Low, Steam Down, Chubby and the Gang, Modern Woman, POiSON ANNA, Self Esteem, Sherelle, Regressive Left, Hayden Thorpe, AI Song Contest, Amyl and the Sniffers, and more
Contents Contact email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Loud And Quiet Ltd PO Box 67915 London NW1W 8TH Founding Editor: Stuart Stubbs Deputy Editor: Luke Cartledge Art Direction: B.A.M. Digital Director: Greg Cochrane Contributing writers Abi Crawford, Alex Francis, Alexander Smail, Colin Groundwater, Dafydd Jenkins, Daniel Dylan-Wray, Dominic Haley, Esme Bennett, Fergal Kinney, Gemma Samways, Guia Cortassa, Isabel Crabtree, Ian Roebuck, Jamie Haworth, Jess Wrigglesworth, Jemima Skala, Jenessa Williams, Jess Wrigglesworth, Jo Higgs, Joe Goggins, Katie Beswick, Katie Cutforth, Liam Konemann, Lisa Busby, Max Pilley, Megan Wallace, Mike Vinti, Ollie Rankine, Oskar Jeff, Robert Davidson, Reef Younis, Sam Reid, Sam Walton, Skye Butchard, Sophia Powell, Susan Darlington, Tara Joshi, Tom Critten, Tristan Gatward, Woody Delaney, Zara Hedderman.
“You’re thinking, what’s she going to say next? What on earth is she going to say!? And that makes it slightly exciting.” I couldn’t crowbar this quote from Evangeline Ling into our cover feature, so it’s here, because it so neatly captures the appeal of a band as unique and unpredictable as audiobooks. It applies to their surreal pop music (seedy, hilarious stories about creeps and weirdos), and how Ling and David Wrench are in real life, too. They are brilliantly free, as inspired by Black Sabbath as they are the Human League, and a reminder that all this music stuff really should be a lot of fun. Stuart Stubbs
Contributing photographers Andrew Mangum, Annie Forrest, Charlotte Patmore, Colin Medley, Dave Kasnic, David Cortes, Dan Kendall, Dustin Condren, Emily Malan, Gabriel Green, Gem Harris, Heather Mccutcheon, Jake Kenny, Jenna Foxton, Jody Evans, Jonangelo Molinari, Levi Mandel, Matilda Hill-Jenkins, Nathanael Turner, Nathaniel Wood, Oliver Halstead, Phil Sharp, Sonny McCartney, Sophie Barloc, Timothy Cochrane, Tom Porter. With special thanks to Adrian Read, Alex Cull, Heavenly Recordings, James Cunningham, James Parrish, Katie Pilbeam, Kathryne Chalker, Rob Chute, Sam Williams, William Laurence.
The views expressed in Loud And Quiet are those of the respective contributors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the magazine or its staff. All rights reserved 2021 Loud And Quiet Ltd.
ISSN 2049-9892 Printed by Gemini Print Distributed by Loud And Quiet Ltd. & Forte
Amyl and the Sniffers . . . . . . . . End of the Road . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sherelle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Steam Down . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Regressive Left . . . . . . . . . . . . . Chubby and the Gang . . . . . . . . . Modern Woman . . . . . . . . . . . Poison Anna . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Reviews . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . audiobooks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . LGBTQI+ Bedroom Pop . . . . . . . AI Song Contest . . . . . . . . . . Self Esteem . . . . . . . . . . . . . Low . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hayden Thorpe . . . . . . . . . . . 03
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The Beginning: Previously
Since the last edition of Loud And Quiet
Bumps per minute Award-winning composer, and the creator of Loud And Quiet’s Album of the Year 2016, Anna Meredith has launched a multimedia project about dodgem cars (naturally). Until 22 August, you can experience DODGE, an installation that seeks to reinvent the traditional fairground ride at London’s Somerset House, developed by Meredith in collaboration with BAFTA-winning sound artist Nick Ryan. Attendees can take the dodgems for a spin, and as the cars bump into one another, different tracks (at different tempos) are triggered, allowing the audience to partici-
pate in an act of spontaneous, indeterminate composition – the ultimate shuffle. Meredith has also released an album based on the music she’s written for the installation, entitled Bumps Per Minute (18 Studies for Dodgems), and created an online version of the installation at bumpsperminute.com, rendering the cars in classic 16-bit video game animation for users to race around the track. The compositions range from a leisurely 62bpm up to a frenetic 200bpm, so be warned – it gets intense. It’s available to play now, and a 12” vinyl edition of the record can be pre-ordered via Moshi Moshi with five different sleeve options.
