John Bulley, Steve Stott & Phil Burdett

When I get a message inviting me to visit the Railway in Southend to interview Phil Burdett, there’s only one possible response – when do I have to get there? Well, it was a mid-July Friday afternoon and the interview was livened up by the presence of Steve Stott, superb fiddle and mandolin player with Phil’s ever-evolving band. As always where Phil Burdett’s involved, it was interesting and sometimes controversial. I’ve left out some stuff to protect the innocent and the guilty – sorry Phil. Anyway, here’s how it went.

Allan – To start on familiar territory, with the last album, “Psychopastoral”, the thing that immediately struck me was releasing it as one continuous track, which gets round the whole iTunes download thing about single tracks or whole albums.

Phil – I’m sure they’re quaking in their boots at iTunes, it is a little victory but it’s the best I can hope for these days; Pyrrhic victories. I crave more Pyrrhic victories.

Allan – It took me a while to get this while I listened to it on my trusty old media player on continuous cycle as it went from the end straight back to the beginning, that the album was a cycle from the early morning to early morning a day later. I said at the time that I thought it was an outstanding piece of work, as good as anything you’ve done, I think.

Phil – I must admit, I was surprised, in the sense that it was different from what I used to do and I thought I’m either going to get some new people who like it and hate everything I’ve ever done or just everyone will hate it. You get so involved with it and you think you’re creating Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and someone tells you ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all. What are you doing? You’ve lost your mind.’ It was pleasing that some people that liked what I do liked it and also some people some that haven’t particularly liked what I’ve done before seem to like it as well.

Steve – There’s probably some of the style that you used to do still remaining but combined with what you’re feeling now, so it covers both ends.

Phil – It’s like Tom Waits, but not quite such a radical change (that’s the next album). He lost a lot of his old fans who said ‘I liked him when he was drunk and living in a dodgy hotel and being a sort of dharma bum’, but you get bored with it. You can come up with many artistic reasons ‘I decided to embrace the idea of a concept album, in my late fifties…’, but basically you’re bored and I couldn’t get into music after the operation and the stuff I went through there. I started playing and did a couple of gigs and I felt like a Phil Burdett tribute act and I thought ‘What am I doing this for? I’m trying to write more songs like this.’ If you’re trying to write something don’t do it. So I thought let’s do something I can’t do, so we’re doing a film now.

I’ve got to do a film soundtrack; there will be songs, and that’s made me and write the songs because I think I need a song here to go over this bit of film.

Steve – There are some great songs, actually, from the demos I’ve heard.

Phil – Thank you. I hope you’ve got that on tape.

Allan – When we were chatting earlier, you were saying something the film being a bridge between “Psychopastoral” and the next album.

Phil – It is; there’s a lot of stuff I wrote in the hospital; morphine is a wonderful thing. I read it back when I sobered up and I thought I have no idea what this man is talking about, then it started making sense gradually and I realised that a lot of it followed on from what I did on the last album but I didn’t want it to be the middle album before I get really depressing with the hospital songs. I thought it wold be nice if it had some other element to it, so I thought ‘Let’s make a film!’  And directly, I thought there was no way I could make a film with on no money, no budget and no actors

Steve – Not strictly true…

Phil – So we are, and the fact that it’s actually happening is what’s keeping me going because even the prospect of doing the bunch of songs I had written felt like ‘Here we go again’ but this will spark it off and it’s also got a visual element to it, which I like the idea of. It’s not a series of music videos joined together, but you know The The did that film, I want it to have that sort of feel to it, but there’s a bit more drama involved (with a small d). We’re not talking “Apocalypse Now”, we couldn’t afford the helicopters…

Allan – And this is not the only film you’ve been involved with recently, is it?

Phil – No, I’m a regular luvvie now. ‘Just in between films, dahling’. It’s a documentary about growing up in Basildon. It was initially about brutalist architecture but it seemed to evolve when the director met a lot of artists from Basildon and they were all so different but they all had a similar theme of a love/hate relationship with Basildon so it was about that; it was good fun. He let me witter on then edited it down to something that was almost coherent, so I was quite pleased with that.

Steve – The people the film’s about, or featured in the film, have all left Basildon, haven’t they? There’s not a single one actually lives in Basildon now.

Phil – Which was hilarious. A lot of the Irish diaspora sing “From Clare to Here” and “Off to Dublin in the Green” but they’re all in Finsbury Park now. ‘We all love it but we’re not going back there. Fuck that.’

