Phil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.
In the literal sense Dean Owens’ “Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.
Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.
Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them. Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability. Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.
One nomination for this category of mine this year. I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.
Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases: John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’s “Kintsugi”.
Two of Allan’s High Five albums this year were released on Drumfire Records so it was a ridiculously obvious choice to ask the owner of the label (and live music promoter) Phil Penman to contribute to this feature. Once again, we got some really interesting choices.
When Allan ask me to contribute to High Fives, I thought that it would be easy – just pick five albums, I thought. But I wracked my brains and (not including Drumfire Records releases) I could not come up with a single 2014 album I thought was truly ‘great’. A dozen or so ‘good’ albums but nothing to change my life. Maybe I just haven’t found them yet. So what did excite me in 2014?
The Sound – “Box Set #1” (“Jeopardy”, “From the Lion’s Mouth” and “All Fall Down”). Privileged to work on this and truly delighted with the results, and even happier to be working on a second box set for Feb 2015 release. Adrian Borland is sadly missed. The music from this great band has really stood the test of time. Consistently high standard.
Not from 2014, but new to me. John Grant – 2 albums of enormous beauty that I’ve listened to more than any others: “The Queen of Denmark” and “Pale Green Ghosts”. It was hearing these that made me realise how much I crave music that is new to my ears and not just the latest in a succession from artists I already know and love.
Great to see local boys The Carnabys release their debut album “No Money on The Moon”. Great hard working lads, winners of Hard Rock Rising and an album that really exudes the energy and honesty they deliver live. These boys perform with smiles on their faces, which is so refreshing – not po-faced, earnest trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy. Not ground-breaking perhaps, but if you get a chance, see them live. With the right breaks they could be huge. Accessible rock.
Proving that quality can go on and on, the only time this year when one song had me running to the shop to buy the album. Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Westward Ho! –Massive Letdown” was that song. “Urge for Offal” is a good album, which also contains my lyric of the year: ‘‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?!’
Ok, so I couldn’t not mention it. Drumfire released two albums in 2014 and both made Allan McKay’s High Five. We made our first ever piece of vinyl – Ags Connolly’s ‘How About Now’, we hosted great shows with Dean Owens, Martin Stephenson, and Clive Gregson…. but my favourite thing? Phil Burdett’s launch show in Westcliff. I’d only ever seen Phil perform solo. The launch show with full band made me fall in love with his music all over again. World, you don’t know what you are missing.
In parting, I’ll add that I’ve really tried to find new music, and the following half a dozen albums definitely deserve honourable mention (and barely a country album in sight): FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Sturgill Simpson, Royksopp, Strands Of Oak, Honeyblood.
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.