Winter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.
Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.
Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.
Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.
Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.
You can see some photos from the gig here.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if this is going on all the time, but this is the second album we’ve reviewed in two weeks that was recorded live at Southern Ground in Nashville. Martin Harley, roots acoustic and slide maestro has teamed up with upright bass player Daniel Kimbro to revisit some of his own back catalogue and rework a few classics as well. Just to add a little pressure to the situation, they decided to record the whole album in a day. Now there are a couple of ways you can look at a project like this. You could see it as an easy way of knocking out an album without having to write any new material, but it’s obvious from the opening sitar-like slide and menacing bowed double bass of “Cardboard King” (from the “Mojo Fix” album) that this is the real thing; it’s two craftsmen giving a masterclass in acoustic blues arrangement and playing, and it sounds like they just happen to be having a lot of fun while at the same time. “Live at Southern Ground” also serves as a great example of the variety and dynamic range you can produce from two players and two voices, especially when they’re as good as this.
The non-originals on the album demonstrate Martin and Daniel’s interpretative abilities; “Goodnight Irene” is slowed down to an almost funereal pace with plenty of room for slide fills and raw emotional vocals while Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus” is taken at an almost frantic pace and features a solo which build and builds to the point where you wonder how many Weissenborns Martin’s actually playing. Blind Willy Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” sticks much more closely to the original (well, a lot closer than the Zeppelin version). Of the songs from Martin’s excellent “Drumrolls for Somersaults” album, the lovely “Winter Coat” is taken at a slower pace and works well in a stripped-down version with perfect harmonies from Daniel, while “Honey Bee” becomes a fast country blues as a contrast to the original rockabilly version, and “Love in the Afternoon” has a greater emphasis on the Django Rheinhardt stylings than the original.
And then, when you think it’s all over (spoiler alert), check your time display (or just look at your vinyl) because there’s a hidden track. It’s a new take on “Blues at my Window” from the 2008 “Grow Your Own” album with Martin displaying his slide virtuosity while Daniel’s bowed bass moves from the growling, menacing bottom end up into the cello range to supply counter melodies. If you want a reason for making the album, this is it; there’s a song framework in place, but it’s all about the two players finding space to make their own creative contributions, and they do it to perfection.
“Live at Southern Ground” has all the intimacy of a live performance in a small venue. It’s a bit like looking through a crack in the door to see what musicians do when they think no-one’s watching or listening. Luckily, this time they decided to share it with the rest of us.
“Live at Southern Ground” is out on September 25th on Del Mundo Records (CD, Vinyl and download).
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…
When you find out that a rock band’s from Norfolk, there’s one connection that you have to make and, yes, there is a link to The Darkness. Bad Touch made their debut EP in the Leeders Farm studio owned by The Darkness, but that’s where the link ends. This isn’t spandex hair metal; from the opening gently-picked guitar spiced up by a bit of slide, it’s obvious that Bad Touch’s roots go much further back than the noughties. Mix up a brew of the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zep, throw in a bit of Chris Robinson and you’re just about there.
The single “Wise Water” is a taster for their new album “Halfway Home” which is released at the end of this month and it’s pretty successful in that respect. You get a sledgehammer guitar riff, a slide solo, a breakdown to drums and vocals (you know, the bit where the audience clap along) and a big live ending. It’s a pretty good single and if you like what’s on offer here, you’re probably going to like the album. We’ll find out in a few weeks.
“Wise Water” is out now.
Ok, NME, you’ve got some explaining to do and, no, it’s not about your obsession with Pete Doherty’s appetite for self-destruction this time. I bought the NME when it was New Musical Express and the emphasis used to be on new. Actually, to be completely fair, it still does new music and too much of it if you ask me. Every week there are at least twenty “great” new bands from around the world featured in “Radar”; that’s a thousand bands a year to feel guilty about not hearing, and that’s not counting the twenty “essential” new tracks featured in “On Repeat”. There is such a thing as too much music. But maybe I just slipped off-topic there for a second.
This might surprise you, coming from a cantankerous old git, but what’s the deal with all the old music in the “New” Musical Express. Apart from the regular features, “Anatomy of an (old) Album”, “Soundtrack of my Life” (old songs) and “This week in …” (old news), the cover features for the last two weeks have been twentieth anniversary pieces on “The Holy Bible” and “Definitely Maybe”. I’m not saying they’re bad albums; they’re not. I parted with my hard-earned for both of them – twenty years ago. So, apart from the front cover, each of these albums gets ten pages in the magazine as well. If you delve further into the back issues, there’s a fairly predictable 100 most influential artists piece (early August) and a Led Zeppelin retrospective (late May).