The Beginning: Previously Holly+ An artist who’s always determined to push things forward, Holly Herndon has unveiled her latest project – and it’s one of her most daring yet. Following her development of Spawn, the “AI baby” she worked with during the production of her 2019 album Proto, she’s added another branch to her synthetic family tree: an AI deepfake twin called Holly+. Essentially, it’s an interactive instrument, which allows users to upload polyphonic audio of their choice into the system, and hear it sung back to them in Herndon’s voice. It’s another bold step for Herndon – and available to try out now. holly.plus
winner Darren McGarvey joined by experts from the industry, community organisations and artists from across Scotland. officialsama.com/hang
NRTHRN A new label and collective based in Manchester, NRTHRN seeks to champion new LGBTQIA+ and POC voices from the north of England. Having launched the project with a debut release – Elio by Vzion – and a showcase at Manchester International Festival, founder Omar Ferguson is keen to build NRTHRN into something special: “My vision for NRTHRN is to build a platform that is, like my influences BROCKHAMPTON and Odd Future, a home for likeminded members to release both solo and collaborative ventures. I want to create a platform to empower people in the music industry who look and sound like me, and to show that ‘DIY’ doesn’t have to equal ‘going it alone’”. instagram.com/nrthrn__
Jamz Supernova’s DIY Handbook podcast BBC Radio 6 Music and 1Xtra host Jamz Supernova has launched a new podcast. DIY Handbook focuses on overcoming tough hurdles in your life and career, with insights from personal heroes and contemporaries like Toddla T, Ciara London, June Sarpong and more. “In a world that praises perfection and overnight success,” says Jamz, “we’ll aim to be painfully honest, personal & practical.” Find it wherever you get your podcasts.
Mars Tapes Manchester’s Mars Tapes has an unusual distinction. Having weathered the storm of the pandemic and Brexit-related customs complications, it’s now the last remaining cassette tape store in the UK. Tucked away in the Northern Quarter’s iconic indoor market, Afflecks, the shop is affiliated with local record label Sour Grapes, and they’ve been hosting a weekly lockdown show on NMFM 106.6. Together with venue Big Hands, another establishment to which Sour Grapes and Mars Tapes have close ties, they’re set to release a new compilation of the best new psych and garage rock, a portion of the proceeds from which will be donated to the venue – who, like all venues, have had a tough time lately. More details at facebook.com/marstapes and sourgrapesrecords.com
This Must Be For You Venue programmers LNZRT have started a new community fund ticket scheme. This Must Be For You is described as a “pay-itforward” initiative to make live music more accessible to those who might not usually be able to attend certain events due to financial, health-based or other such barriers. In partnership with industry advice platform Route and charities Arts Emergency, Shoreditch Trust and Tickets for Good, events that the fund will be providing tickets for include shows by Tiña, Virginia Wing and more. Donors to the fund will be entered into a monthly merch draw as a thank-you. theroute.co
Fabric: Stay in the Moment Legendary London club Fabric is celebrating its reopening following the pandemic with a new policy for attendees. Announced under the banner of Stay in the Moment, the club is introducing a ban on videos and photos inside, encouraging ravers to simply focus on experiencing the music and express themselves without feeling at all self conscious. A lack of pitch-black, inaudibly noisy Instagram stories seems like a fair price to pay for that. fabriclondon.com
Tim Burgess’s listening party book Scotland’s first hip-hop and grime conference In July, the first edition of HANG (Hip-Hop Aimed Networking with Grime) took place, both online and in person at Glasgow’s SWG3. Scotland’s first ever grime and hip-hop conference, presented by the Scottish Alternative Music Awards (SAMA) and Creative Scotland, the event seeks to “to empower members of Scotland’s hip hop and grime communities and celebrate the diversity of voices reflecting the country in the 21st century.” Speakers at the conference included broadcaster Vic Galloway, Tiffany Calver, host of BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Rap Show, Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) winner Nova, Aberdeen MC Ransom FA and Orwell Prize
illustration by kate prior
As many readers will have seen, Tim Burgess has kept himself very busy over the past 18 months of lockdowns and music industry flux. One of his most successful projects has been his Twitter Listening Parties, real-time album playbacks during which fans and artists alike are invited to share the experience of listening through a record, whether they’re physically together or not. Now, Burgess is publishing The Listening Party, a book that compiles reflections from the bands and artists who participated, telling stories about the albums concerned, what it was like to have live music taken away by the pandemic, and more. It’s out in September 2021 via DK Publishing. timstwitterlisteningparty.com
