s quite nice to swap and do something different. We wouldn’t get that lumpy thing when you’re drumming and you lose it and go all ‘lost it: lumpy leg’.
Allan – When you first started writing your own material, who were you influenced by?
Hannah – I think you’ve got influences wedged in your brain anyway from when you were growing up; from when you were little and teenage years; we used to listen to very different types of music.
Abbe – What was the music in your household, growing up?
Hannah – The music was Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, a bit of Alice Cooper; my Mum only had one CD really and that was Alex Parks (More laughter). Love you Alex Parks, but… And as a teenager, I tried to be cool; I listened to a bit of happy hardcore, but I think that was on purpose, just trying to be cool and I don’t do that anymore. And Hanson, Gloria Estefan as an eleven-year-old (Hannah, not Gloria).
We had our own influences but together, the bands that we loved when we started playing, were Mumford and Sons, Damien Rice…
Abbe – We were saying that this morning weren’t we? I grew up with country; my dad’s really into country music, we’re talking Foster and Allen.
Allan – Not outlaw country then…
Abbe – No; on Sunday mornings I can remember me and my brother, our bedrooms were next to each other, and we were ‘He’s doing it again!’ and shouting at Dad who was downstairs singing. My Mum was really into The Kinks and The Carpenters and me and my sister used to record ourselves singing Carpenters songs because we loved Karen Carpenter so much and those were our growing up songs.
Freddie, my older brother, was really into Nirvana so I tried to get into that, just because you have to follow what your older brother does. I think it’s a mix of everything but definitely there’s a few bands in your lifetime that really stand out and Mumford and Sons came to Exeter and they played at the Exeter Cavern supporting Johnny Flynn and I went along with my boyfriend Woody to watch Johnny Flynn. When the support act came on, we were both blown away so we were looking for them online and there was nothing for ages and the next thing you they’ve got an album launch at Thekla in Bristol. Then we went to watch then on New year’s Eve in London and we saw them right from their roots and watched how they exploded and I just think at the time they burst on to the scene they were so original and I’m so inspired them, we both are.
Hannah – Yeah. And female singers as well; Alanis Morissette…
Abbe – Oh yeah, and Natalie Imbruglia who coincidentally is there (Radio 2) tomorrow. So exciting; we could say we were her support act, maybe?
Allan – I always like to ask songwriters about this; when you write now, how does that process work? How do you create songs; do you have a fixed way of working?
Abbe – Different ways; I like taking things from books, certain words. Part of my degree was textual practices in finding ways to make songs and poetry and taking certain things and linking them together. I’ve got this American verse book that we would take some stuff from. Also, just walking along, if an idea comes into your head, just finding a quiet place to sing it into your phone and record it, so we’ve got little snippets of half-made ideas.
Hannah – Some of them are experiences that we had, conversations written down, so each song is born in a different way. There’s a different story behind each one, we haven’t really got a formula.
Allan – With your songs, I think I said something like this in a review, it’s not just the words or the rhythms, it’s the way they work together. I find that interesting and it feels like a lot of effort must go into that, or does it just come naturally?
Hannah – I think because we teach and we’re constantly playing pop songs, I think we do get used to songs sounding quite samey so I think we work against that and make sure that the melodies aren’t just going with the chords and it’s not just an obvious structure. I think that’s why we don’t come out with a song every day, because we want to make sure that they are different and stand out.
Abbe – I think, as well, not being too precious with what you create because sometimes you come up with a song quite quickly and you sit there going ‘Yeah brilliant, job done. Let’s go and have some food. We’re sorted’. Then you come back to the song in a week and go ‘I don’t like it it’s really happy, it’s really cheesy; let’s make everything minor notes and change it and just play around with it until it works…
Hannah – Until we’re both happy with it.
Allan – And lyrically, some of it’s quite dark and Gothic as well, isn’t it?
Hannah – We’re massive angsty teenagers inside.
Abbe – We played at a wedding a few weeks ago and we always make a point of saying (it’s only friends and things who would ask us to play, and we’re really flattered) that we’re not wedding material; people wants songs they know and people want to dance. So we sat down to write a setlist and we’re saying ‘Oh, no, not that one that’s really dark, and not that one, that’s about a breakup, and that one’s about a horrible person and that one’s really negative’. All of our songs are big and quite punchy but they are quite dark.
Hannah – Positively sad songs.
Abbe – Shiny darkness.
Allan – Ok, and just to finish up on, what’s going to happen in the future. Where do we go from here?
Hannah – We’ll get a call later today with a record deal offer.
Abbe – The head of Virgin’s just tweeted or sent you an email, so we’ll probably deal with Richard Branson later.
Hannah – And Chris Evans is going to manage us personally as well.
Abbe – Yeah, he’s going to open a new label. We’re playing at Looe Festival. We’re playing at Carfest (South) next week…
Hannah – We didn’t mean all that, by the way, that was only joking…
Abbe – But we’re playing at Carfest next week and we’re opening the Main Stage with a few songs, which is brilliant. Jools Holland’s going to be playing there, so obviously we’re going to make that contact as well, so we’ll be on “Later…”, then “TFI Friday” and then we’re set. That’s it, so it’s as simple as that.
Allan – Well that sounds good to me…
Following successful appearances at Latitude and Dartford festivals over the weekend and with Fuji Rocks coming up a week later, things are pretty hectic for Stone Foundation at the moment in the run-up to the release of “A Life Unlimited” in early August. The album looks set to be their biggest to date and the fanbase seems to be growing by the minute, so it was great to be able to have a quick chat with bass player and co-songwriter Neil Sheasby about the band’s roots and the events of the last year or so.