Allan – As an ex-pat Scot I completely get that. So, without giving too much away in terms of plot, what’s the story with the film?

Phil – Well the “Psychopastoral” album was basically, the narrative throughout was called ‘the long walk home’ and it’s an idea that I’ve discovered that many of the people I like, in music and literature and poetry, were always disappearing into the wilderness looking for something and what they were looking for was somewhere they could go home and that was the vague idea. A lot of them went to nature; it was based around William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud. They all disappeared to derange their senses and they all found out they were miles from home: ‘I don’t feel at home and that’s what I wanted in the first place. I wanted to feel something.’ That’s the idea of that album and going through my traumas, I thought ‘They were all walking’.

John Clare famously walked from High Beach to Helpston; he walked from this lunatic asylum, going home to what he thought was his wife, but was actually his mistress, who had actually died anyway so it was an exercise in the definition of futility. I used him as the central character and Blake was another one who didn’t actually wander, but he wandered in his head. He was seeking angels in the trees; he was a cockney mystic, like the Russell Brand of his day. They were people who had ideas beyond their station and then realised that they wanted to get back to their station. It was the idea of comfort without being comfortable and when you derange your senses there is a sense that nothing makes sense and that can be liberating but, after a while, it becomes just derangement.

Rimbaud gave up altogether and became a gun-runner, Blake started to write about Heaven-knows-what and Clare lost his mind. He thought he was Shakespeare, he thought he was a boxer at one point. So I thought the halfway house of madness is fine because you get the little insights. When that’s happening, that’s great, but once you’re in an asylum and you’re thinking you’re Shakespeare, that’s really not useful as an artist.

Brian Wilson’s an example. Everyone thought ‘How on earth did he write “Good Vibrations”?’ Look at the stuff he wrote once he reached his destination and it’s like a five-year-old writing; wonderfully produced and interesting, but still like a five-year-old. I wanted to avoid that, so while I was in the hospital I wrote all this really depressing stuff because I thought everything was coming to an end but when I came out, I thought it’s not coming to an end but I couldn’t think in the same way as I did.

 I thought it was a continuation. I’d lost a leg; Rimbaud lost a leg; Captain Ahab lost a leg searching for something and I grabbed the idea of the long walk home without a leg. That’s basically what this is all about. The further out you get, through drink, drugs, mysticism, anything, the less able you are to communicate it to people because they just think you’ve gone mad. But there’s a point just before it ends, before you do go mad, where it’s really interesting and that’s point I’m trying to hold on to in this film. And then it descends into depression and madness which is what the really interesting third album of the trilogy is about, but we’ll get to that later. I want to make it sound like Steely Dan actually because that’s the only way it’s gonna sell anything, either that or “Berlin” by Lou Reed, which I love, but it’s unlistenable to most people. This will make “Berlin” sound like Five Star

Allan– Looking beyond that, have you got any more plans for live stuff coming up?

Phil – It’s a bit tricky. I’ve lost all my mojo, although I don’t know what a Mojo is apart from a middle-class magazine for people who still like Crosby, Stills and Nash, but I don’t know. I’d like to do it but I want to have a point to it. It’s the same way I feel about the writing; I don’t want to do all this differently and feel I’ve changed my approach and then think ‘Oh, we’ll go and do some gigs’.

I’m having some poetry published at the end of the year and I’d like to include some of that in it because there’s a lot more poetry on the album. I wouldn’t mind dipping my toe in the water by doing stuff with Steve. We did a thing in a church, didn’t we?

Steve – Yeah, St Paul’s church. That was beautiful actually; it was purely acoustic, just a selection of songs that suited the venue. I suppose it was a kind of folky thing.

Phil – It was. I’d like to do that with some poetry, just to see if I can read the poetry. There’s a couple of poetry evenings here where you can just get up and read.

Steve – I think the other thing is to enjoy doing it rather than have the pressure of putting on a big gig and inviting lots of people.

Phil – When we planned to do the album launch gig, I got to the rehearsal and then thought ‘What the fuck am I doing?’. If it had all been rehearsed without me there, I might have been able to turn up and sing it but I was just sitting there thinking that I wanted to do something else, I didn’t want to be sitting there churning out this stuff. It felt it important that the whole process changed, and what I don’t want to do is just get back to ‘let’s do a gig then. All the creativity has stopped, let’s go and regurgitate it live with some feedback.’