This is editorial content by focus group and the group must have been fifty per cent Hoxton and Dalston scenesters and fifty per cent old rockers from The Borderline and The 100 Club; sounds like a really bad sixtieth birthday party. So, what’s the target demographic (or whatever the current marketing phrase is for the people you want to buy your product) for big pieces about old music? Is it the Moss-thin, leather shrink-wrapped, pony-tailed Nick Kent wannabe who never stopped reading the New Musical Express, or is it the student who’s waded through all of the new bands and new songs and decided that there’s nothing there worth bothering with and it’s time to start looking back twenty years to find something decent. Can you imagine looking back from 1976 and thinking that you needed to find out a bit more about Pat Boone, Doris Day and Winifred Atwell? Thought not.
So, where do you draw the line? How many more “classic” album anniversaries can we dig out to fill a cover and ten pages that should really be devoted to new music? And what anniversaries do we have lined up over the next few weeks; Crash Test Dummies’ “God Shuffled his Feet”? We could get ten pages out of the (not very) subtle reference to right-wing poster girl Ayn Rand’s novel, “Atlas Shrugged”, and maybe an interview with Neil Peart to pad it out. How about Echobelly’s “Everyone’s Got One”? That got them a whole season on student summer ball circuit before they imploded; should be worth a few pages, and Sonya Madan’s back out there again so she should be happy to get the publicity. Where do you draw the line? Sleeper, Menswear, Lush, Gene? I think you get the picture.
NME, get a grip. If I want to act my musical age, I’ll buy Q or Mojo. Until then, I expect you to tell me about what’s happening now, not twenty years ago.
I know this might come over as a bit ungrateful, but I’m really hacked off by the way copies of albums are distributed by some promotion companies. I know it’s 2014 and I won’t be flown Business Class to LA while hoovering the gross national product of Colombia up my nose to interview the latest semi-literate rock wannabe, but surely it’s not unreasonable to want decent sound quality on album review copies. For anyone who’s even slightly involved with the music business (or any creative industry) it’s obvious that it’s incredibly difficult to make a living out of creativity these days; we all understand that. This isn’t nostalgia for a golden era when music journalists were worshipped and every artist’s ability was recognised and they were rewarded accordingly; it’s always been a business dominated by the need to cash in as quickly as possible, dominated by pond life who would sell their grannies for a Snickers bar, and you can find the evidence in virtually every music biography. You might not like the robust methods of Peter Grant, but at least Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones saw some financial rewards from Led Zeppelin.
So where was I? Oh yeah, promotion copies. I know margins are tight and it’s difficult to quantify the benefits from sending out physical review copies, but there has to be a better way than transferring a bunch of MP3 files. I always prefer something that pops through the letterbox rather than into the inbox, but that’s not just me being old-fashioned. With a physical copy, you get the writer credits, possibly the lyrics and, if you’re really lucky, some sleeve notes from the artist; with an electronic copy you get a press release (if you’re lucky), maybe a photo and a few hyperlinks. I don’t mind doing a bit of research but if you’re reviewing a really new band, chances are that the website looks good but tells you zilch and the only other stuff you can find is YouTube “videos” filmed on the singer’s friend’s phone; it’s not helpful. I don’t even mind getting back to the promotion or PR company to request more information, but I have a piece of advice for you. It doesn’t matter how clearly you think you’ve worded your request, it will take at least three more attempts to actually get the information you need from the intern who’s been delegated the task of dealing with incoming email. And just bear in mind that you’re trying to get the review out before the release date.
And you know who’s to blame, don’t you. We all are, because we’ve all bought in to the hype about digital music reproduction and then compression of file sizes so we can carry our music collections around in our pockets. I’ve got nothing against portable media players as first line of defence on public transport, but how much of that stuff do you actually listen to? I bet you have songs on playlists that you skip every time they play. What’s that all about? So, now we all accept compressed formats that work for the industry because they don’t have any overheads like retail and physical storage space to worry about and they can keep copies of everything that’s ever been digitised, unless the artist refuses to play ball (take a bow the surviving members of Pink Floyd), and nothing is ever out of stock or deleted. There’s an added bonus; you don’t get patronised by a shop assistant when you buy something that’s even remotely commercial and you can have great fun trying to work out which algorithm recommended Ed Sheeran and One Republic for you. And because the transactions are all electronic, its’ easy to record sales and streams for chart purposes. A friend of mine got to 298 on the singles chart because a couple of people were heard whistling his song at a bus stop.
Seriously though, a physical review copy would be great; some of us can even play vinyl but CD’s still ok (and it fits through the letterbox), but an electronic copy isn’t the end of the world if it’s in an uncompressed format. It takes slightly longer to download, but it’s a better quality than its compressed and stunted sibling and, as a bonus, you could send an electronic press release and a jpeg of the artwork. See, it’s not really that difficult, is it?
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.