Allan – So Neil, tell us a bit about the origins of the band.
Neil – It started around the friendship between me and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation singer and co-writer). He was in a band previously that supported a band I was in and I was immediately impressed with his voice and when the band I was in broke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to get a proper vocalist, so we started writing songs together, fifteen years ago probably. But it took so long because we knew we always wanted it to be a heavy-hitting band with the horns and Hammond and it took a long, long time for us to be able to get the right line-up together. We had the vision and the thoughts and the ideas but it took ages to get that line-up and for it to come to fruition.
Allan – The fact that it’s taken a long time, does that keep you grounded about the whole thing?
Neil – Absolutely, we would be anyway, because first and foremost we’re music fans. Both of us have got big record collections and we create for the buzz of it. We’d be doing it anyway whether people were paying attention or not. So we’ll always be grounded really; it doesn’t matter how much media attention we get or how many people come through the door at gigs and buy records, there’s no reason for us not to stay grounded.
Allan – Over the last couple of years in particular, a lot’s been happening for you and it’s gone crazy over the last six months, so how does that feel after all the time you’ve spent grafting at it?
Neil – It’s heartening and humbling and encouraging for us because you know you’re making a connection: you know you’re not fooling yourself really. We try and do the best we can and we try and make records that we really believe in; fundamentally we’ve got to like them. It’s a cliché that you make music for yourself and if someone else likes it, it’s a bonus, but you do want people to like the records and you do want people to make that connection. Fortunately, the last couple of records, especially “To Find the Spirit” found us a really wide audience and I hope the new record “A Life Unlimited” will broaden it; I think it’s our best work to date. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t care if anyone liked it or not; we do. We want as many people as possible to like it. It’s humbling and encouraging and it means we can carry on. If no-one was interested and no-one bought the records there would be no point in us staying together; this keeps us working, keeps us together and keeps us moving forward.
Allan – I think it’s interesting that your fans are a lot like Dexys fans, for example, they seem to be a very loyal bunch and they really buy in to the whole package.
Neil – Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. When I was younger I used to follow bands like Dexys and The Jam around; you wouldn’t just go and see one gig, you’d go and follow the tour around, but there’s hardly anyone that does that now and I think we are that sort of band. You never know what you’re going to get from night to night; I think people see that in us and maybe we remind them of things that they’ve grown up with and that’s a good thing; we’re really lucky to have that fanbase that are loyal and just get what we do.
Allan – I think it says a lot about the respect that you have from other musicians that you can pull in such great guest artists on the albums as well.
Neil – Definitely, but that’s not something that we do just for the sake of it. We’ve been fortunate to work with people like Nolan Porter who came over from America and we were his backing band, but while he was over we did some things in collaboration. People like Carleen Anderson and Graham Parker, they don’t do just anything; they have to like what’s in front of them, what they’re hearing, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
The Carleen Anderson thing “When You’re In My World” was written with that Marvin Gaye duet kind of vibe; that’s how we heard it and we approached Carleen on a whim really. It’s beyond our expectations to be working with people like that, but it’s a massive compliment to what we’re doing that they say yes and get right behind it as well. They believe in what we’re doing as well and they say some very nice complimentary things about our thing and it’s as much of a surprise to us as it is to everyone else; it’s a lovely thing to happen.
Allan – So how did you manage to land Graham Parker?
Neil – Funnily enough, I was at a book launch. I’m really good friends with Paolo Hewitt and I went to the launch of his last book and Graham was there. I just approached him as a fan because I‘m a big fan of Graham Parker and the Rumour and I’ve got all their records. We got chatting and we just hit it off, really. We just started talking, and we never stopped talking so we exchanged emails and numbers. I had a song called “The Night Teller” and it was a bit of a late night phone-in thing like the cover of “The Nightfly” by Donald Fagen, which you mentioned in your review, didn’t you?
Allan – Yeah, I did…
Neil – You got that exactly, nailed on, which really surprised me; it was exactly that, it was a late-night helpline with two people phoning in having a conversation so we needed another voice and I thought Graham’s voice would be absolutely bang-on for it really, so I put the suggestion to him, sent the track and sure enough he went for it. It was one of the bonding things with me and Neil when we started Stone Foundation, we had a few jumping-off points and Graham Parker and the Rumour was certainly one so to have him on our record was fairly incredible really.
Allan – And it sounds great, it really works well for the song.
Neil – As I say, it’s not just for the sake of it. It’s because you can hear it happening.
Allan – One thing that always fascinates me, and I always try to ask songwriters about this, is do you and Neil have a particular creative process, do you always work in the same way?
Neil – No, not really; we collaborated a lot more on this last record. We write separately and sometimes it’s like finishing off each other’s sentences. Neil will have an idea and I’ll think ‘I’ve got this bit that’ll probably work with that’ or I’ll have a song that I haven’t got a bridge for and he’ll have something that just fits hand-in glove, so there’s no real process; we don’t sit down in a room together or anything, there’s various ways it can happen. It can start from a little groove or we can come in with the lyrics first or even the title, as in the case of “Beverley”. We’d had that little hook for a while and we wrote the song around that, so there’s many different ways we work. Also, the band play a part in the arrangements as well. Phil, the drummer, has a great ear for arrangements but there’s no set ways. Sometimes it just happens, when we share the vision and the ideas. It’s sometimes difficult for me and Neil to get the sound out of our head that we want, but the musicians that we’ve got around us now know us well enough to have an understanding and they grasp it really quickly and we get the ideas in our head out and on to the record. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
Allan – The horn section’s sounding really good on this record, although I kind of miss the trombone live, but I guess that’s one of those things about having a big band.