Steve – We were doing gigs to promote the albums that we all produced, so the was the reason for the gigs.

Phil – And that’s why they’re all platinum sellers…

Steve – So the question is, do we really need to do that?

Phil – The Leigh Folk Festival, I’d like to do something there next year; not just for ‘Oh, Phil’s singing again and he’s got one leg. Oh, well done, Phil.’ Unless I have my head chopped off, I can fuckin’ sing; Ella Fitzgerald managed and I’m a better singer than she is. (Followed by a loud cackle).

Allan – I suppose the thing is, whatever you decide to do, you’ve got a great bunch of musicians working with you.

Phil – I have, just don’t tell my band. No, it’s true; I’m really appreciative of the musicians I’ve been able to talk into doing stuff for nothing because it would have been very difficult otherwise. I don’t like having a regular band. I used to but now I feel like everything we do something it’s a new band almost because we evolve with this particular bunch, except the drummers…

Allan – That’s all a bit Spinal Tap isn’t it?

Steve – I don’t even know if I’ll be on the next album…

Phil – You are, but you’re playing drums. Just don’t get the drummer’s job, because then you know you’re out. No, it is a bit Spinal Tap with the drummers. The last one did actually spontaneously combust.

Allan – I suppose, Steve, you’ve got double the chance of staying in the band, playing two instruments.

Phil – He sneaks in with a false nose and moustache. ’I’ve found a new fiddle player – fuck it’s Stott’

Steve – I try to make myself as indispensable as possible.

Phil – He does; he’s currently learning the oboe. It’s great; I’m getting in touch now because I’ve got these demos for the soundtrack of the film, so I’m going to send them the stuff and we’ll get together at some point and we’ll go and record. We’ll record it at Senor Al’s (Al Franklinos) because it’s my favourite place at the moment.

Steve – It ties in very nicely with “Psychopastoral” because of the park…

Phil – Well, the songs are very different from “Psychopastoral”, so I would like it to have some continuity and that will come from whatever Al does.

Steve – And it’s the location in Peckham, where Blake’s tree is, so there’s a catharsis there.

Phil – I’d like to point out that he used the word catharsis there. Always avoid the words journey and catharsis.

Allan – And what about some of the other collaborators on “Psychopastoral”?

Phil – One of the linking voices throughout this three-album thing will be Lyndon Morgans (Songdog) who did the narration for the album (“Psychopastoral”) and he’s going to do the narration for the film, the subsequent album and the album after that, so I’m really pleased about that. He’s an old Welsh wanderer, a Celtic wanderer and I need his Richard Burton-like authority. I’ll be making him read stuff he doesn’t understand for the next two albums.

Allan – I must admit, those links on “Psychopastoral” worked really well. His voice is fabulous for those.

Phil – It was the thing I was worried about because it was the thing that was going to make it different in a way and with my zero knowledge of arrangement of the quasi-classical stuff that’s going on in the background, it was either going to be great or it was going to be shit; there is no middle-ground. And it was almost great…

Allan – And is there anything else to throw in before we wrap it up?

Phil – There’s my collection of reggae covers… I’m looking forward, in a way, to finishing this trilogy because I don’t know what I’m going to do after that, and I never felt like that. It was always just ‘Here’s another bunch of songs that I like, I’ll record them with musicians I like and we’ll put it out and some people will like it and some won’t and then we’ll do the Leigh Folk Festival, then we’ll do this, then we’ll play The Railway’. That’s not going to happen, so I’m really interested in what I want to do after that.

Steve – I think we ought to base that on whatever the outcome of the film is. You might want to do another film.

Phil – I’d love to. I’m not sure anyone else will; I’m putting many people in to therapy with this film but that would be great. But then again, I might just think ‘I’ve done that’. I won’t do it just because I’ve made a film and invent some spurious half-arsed concept…

Steve – I was just trying to generate some work for myself…

Phil – I know you were. Talking of which, there’s a collection of folk-based songs that I want to record, so I might do that as a little side project with some real folk musicians. Radical concept, I know. It’s simple; you don’t rehearse, you just have to sober them up. That’s something I wouldn’t mind doing as a side project; it’ll be nice, it’ll be my stardust memory. It was so much better when we wrote songs…

And that was where I switched off the recorder before the descent into totally scurrilous alcohol-fuelled conversation. The Basildon film that Phil refers to is ”New Town Utopia” and it’s a fascinating exploration of the development of the town and its impact on the creative artists living there. You really should watch it.