The Beginning: <1000 Club
Self-flagellating through the crisis Got any gigs booked? Or still biding your time? As a partiallyvaccinated young person, it feels like a minefield trying to balance supporting artists and venues with safeguarding your health. It doesn’t help that the government have put far more onus on personal responsibility and “doing your bit” than sustainably supporting our industry. The serious damage that Brexit is causing touring musicians only makes matters worse. All the while, Brexit Minister David Frost is on record saying that the current European touring crisis isn’t his responsibility. And where does this leave small and mid-level touring artists? In a recent interview with NME, Loud And Quiet Album of the Year runner-up Kelly Lee Owens spoke about failure to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits. Owens is a successful musician by any metric, and yet she had to cancel her upcoming European tour due to the lack of security and the high cost of securing visas. “What I wanted to highlight was that this is actually a structural problem doing serious damage to individuals,” she said. “My individual anxiety isn’t the thing that’s preventing me from touring. It’s a structural issue.” This structural issue expands far outside of just touring, or Covid, or even Brexit. The devaluing of culture, income stagnation and increased living costs are all part of that system: a system that expects consumers to save the economy without giving them the means to do so. Artists, musicians – and yes, independent music publications – are relying on a small pool of passionate and dedicated supporters, who are often not all that
well off themselves. As fans ourselves, we’re aware that subscribing to a magazine might mean a few less quid you have towards buying a record or attending a show. And that brings us back to streaming. If you’re living payday to payday, a Spotify subscription is the most logical way to support a large amount of music at once, in theory. You can explore new music, fall in love with small artists, and then support your faves physically or on tour later on. But as explored at length in this column, it’s more complicated and messy than that. The company’s mismanagement of streaming royalties makes you feel hopeless about how our industry moves forward. But then another artist with not-enough streams comes along, and I find myself once again urging you, dear reader, to go bump that number above 1000 plays. The artist I’m recommending this month is Nico de Benito (FKA Apollo), whose first streamable single under this moniker is a hell of an introduction. ‘Corrosive’, their only song on Spotify, is a gorgeous ode to selfhatred. It opens with the line “I walk out in front of cars hoping they will take me, knowing they never will”. It only gets bleaker from there. And yet, there’s a welcoming and addictive quality to the song, in part thanks to gorgeous baroque piano that buoys their despondent melodies, as well as the wry sarcasm that undercuts the song. It’s hard to parse how serious Benito is being here, and that heady mix of conscious absurdity and unabashed self-flagellation really makes the song stand out. Their unreleased debut album will be titled Unreliable Narrator, and ‘Corrosive’ nails the drama, spectacle and complexity that its title suggests. The song blends shimmering pop bombast with graceful classical elements, and that juxtaposition is played off wonderfully in Benito’s vocal performance, which is dejected and dramatic like a capricious thespian playing to the cheap seats, during a play they’re not actually that invested in. Despite the high-drama, the song is a strange sort of earworm – catchy, hypnotic and off-putting at the same time. Nico de Benito is an established composer, who among other ventures has worked as a touring violinist for Julianna Barwick. Now, they step out as a solo artist under their own name; they have two gorgeous EPs on Bandcamp, which explore off-kilter dance pop, operatic personal storytelling and a widescreen instrumental palette. Their music reminds me of everything from Bjork to Bronski Beat, These New Puritans to FKA Twigs, while remaining something all of its own. But ‘Corrosive’ is surely their most exciting statement so far. When their album drops, they deserve the chance to share it widely on stages around Europe. It’s impossible to tell if that’ll be possible outside of our gloomy shores. But step one is listening and engaging. The music community is in a moment of crisis, but new and exciting artists keep creating through it.
words by skye butchard. illustration by kate prior
New relea s es for 2021 NOLAN POTTER ‘Music Is Dead’
THE OSCILLATION ‘Untold Futures’
Castle Face LP/ LP Ltd /CD
LA LUZ ‘La Luz’
Hardly Art LP/CD/MC
FINE PLACE ‘This New Heaven’
All Time Low LP/LP Ltd / CD
Night School Records LP/DL Released October 2021!!!