Neil – Well we didn’t want to hide behind the last record, “To Find the Spirit”, so we wanted to make subtle changes. Spencer (Hague, trombone player) played on the last record, but he’s taking a break from the band; he’s having a family and he’s got work commitments. The more the band’s successful, the more the demands of gigging, the more the band’s going through the gears, the more pressure there is on people to give up time to do it because they’re all working guys as well. Spen’s taken a back seat but who knows, never say never, he might be back, but I think it’s nice to have a change with the horns as well and have a different dynamic. We’ve brought in a baritone sax (Adam) and Gareth on trumpet; it’s nice to have a change in dynamic and it’s healthy to keep changing from record to record and I’m sure it’ll change again because it’s inevitable with big line-ups.
Allan – Thanks very much for your time, Neil and good luck in Japan next week.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7.
Just before the end of their recent twentieth anniversary tour of the UK, I was lucky enough to chat to Pete and Maura Kennedy at Kings Place in London just after their soundcheck. We talked about how they met, songwriting, technology and a whole lot more. Here’s how it went:
Allan – So, twenty years together this year. I’ve heard the story but I’m sure Music Riot readers will love it. Could you tell them the story of how you met?
Pete – Well, that happened down in Austin, Texas and we always say that the only trouble with Austin is that it’s surrounded by the rest of Texas, because it’s very much a college town and not typical of the American South at all but it’s a very rock ‘n’ roll and folk and songwriter-oriented town. There’s a place called The Continental Club which is the roots music Mecca of America; I was doing a gig there and that’s where the two of us met. First we talked about music, we didn’t actually play or sing and we then met up a day later at a little songwriters gathering and when we did sing together we found out that we loved each other’s songs and we had a bit of a harmony blend and so we started writing but I had to leave right away and play with Nanci Griffith up at Telluride, Colorado. I drove up there through the desert and into The Rockies and I called Maura after the show and we really wanted to get back together. We were talking on the phone and we decided that since we both knew that we loved Buddy Holly, we would meet at the equidistant point between Austin, Texas and Telluride, Colorado and it was Lubbock, Texas which is where Buddy Holly’s from and he’s buried there. We each drove five hundred miles solo with no cellphones, so we didn’t really know that the other person was doing this and we met at Buddy Holly’s grave and we’ve really been together ever since because very shortly after that, Nanci Griffith needed another band member, a female singer to do harmonies and Maura stepped right into that role and so we’ve been working together steadily ever since we first met.
Maura – And when we left for that tour, we were both in her band but, at the airport, she told us we were going to be her support act for that tour, back in 1993, and we’d only written that one song, we didn’t have an act worked up but we didn’t tell her any of this because we didn’t want to blow that opportunity so we bluffed our way through the first couple of gigs.
Pete – The Southport Theatre was the first gig.
Maura – And by the end of the tour we had our first album’s worth of songs.
Allan – That is a great story.
Pete – We always acknowledge Buddy Holly as our patron saint…
Maura – And Nanci Griffith as the bird that pushed the little chickadees out of the nest.
Pete – She was our mentor: no doubt.
Allan – The first time I saw you was actually in this venue two years ago and that year you had one album out, last year between you, you had two albums out, this year it’s three albums. By anyone’s standards that’s pretty good going, so what can you tell me about the three albums?
Maura – For some reason, both of us were on a real writing spree over the last six to eight months and we were both writing together, both writing independently and gathering songs and it was apparent that we had more songs than we needed for one album, but it also looked pretty obvious how the songs would divide up. The songs we were writing together would be on The Kennedys album, which is called “West”, and that came out last month. Then I was working with a published poet out in California; he provided me with all these lyrics that he wrote specifically for me to write music to and these had a different quality so we decided to have all those solo songs on my album “Villanelle”, which is coming out next week. Meanwhile Pete has been working on this, I think it’s his masterpiece, he’s been working on these songs a good five years. It’s a cycle of songs set in New York City and he sings on these. People are used to him releasing instrumental albums but this is a really cool rock ‘n’ roll album and it’s called “The Heart of Gotham” and that’s coming out in June. So rather than take the twentieth anniversary as a moment to look back we charged straight ahead.
Allan – So apart from having three albums of new material, over the years, how do you keep the live shows fresh?
Maura – Oh, that’s easy. For the past few years we’ve been doing all-request shows. Now we’ve got all this new material and we’re playing a lot of that but three albums is more than you can do in one show, so we’re mixing that up and playing a lot of new material this time. We always get people who have come to our shows before and they have requests so we try to honour as many of those as we can but the shows in the past four or five years have been really audience-driven and that keeps it fresh for the ones who come back to more than one show a year and it keeps it really fresh for us; we have to stay on our toes to remember all those songs.
Pete – We literally go through the audience right before the show and write down what people want to hear and that’s the setlist for that night, so every show is different. Right now we’re not doing that format because we have so many new songs we want to introduce those to the audience.