It’s difficult enough working out where to start a Phil Burdett review at the best of times without having to contend with an album that doesn’t actually start or finish anywhere. The clue’s in the song title “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”; the songwriter condemned forever to push a stone uphill. It could be worse; look what they did to Prometheus. The album cycles continuously from the birth of the dawn in “Net of Joy” to the dusk and senescence of “Dotage Train” and back to the beginning again, linked by the phrase ‘heavy miles to go’ in each song. Reincarnation without any upward or downward mobility and inspiration from the unholy poetic trilogy of William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud.

If you’re part of the generation that doesn’t listen to albums, this isn’t for you; “Psychopastoral” is designed to be heard in a certain order, start to finish and then again and maybe once more, just to be sure that it is actually a work of genius. Phil’s taken a simple approach to ensuring we listen to everything in the intended order; the entire album’s one track with songs connected by musical and lyrical fragments. Does it work? Bloody right it does; at just under an hour, the images, fragments and melodies rush past at breakneck speed then start all over again bringing fresh musical and verbal marvels to discover.

I could spend hours going into minute detail about every aspect of this album, but that’s not going to help anyone, so I’ll try to pick out some of the attention to detail that permeates every aspect of this beautiful piece of work. How about the musicians? The core of this ensemble has been with Phil for a few years now and each one brings their own individual talents to a great ensemble sound. John Bennett (guitar) is one of my local heroes; comparisons with Steve Cropper are more than justified – not showy, but everything fits perfectly. Steve Stott adds colour and texture with bright mandolin and melancholy fiddle and Colleen McCarthy’s backing and lead vocals are a pure and clear foil for Phil’s soulful growl. And of course, Russ Strothard’s melodic bass playing, Lyndon Morgan’s spoken word contributions and the samples and programming contributed by Al Franklinos.

Phil’s voice sounds as good as I’ve ever heard it and the words are as densely packed with meaning and allusion as ever. I’m not going to bore you with my amateur literary criticism, you can delve into the layers of meaning for yourself (there’s a lyric booklet as part of the CD package); you’ll find it packed with autobiographical references both pleasurable and painful alongside the odd skewed musical reference (‘needles of death and the damaged rum’ from “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”).

I’m a huge admirer of Phil’s work, particularly from “Dunfearing and the West Country High” onwards and with “Psychopastoral”, he’s made an unflinching, uncompromising album that flies in the face of convention in its stance on sequencing and playback. There are some memorably catchy songs embedded in the piece, and Phil’s determined that they stay embedded and we hear them as part of the overall creation. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s perfect in every little detail. Favourite album of the year so far? I think so.

“Psychopastoral” is out now you; can order it direct from Phil’s website.

Estuary Fringe DCS ScrollerIt’s not just Edinburgh that has a festival in August. What about Southend? Maybe not as fashionable but there’s a great arts scene around Southend and its satellites. So, on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, why not head out to have a look at The Railway Hotel’s contribution to the Estuary Fringe Festival which is an afternoon session in the beer garden followed by more live bands inside in the evening. I got there just as the belly dancing was finishing and the stage was being set up for live music (with background music leaning heavily on blues classics and some nice Al Stewart songs).

First on stage was Pick Yer Feet Up, or Eleanor Donne (fiddle) and Dave Murray (twangs and bangs) playing a selection of ‘bogus Bulgarian bangers’. It was relatively low-key but very melodic in an Eastern European way with a nice line in dry patter from Dave between songs. In the great old Python tradition of ‘now for something completely different’, next up was Dirty Captain Scott. What can I say? A twentieth-century estuary poet backed with cajon beats (and guitar towards the end of the set). The rhythms were insistent and the delivery, well, imagine Adele rapping and you’re most of the way there. A great set that you just couldn’t ignore.

Next? The Timlins (Matt and Victoria) played a lovely set of melancholy (maybe even miserable) songs, reminding me a lot of Turin Brakes and (bonus points if you remember this band) Budapest. Victoria’s keyboard filled out the textures created by Matt’s acoustic guitar and the harmonies were sublime. Personally, I like a bit of miserable; always have. Dead Air next, playing their first (and possibly only) gig, played a set of folky Americana with a female lead singer, acoustic guitar and mandolin backing and some lovely harmonies. If you wanted a backing track for an English summer day you wouldn’t go far wrong here.