CASSANDRA JENKINS ‘Overview On Phenomenal Nature Ba Da Bing! LP/CD
ALAN VEGA ‘After Dark’ In The Red LP / CD
WARRINGTON-RUNCORN NEW TOWN DEVELOPMENT PLAN ‘People & Industry’ Castles In Space LP
Erased Tapes LP/CD
NILS FRAHM Graz
BORED! ‘Back For More’
MAGIC ROUNDABOUT ‘Up’
HOWLIN’ RAIN’ ‘The Dharma Wheel’
RICHARD NORRIS ‘Hypnotic Response’
Third Man Records LP
Silver Current Records LP / LP Ltd / CD
Inner Mind LP / CD
The Beginning: Sweet 16
Rapping ‘Ice Ice Baby’ for her Year 12 exam in 2012 was Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers
My birthday is January 4th, so I turned 16 at the beginning of 2012. I was living in Mullumbimby, which is in northern New South Wales, right by the beach. All you UK people would know Byron Bay, and it’s not too far from there. It’s a small beach town that’s pretty gentrified now, but when I grew up there it was heaps of hippies, farmers and bogans, who are kind of just really Australian – y’know, someone who swears and has cars. I was a bit of a hippy and a bit of a bogan. I grew up on three acres and we lived in the shed. My mum and dad grew up in western Sydney. Then they moved up to Mullumbimby. They bought that property for really cheap – it was farmland that was sub-divided. There was nothing on there and they lived in a caravan for four or five years and just planted trees with no electricity. So they were hippies then, and then they built the shed, which we lived in. And when we were living in the shed my dad built the house. I had two jobs then. One at this small business where a woman made crafts and ribbons, so I’d put ribbons onto little spools and make up craft packs. And I also worked at the supermarket. I loved chatting to the customers. It was my favourite thing. I just like being around people who aren’t like me – I like talking to old ladies: people who do things that are different to me. I’ve always preferred that to being around my peers. My social life was pretty small; I didn’t have a lot of friends at that stage – I was a bit of a loner. I had a boyfriend at the time and he was intense, in hindsight. He was homeless, and he’d move back in with his parents and get kicked out again constantly. He was like my best friend at the time, and because of that I lost most
of my friendship group. But it happened over a couple of years, and because I was a kid, I was like, “This is normal, this is chill.” But I was definitely not equipped to deal with that. I liked school when I applied myself, but I had a real problem with authority when I was told what to do. I never wore uniform ever; I wore other stuff and was always getting into trouble for that. It was just a public school, so it was just black pants and blue tops, but I couldn’t even stand that. But I was polite and straightup with the teachers – I was able to talk to them like humans, and I loved learning. I still do. I guess what was going on in my personal life, when it came to authority I was like, fuck that shit. One of my electives was music class, so I learned the drums really basically. I remember for my Year 12 exam I rapped ‘Ice Ice Baby’ with a full band, and then my teacher came up to me afterwards, after the markers left, and he was like, “Amy, I really thought you were going to do well.” I mean, he was playing piano in ‘Ice Ice Baby’, but he thought I was going to nail it, but I just fucking cooked it. I lost my voice. Y’know, it’s constant rapping, and I had no breathing techniques at all. But look at me now, Mr Fletcher! I had no plans. I thought I might go to Japan and teach English as a second language for a bit, but I didn’t really know. We didn’t form Amyl and the Sniffers until 2016, and I moved to Melbourne when I was 17 or 18. I just worked in weird places, and then I thought I’d go and study something, so I studied music business. I like all of that stuff, and I like business, heaps. I know that I’m smart and I don’t want my brain to rot – I want to learn.