Maura – Although we have been getting some requests and last night we got requests for songs we haven’t played in a very long time, so we were brave and played them and it was fun.
Allan – That’s very like the New Jersey bands, Springsteen and Southside Johnny, they rely a lot on feedback from the audience and the musicians are good enough to do it as well.
Pete – I think because they came up playing in clubs and bars, and there you better play what people want to hear or they’ll throw things at you so you get used to pleasing the crowds, so to speak, and we’re lucky because, and I’m sure Bruce and Southside feel the same way, we have fans who know all our songs and they’ll ask for different songs from our catalogue so we can resurrect those.
Maura – I think maybe a lot of bands will get people who come out and see them once or twice; we have a lot of fans that come to every show that they can and so, to keep it fresh for them, it was a deliberate decision to make it audience-driven, for them more than anything else. It’s good for us too, but it was really to keep them coming back.
Allan – When I looked the twentieth anniversary thing, I looked back to 1995 and I thought that so many things have changed since that period in the music business…
Maura – In the world…
Allan – How have you reacted to the changes that have happened in the music business? Do you think it’s helped or hindered you?
Maura – There are so many different aspects to it. I remember when our very first album came out, “River of Fallen Stars”, it was on the very first Americana chart, there wasn’t such a thing before and nobody really knew what Americana was. At that time, independent artists really had a wide-open doorway into the music industry; radio stations were playing our stuff and there was very varied radio across the United States and I think that was probably true here too, and then things tightened up. The digital thing has really been difficult for a lot of people and I’m sure that our record sales in the traditional outlets are not as healthy as when we started but our audience, the baby boomers largely, are a segment of the population that has always valued music and they consider themselves to be patrons of the arts, so they come to shows and they buy records form us. In fact, I’ve often had people say: ‘How do you make more money, if I buy it from Amazon or from you?’ and they really want to know. I don’t know what we’d do without them, but we’re baby boomers too and we have the same outlook as far as the value of music is concerned.
Allan – It’s certainly my experience that most of the bands I see now aren’t really making any money out of record sales so people feel they have to buy a CD or t-shirt at the gig so that something goes back to the people that are making the music.
Pete – Record shops don’t really exist, in The States anyway, so it’s not like you’d put out a record and you sit back and wait for cheques to roll in (which never happened to us anyway) but that’s not a paradigm that even exists any more, so you really have to be playing gigs, which is OK, it’s been like that ever since the first cavemen were banging on rocks. They went out and played gigs and people gave them vegetables or whatever and this is basically that same system.
Allan – You seem to have embraced the social media side of things as well. I suspect that works well for you.
Maura – When we first started we had a mailing list and we would put stamps on and stick things in the mail and it was very expensive – it would cost about a thousand dollars to send out one mailer. One really good aspect of the digital world is that we’re able to contact our fans directly at no cost and what happened over the years is that we went from just putting out an electronic newsletter to embracing a number of social media outlets, not all of them, but the ones our fans use, Twitter and Facebook and I think what’s really important, and it’s worked for us, is to take a multi-pronged approach and get the word out in all the different realms. That way you’ll get a couple of people here, a couple of people there; it’s still word of mouth for us, it’s just that it’s digital now.
Allan – I can certainly see with your fans that social media enables you to create a community. It’s not so much artist and audience it’s everybody in it together.
Maura – People post photos and videos and they make song requests via social media and so they really do feel a part of it. One thing I do a lot if we’re coming to a town and ticket sales might not be as robust as we’d like, I’ll say ‘Hey guys, tell your friends we could really use your help on this show and we’ll love you forever’. And I find people really want to help; they do get the word out, they share that information and they really have a hand in helping us in more ways than just buying tickets and records.
Allan – It struck that your music seems to cross an awful lot of boundaries. How would you define it and who would you say has influenced you, apart from Buddy Holly?
Pete – Maura mentioned that we were on the first Americana chart and when we saw that we immediately had our own definition of Americana. A different one developed that was sort twangy, honky-tonk country and was restricted to just that and we never felt that was the entire breadth of American music. We do that stuff, our song “West” is a twangy country song because we love Gram and Emmylou and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and stuff like that, but we don’t restrict ourselves to that at all. So we include George Gershwin and soul and jazz – that’s one of the great American art forms along with blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel; those things are all tied in together so Americana encompasses all of that stuff. Even “Closer Than You Know” has a kind of impressionistic feel to it and that’s Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn who were very heavily influenced by French Impressionism, so that brings that in too. Someone said the other day ‘You play a little Spanish sometimes’ and I said ‘Well, if you go down to the border of Texas, that’s the way people play down there’. So we’re trying to cover the entire geography because that’s what we do in our car and we try to do it musically too. We have the broadest possible definition of Americana.
Allan – Do you have a particular method of writing that you always use?
Maura – No, and that’s a real blessing; because we write in different ways, the music evolves over time. Our very first songs that we wrote together, “Day In and Day Out” was the very first song we wrote together, Pete gave me the title and I sang the title back to him and we wrote everything, music and words, together. The second song that we wrote together was “River of Fallen Stars” and he gave me an entire lyric sheet and I put a melody to that. On the album “Closer than You Know”, for a lot of those songs, Pete had recorded instrumental tracks with form but no melody and no words and I would put the whole song to that. On my new record, “Villanelle”, these are all lyrics that were sent to me by this poet B.D. Love and they’re in poem forms, forms I would never write in, so I’m trying to stay very true to the poetic forms and still make them sound like songs. Pete will sometimes write music first and sometimes lyrics, so we mix it all up. We try to not fall into a formula.