And on to Phil Burdett, backed by long-term collaborators John Bennett (guitar), Steve Stott (mandolin and fiddle) and Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals). This was only Phil’s second live appearance after major surgery earlier in the year and he was a man on a mission, determined to get songs from his two (yes, two) new albums out there in a live setting. Throughout the set, the arrangements were a masterclass in understatement; the instruments created a framework that allowed the songs to shine. John Bennett is subtle and understated in a way that reminds me a lot of Steve Cropper; no fuss, but just try to imagine The MGs without the guitar parts. Even “New Greyhound Rag”, which was written as full band piece with bass, drums and various other bits of percussion is driven along nicely by the two guitars.

But just focus on the songs. From the opener “Sea Change” to “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”, the short set was packed with melodic and lyrical invention.  The lines ‘you switch the channel in your mind – and on the news voices buzz like cracked kazoos the needle stuck on tombstone blues’ are a great example of Phil’s ability to create a striking, evocative image. All delivered to perfection in Phil’s mellow growl. You really shouldn’t get music this good for free in a pub beer garden, even if the pub is The Railway.

I’m looking forward to seeing Phil officially launch “Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” on November 5th in Southend.

If you haven’t seen them before, here are some pictures of the event.

Shaky Path to ArcadiaEvery time I hear some delusional, no-talent wannabe on a TV talent show (not often, I admit) it should make me despair for music in the twenty-first century. The reason it doesn’t is that I know about people like Phil Burdett, a genuine visionary who’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the epicentre of what masquerades as the music business today. When I interviewed Phil about eighteen months ago in downtown Leigh-on-Sea, he told me that he was working an album to follow “Dunfearing and the West Country High” as the second part of the “Secular Mystic Trilogy”. Not only that but he was also working on another trilogy that would begin with “Humble Ardour Refrains”. So, on a budget of threepence-halfpenny and some lollipop sticks, he’s recorded two albums for Drumfire Records with some fabulous musicians from the Southend and Canvey area (more about the musicians later) and he’s releasing both of them at the same time.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” carries on where its predecessor left off, looking west towards the USA from Cornwall, but it’s a metaphorical and musical destination and it’s not the only direction the album goes in, geographically or temporally, before returning to Cornwall to complete the cycle. Without slipping in to ‘sixth-form-literary-criticism’ mode, I’m going to say that there’s a lot going on lyrically and the deeper you dig, the more precious stones you’ll unearth. The lyrics are strewn with references to American music and culture; there’s no mistaking the reference point for “Christmas in Casablanca”, but elsewhere there are references to Joe Hill, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Little Richard and many, many more. There are Dadaist references, travel references (trains, boats and buses and almost a plane) and if you look really closely, a lot of references to Basildon. There’s a lot of autobiography in there, but you need to know where and how to look.

Even without the lyrical content, you could listen to the album and be enthralled by Phil’s rich, powerful vocals and the performances of the band over a wide range of styles. From the mainly acoustic opening song, “Returning to Earth” to the counterpoint vocals in the coda of the album’s closer “I Dreamed I Saw Carl Wilson Last Night”, the band sounds superb. It’s ensemble playing at its finest; particularly on “Hellbound & Innocent” where a melodic bass line from Russ Strothard, an insanely catchy clipped John Bennett guitar hook and Jack Corder’s drums recreate the clickety-clack of the train on the track to perfection. Dee Hunter’s piano is the perfect foil for Phil’s voice on the haunting “Christmas in Casablanca” while Steve Stott’s fiddle on “Come Out Without a Hat (It’s Bound to Rain)” and “New Greyhound Rag” give an authentic country/bluegrass feel to the songs. And let’s not forget Colleen McCarthy’s lovely backing vocals and producer Mark Elliott’s esoteric samples.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” is an example of how good an album can be when it’s put together by people who love what they do and they do it very, very well. Put the players together with another superb set of songs from the polymath poet of Westcliff-on-Sea and you’ve got a very fine album indeed. Any proper record collection should have some Phil Burdett in it and this is as good a place as any to start. “Humble Ardour Refrains” coming soon.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” and “Humble Ardour Refrains” are both available to pre-order now from Drumfire Records.