Allan – And what will the future bring? Next year four albums?
Maura – That’s a good question. We never know but we’re always really open and we always try and go with the flow. If you had asked us that question twelve months ago we wouldn’t have known we had three albums coming out; that came together in the last nine or ten months. So we don’t know but I’m sure it’ll be fun.
Allan – One last question. Do you have a song that makes you cry?
Maura – I’ve cried a lot singing songs. “When I Go” by Dave Carter is one of them. They change all the time. “I’ll Come Over” is a good example; that’s a song to my best friend and if I know somebody’s having trouble, I’ll dedicate it to them. I’ll start singing it and I’ll start crying; songs like that I can’t even talk about. And unfortunately, that was all we had time for before Pete and Maura had to get ready to go out and do their thing.
“West” and “Villanelle” are out now and “The Heart of Gotham” is out in June.
In November 2014, we reviewed “Wild Skies”, Linda Sutti’s debut album, released on Cable Car Records and produced by Henrik Freischlader. Allan was really impressed by the album so when we discovered that Linda was in London for a few days just before Christmas, we sent him out to the wilds of Camden (well, The World’s End) to have a chat with her about her first album, working with Henrik Freischlader, her songwriting influences and a few other things as well. This is what happened:
AM – So, you’re from Piacenza in Italy, you sing and write in English and your album was produced by a German, Henrik Freischlader; how did that all happen?
LS – I don’t know; I’ve tried to figure out how it worked out but I still don’t know. I had many chances to make music and I was always in love with English as a language and that’s why I started to write in English. Also, I was a member of a blues band and it’s unusual to write Italian blues; as for the German thing, it was just good luck to meet Henrik.
AM – I suppose if you sing in English, it gives you a wider audience as well.
LS – That wasn’t the main reason; I didn’t think of anything other than my love for English music and American-English music and songwriting in general when I was writing my songs.
AM – So that actually brings me quite neatly on to the singers and songwriters you listened to when you were younger; who influenced you?
LS – I loved and I still love the British folk scene, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and Donovan and generally the music of the sixties. That’s why I fell in love with folk music after flirting first with the blues.
AM – From the album sleeve notes, it looks like you were into music from a very young age; is that right?
LS – In my very first band, when I was sixteen, I was playing with another musician and we played covers in English and Italian and I wrote two songs in Italian and then, with other musicians we formed a blues band when I was eighteen/nineteen years old.
AM – It also sounds like your family really supported you as well.
LS – Yeah, very much. My father used to play guitar in a band when he was younger; he had a big band called Sunflowers but they weren’t famous at all. It was very fashionable in Italy at that time to have a big band at that time and, yes, my family has supported me all the way.
AM – On your first album, “Wild Skies”, there are some great arrangements from Henrik; did you have a lot of songs before that you were performing before that as solo acoustic songs.
LS – Last October (2013), I was invited to Opole Songwriters Festival in Poland and that was my first chance to play my songs outside Italy.
AM – I’ve been reading a very good book recently, exploring the ways different songwriters work (“Isle of Noises”) and I wondered how you approach songwriting.
LS – I don’t have a particular recipe; I don’t really have a structure. Basically it comes from the music; I start with a chord progression and some words will come out and then I try to fill in the blanks.
AM – A lot of it sounds very personal in the singer/songwriter tradition of the seventies; James Taylor and Carole King. Do you write about your own life?
LS – Yes, of course, from my personal life and from my friends’ life stories because it’s easier to express ideas about being single, for example, if I write while I’m single.
AM – I have to ask; what was it like working with Henrik on the album?
LS – It was great because I really felt from the start that he understood what I wanted to express, not only with my music and songwriting, but also with my idea of being an artist. Also Cable Car Records is very careful about the personality of the artist. It was amazing and I learned many things about music and about working in the studio, so it wasn’t only about making an album, it’s about growing as an artist and a person; it was great.
AM – And he’s a great player, isn’t he?
LS – Yes, he’s amazing and me and the other artists on Cable Car are so lucky because he plays bass, drums and guitar so when you start to work, he knows everything about the song and he has it all in his mind so you can trust him from the start.
AM – I’ve always had this idea that Henrik works that way; he doesn’t think about different parts, he hears the whole thing in his head.
LS – Yeah, it’s amazing. And the backing vocals as well; he does all the backing vocals on the album.
AM – And what was it like touring with Henrik on his final tour?
LS – It was very special because, as you say, it was the last tour, so I was very honoured. I really felt that the audience was very close to him and it was great to be a part of that atmosphere. For me as an artist, it was a great moment and a great occasion to grow and learn.
AM – And I know that Henrik’s audience is open to listening to different styles of music and I imagine they gave you a good welcome.
LS – I was very grateful to play to the audience and I knew that, me and Henrik, we have different styles (and volumes, we all know how powerful the band and Henrik’s playing is) but the audience was great with me because Henrik allowed them to make room for my music. He always introduced me before he played and I appreciated that very much. I think the audience was also prepared because he produced the album (“Wild Skies”).
LS – (laughs) Thanks.
AM – The strings on the album were great as well, weren’t they?
LS – It was a particularly moving afternoon when we recorded the strings; they’re played by two musicians, one plays violin and one plays cello and the parts they wrote sound like an orchestra. It was amazing.
AM – So that’s the first album done now, where to next?
LS – I don’t know; I’m still focussed on promoting this one. I hope I’ll be touring this album soon. I have many songs in store but, you know, you have to move one step at a time.
AM – Well, let’s hope we get to see you in the UK sometime soon; that would be something to look forward to.
LS – (laughs) I would love it; I’m ready. If you want me call me, I’m here.
AM – There are certainly a few places in London and around the UK where your music would work really well.
LS – I’m looking for places but there are so many musicians here so I think I may have to wait a while.
AM – Well, we’re looking forward to seeing you.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):
AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?
SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.
AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?
SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.
AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.
SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.
AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…
SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.
AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.
SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.
AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?
SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.
AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.
SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.
AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.
SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.
AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?
SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.
AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.
SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.
AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?
SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.
AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.
SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.
AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.
SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.
AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.
SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.
AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?
SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.
AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.
SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.
AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?
SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.
AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?
SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.
AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.
SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.
AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?
SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.
AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.
SJ – My pleasure, any time.
AM – Just looking around Leigh as an outsider, it always seems to have had a bit of an artistic vibe to it; do you get that?
PB – I’m torn on this idea; if you asked me where I would love to have lived it would probably be Greenwich Village but I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. You sometimes come from hick towns and you get the mavericks and the big fish in little pools but I’m not really sure that it matters at the end of the day. Obviously New York is a great residence simply because so many great writers came from there but if Lou Reed was born in Leigh-on-Sea what would he have written about?
AM – There’s no CBGBs here is there?
PB – Well there isn’t, but it would have been interesting, and vice versa; you get parochial writers who, well, what would they have done if they’d gone to town? I’m not sure it’s important; it’s certainly relevant, where you come from and where you write about. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite of something good. You can get blood out of a stone; you can, you’ve just got to try hard. Sometimes you’re swamped; now, having written from a local area that isn’t particularly bohemian, if I now went to New York, I’d probably overwrite everything and it would just be a mass of input and no way of filtering it. Which would be great; I’d love to do it if anyone’s got an apartment in New York.
AM – And that kind of leads in to “Dunfearing…”, which is the first part of a trilogy.
PB – I’m fond of these things; I get a lot of stick for it.
AM – It’s obvious that that there’s a tremendous sense of place in it. It’s a very West Country thing.
PB – The rest of the trilogy won’t be. You were probably the only person that picked up on the idea of approaching America as the only possible escape after the end of England; the only place you can go. That’s developing a little bit and the other two parts of the trilogy are written and I’m sorting out the third one but it’s more about how you escape the idea of getting old and the only way to do it is to reinvent a youth, which never really works and the idea of America is that it’s supposed to be the land of eternal youth no matter what age you go, so there’s a cynical angle to it as well but I hope that it’s more hope than cynicism: pragmatism.
AM – Do you think that the way the music business has gone over the last twenty years has allowed people like you to do what you want to do?
PB – No, I don’t. I actually think the music business is poorer for what’s happened to it. I would rather be struggling to sign to Warner Brothers, in a way. There’s a philosophy now that anyone can do anything they like, they can record it in their bedroom and make an album, which is fine, because the punk ethos is fine, but there is a difference. Yes, someone could thrash away at three chords and sing ‘I hate Margaret Thatcher’ and be played on John Peel; fabulous, but that was it. Now there seems to be a corporate mentality attached to do-it-yourself.
AM – It’s so difficult now, with music, to actually make any money.
PB – Which is essentially what you have to do. There were people around punk who never thought they’d make any money and a lot of them didn’t but they thought they’d got a chance of maybe an album and that’s it and they’re now working in IT or whatever and that’s what they wanted. The problem is, while you’ve got that ethos is that if people are taking it seriously, then they get lumped in with it and it’s ‘Oh, you’re still here, are you?’ and now it’s even worse because nothing’s taken seriously. To include lyrics with an album now is seen as pretentious.
AM – And yet, to me, “Dunfearing…” was actually a very nice packaging job, but we shouldn’t be talking about packaging, really.
PB – I would have agreed with you a while back, but now I go back to albums I’ve listened to and loved and I think these are beautiful things, regardless of the music, I would want this album; as a piece of art, as a whole.
AM – I’m accused of fetishing the whole thing; going for the vinyl and the nice gatefold sleeve…
PB – My mantra for that is accused by whom? I’m a great fan of the Oscar Wilde saying ‘The show was a success, the audience was a failure’; it depends who’s criticising.
AM – It’s a completely different listening experience now; I sometimes stick review copies on a little MP3 player and you have to pull this thing out of your pocket to check the track title.
PB – This is the first album I’ve done with a record company as opposed to putting it out on my own and Phil’s great (Phil Penman of Drumfire Records) but if you want tracks for radio, or the hit track (not the hit single, that never happens any more), I just think ‘I don’t want one’. That’s why I hate the download culture so much; ‘I’ve listened to this album twice, these two are obviously the best songs so therefore I’ll stick them next to my favourite Kylie song on my iPod’. Well, fuck that, what are you going to do with Lou Reed and “Berlin”; take a couple of tracks from that and stick it next to Miley Cyrus. Would we do it with art? ‘I think I like that third sunflower but I think it would look nice in the Velasquez, so I’ll shift it over and Photoshop it in to that’. There’d be outrage.
AM – I think Pink Floyd were entirely right…
PB – There has to be a first time for everything
AM – When they blocked the downloading of single tracks from “Dark Side of the Moon”.
PB – Funny you should say that, but it occurred to me the other day that if I blended my music in so that it tinkled out on one track and tinkled in on the next, nobody would be able to download it; don’t tempt me.
AM – I can’t do it, I can’t buy in to the download thing; I’d rather pay full whack…
PB – And be wrong. I’ve spent ten quid on an album and it’s been bullshit apart from the track I liked. That’s what you get; you can buy a sofa for four hundred quid and the leg falls off and that’s life, get used to it.
AM – So you’re going to be recording the second album in the trilogy soon.
PB – This year we’re doing the second. The third album is very ephemeral, but I want to get that done because I want to get on to the next phase. There’s a bunch of folkie songs that I’ve written and I want to get them out of the way, so I’ll do a double folkie album next year, but I might get two albums out before then. I’ll have to put out one on my own label because I don’t expect Drumfire to do it. It’s weird really; if Bob Dylan was still fabulously creative, I’d want an album from him every month. There’s an idea that you can only put an album out once every year or two years but The Fall make an album every twelve minutes; some of it’s all right, some of it’s not but I’d rather have that.
AM – That’s just reminded of someone that I know you admire, Jackie Leven, who would do exactly the same thing.
PB – That’s what I’m aiming for actually. Jackie recorded what he called his platinum albums for Cooking Vinyl. Someone would give me a tape from a live gig I did somewhere and I’d love to release that so and that’s why I kept my own label. I can put stuff out that’s not a big production number but it’s a bunch of songs that hang together well and say ‘Have a listen to this’ and Jackie did that really well. Other than that, I’ve got a good setup for recording that I use with a few people and Mark Elliott especially and it’s easy to do. We get the band together, rehearse it and record it. “Mercenary Thoughts of a Lush”; we went up to London and recorded the whole thing in two days. Bit of punk spirit and some people say it sounds like it but that’s what it needed to be with that bunch of songs. We could never have done that with “Dunfearing…”because it needed a bit of time but there should be room to do that.
Neil Young would be cruising about, just out for a drive and he’d drive down to New Orleans and hear a bit of music and end up writing ten songs and think ‘I need to record this’, so he’d phone up local musicians, get into the studio, record them and send them to his recording company and they’ll say ‘Well you only had an album out a month ago, you can’t do this’, and I’m with him, why not. If you love Neil Young, or whoever, and you hear that a month after you’ve paid out ten pounds for his new album, he’s got another one out, I think I’d find ten quid but apparently it’s an unwritten law that you can’t do this.
AM – What I find quite interesting is that more and more bands are rehearsing stuff, getting the songs right, going into the studio and recording as a band rather than doing separate tracks.
PB – I don’t exactly do that. I like the idea but I find it takes a lot more time because you have to do a lot more takes but certainly, with the next album, it’ll be a lot looser; it’s nothing like “Dunfearing..”. It loosely follows on from that album; the third of the trilogy ties it all together. The second one will be a bit ‘what’s this?’, but it’ll make sense with the third one. I’m already on to next year with the folkie album, trying to get into Pentangle now, God help me.
AM – That’s something to look forward to then.
PB – Well that’ll be a double album because there’s a lot of songs there. Just songs that I’ve written in a folkie/country style that don’t need a lot of embellishment so they’re easier to record. There’s a lot of them, so let’s stick them out on a double album, which no-one does any more; gatefold sleeve coming up here.
AM – I bought the Ben Watt album, “Hendra” on vinyl, a few weeks ago and that had a nice gatefold sleeve and lovely packaging.
PB – I had a drink with Ben Watt, once; a very polite drink.
AM – It’s a great album and it’s nice to hear that people are still making music in that way.
PB – Well, these Drumfire gigs I’ve been doing, I supported Clive Gregson and my first reaction was ‘Christ, he’s still going’ and Martin Stephenson played there as well (at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham) and I thought it was great because you don’t to discover that they’re dead or working in Macdonald’s or something; they’re still out there playing and that’s really reassuring. They must love it. They must love and hate it enough to carry on doing it. Any ordinary, sane person would just say ‘I’ve had my shot now’, but the rest of us drink ourselves to death and write songs.
AM – The first time I saw you play was supporting Dean Owens in Clerkenwell at Drumfire gig. I spoke to Dean and he wasn’t happy because the venue was half-empty because they hadn’t used the posters he’d sent to publicise it and that must be incredibly frustrating.
PB – This was the other myth about myth about punk, that you used to have all these gigs going on everywhere. If you had a punk band or a new wave band or a post-punk band, you could probably get a few people to turn up but if it was a solo, forget it, it would be the owner and his dog, and his dog will hate you.
Which brought us neatly back, almost full circle, to Phil’s punk beginnings and the end of the interview.
So it’s time to move on to the second half of the seventies and the early eighties and we start off with the P-word.
AM – How did you react when punk came along then?
PB – Loved it; I actually loved it and weirdly I wanted it to do what it wanted to do because up to that point my heroes were not punk at all and the very antithesis of punk. I wanted it, because I would have been about seventeen then, leaving school, and just starting to think about playing music in pubs and got a band together; well, actually, I got a duet together with Martin Gore (yes, that Martin Gore) and we were trying to write songs. He liked, I don’t know who he liked, I think it was Simon and Garfunkel at the time and he did like Sparks and David Bowie. I liked David Bowie but I wasn’t sure, I didn’t trust him which now, I think, was probably wrong, but I didn’t get the idea that superficial and chameleon-like was his theme. At the time I thought ‘I don’t believe he really means this’ and at that time it had to mean it and that meant a lot to me and I was probably wrong and Gore was probably way ahead of me on that. So we wrote songs which I tried to make melodic and soulful and he wanted to make strange and weird. I taught him how to play guitar and he was a better guitar player than he is, well, what he’s ended up as. We were writing some interesting songs at the time and we went out as this strange band and the punk happened, halfway through this band.
I had hair like Marc Bolan at the time and he had a bubble-cut but we found ourselves on these punk bills. I’d started writing a few songs as well, so I found myself as a solo person on these punk bills for no reason whatsoever because I had nothing to do with punk musically but I liked the fact you could play somewhere and there was energy there and I started listening to other people who were playing and I thought I’ll have a listen to this, so I went along to see some bands. I saw The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and The Talking Heads when they first came over, I saw The Clash once and there was a big fight so I didn’t hear much of The Clash, but that wasn’t the point in a way. I tended to like a what went on afterwards in the post-punk era; I got really well into that because there seemed to be room for bands like Television and The Fall with some of their lyrics which, at that point, were suddenly taking over for me and I went from trying to write songs like James Taylor with three words in them to two chords and “War and Peace” over the top of them; “Ulysses” or something like that, but then there were bands that that was feeding into at the time like The Fall. I certainly got heavily into The Fall and the more experimental bands but I would still listen to “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu and then go home and listen to “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” by James Taylor because I think that’s what it’s about; they’re not dissimilar in the sense that the person who’s responsible for the music does what he wants it to do. There’s too many categories, in a way.
AM – I know Television, “Marquee Moon”, everybody claims now that it’s always been their favourite album and at the time…
PB – They’re fucking lying; I tried to get everyone into that and a couple of people got it, but for once the rabid NME press was right about this.
AM – For me it’s still one that I’m happy to get the vinyl copy out and stick it on the turntable.
PB – It is actually an album I can listen to at any time and that’s a rare thing. Sometimes, even your favourite albums you think ‘I’m not in the mood for that’, but I can be depressed, I can be happy, I can be whatever, but when Television comes on, that’s it.
AM – So, that was punk, what about what came after that.
PB – Punk was exciting and I was involved in the energy of it; everywhere you went there were gigs. I sounded like Leonard Cohen at that time but anything went and that was the beauty of it. I wore flares and had long hair at the punk gigs I did and it was, sort of, ok. You’d get comments, but that was sort of the point; wait until Dexys Midnight Runners sing about ‘you’re so anti-fashion, wear flares”. You could do anything you liked, it was sort of Dadaist spirit. It was very early on when the fashion thing kicked in, the Kings Road punks, and it was weird because I felt like I’d transcended that because I hadn’t changed. I didn’t even cut my hair so I was like David Crosby amongst the punks.
AM – So presumably when the synthesisers kicked in that wouldn’t really have been your thing.
PB – When the post-punk thing happened, I used to like some of the bands that became known as Krautrock, Can, Neu and the newer ones as well, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and Einsturzende Neubauten who were pure noise and distortion and the English versions of that like Cabaret Voltaire; I loved all of that. I thought there’s a synth thing going on and Martin got into it, so he buggered off and did Depeche Mode. Suddenly it turned into this really twee pop with no substance. I don’t hate pop music but I thought, with everything he knew, and the stuff he liked, I thought he would have gone towards Throbbing Gristle rather than this thing that happened, which seemed like it was going to be over in five minutes. For all I know he’s now a multi-millionaire and I’m sitting in a pub in Leigh.
AM – It’s a general thing that innovations like that come along, people make really good music and then somebody grabs bits of it for the mainstream and just dilutes it.
PB – That’s always happened. Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been anywhere if it wasn’t for The Byrds; fabulous as that was, I’d rather hear Dylan. I’m probably alone in the world in preferring “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan to the Hendrix version, even though I like Jimi Hendrix. I’m alone, even Bob Dylan said it’s a better version.
AM – Dylan’s songs have been interpreted by a lot of people; are they better versions or are they different versions?
PB – They’re different versions. Sometimes you can say they’re better versions but the thing I always try to get away from is ‘Dylan’s a fabulous songwriter and an icon of the twentieth century but he can’t sing’. So that means that if Judy Collins or some such does a version of “Idiot Wind”, it will be better, de facto, because she can sing. I could not disagree with anything, outside of UKIP, more vehemently than that. Bob Dylan and Sinatra are probably the best vocal stylists of this millennium. The reason I say that is because you try to play a Bob Dylan song and sing it and not sing a bit like Bob Dylan, not phrase it like him. The same with Sinatra, once you’ve heard “You Make me Feel So Young”, you try and sing that differently. Put your own slant on that; you can’t.
AM – I play and sing badly but I try Dylan songs like “I Shall be Released” and it’s always going to sound like Dylan.
PB – The Band did that; they’ve got some great singers in that band, and it sounded like Dylan; they couldn’t change the phrasing at all. You can sing it in a bland way or you can over-sing it; my worst nightmare is that I’ll wake up and “Positively Fourth Street” is covered by Mariah Carey. She would do it and you can guarantee you would have a queue of people saying ‘Oh, at last this song has been realised by a true singer’, but I would hunt her down and you’d see me on the Six O’Clock News if that happened.