as told to stuart stubbs
Wristbands please A disastrous pandemic, three re-bookings and a total lack of government support – all in a year-and-a-half’s work for End of the Road festival as they approach their 15th birthday, by Joe Goggins
Simon Taffe picks up the phone at the end of a long bike ride. He’s chosen one of the hottest days of the year to cycle from his home in London down to West Wittering, some 90 miles away. After the year-and-a-half he’s had, the urge to clear his head is an understandable one: as co-founder and director of End of the Road festival, the Covid-19 pandemic plunged him and one of the independent British music calendar’s most beloved events into a maelstrom of precarity, leaving him, and other organisers around the UK, fighting for the futures of the festivals they’d spent years pouring their hearts and souls into. The word he keeps using – the one that seems to best define the past 18 months – is “uncertainty”; uncertainty over the nature of the virus’ transmission, uncertainty over the future viability of tightly-packed crowds and, most galling of all, uncertainty caused by a messy and uncaring government response. “I never thought anything would be harder than the first couple of years,” he says, laughing grimly as he reflects upon the festival’s lean fledgling years at Larmer Tree Gardens in 2006 and 2007, “so, all of this has proven me wrong. It’s stressful enough booking a festival once a year; we’ve had to rebook the 2021 lineup three times. But, as of the time this goes to press, it looks like all systems go.” The decision to go ahead with this year’s instalment has represented a major pressing of the gamble button, not least because, for reasons unsurprising given how many festivals have had to pull the plug already this summer, Taffe and his team have had to move forward without any insurance. “From what I can tell, if there is any backtracking from the government on the lifting of restrictions, it won’t happen until the end of September. So, we’re just fucking going for it. We’ve come this far, so we’ve kind of got no choice.” End of the Road’s regular slot as one of the British festival summer’s traditional curtain-closers has worked in their favour this year, and Taffe watched on back in June when the decision to delay England’s unlocking meant that events set for July ended up being scrapped. When the 2021 edition goes ahead from 2-5 September, it will mark the end of an arduous period of constant nervousness abut the future, with hopes raised, then dashed, then raised again, then dashed again, in what’s felt like an agonising vicious cycle. “When we made the decision to cancel last year, which we were obviously gutted about, we were at least thinking, surely, we’ll be OK by next summer,” Taffe explains. “So we ploughed
on with organising like we normally would, and spent the money, and kept everybody rolling. By the time the roadmap was pushed back in June, it was just a case of thinking that we’d already spent £200,000 getting to this point. We couldn’t really turn back by then.” There were still huge undertakings to deal with on a tight deadline - not least the Herculean effort of having to put together a new lineup when a slew of U.S. artists who’d initially been booked, including Bright Eyes, Pixies, Big Thief, Angel Olsen and Pinegrove, were forced to pull out, as it became increasingly clear that it’d be impossible for them to route European tours with every country finding themselves at a different place in their recoveries from the pandemic. “As you can see now, American artists are getting back out on the road over there,” says Taffe, “so why would they come over here? I know most of them really didn’t want to have to cancel – they were genuinely excited to play for us – but with Europe all over the shop, they’ve done the sensible thing. That left us looking at British bands to step in, but that in and of itself became a bit of a bunfight, because everybody’s trying to book a limited number of bands at short notice.” — Plan B (and C and D) — Any given End of the Road lineup has to fit a certain remit: big-hitting indie icons filling the headlining slots, a mix of veterans and buzz bands on the undercard, and plenty of room down the bottom end of the bill for emerging artists, too. With a limited pool of potential bill-toppers to choose from, Taffe and his team were forced to think creatively. “I mean, it’d be nice to be able to think, ‘oh, we’ll just go and get PJ Harvey,’ but why would she tour in a pandemic? It’s obviously not that simple. So you’re left thinking about which British bands are the right size to headline – you’re thinking about the Belle and Sebastians and Mogwais of the world – and they might be in the studio or waiting until next year to go out and play. That’s why we had to think about what else we could do, so we approached Jonny Greenwood and asked him to do something that was experimental and a bit of a one-off – it was that kind of thing.” Greenwood will collaborate with 12 Ensemble and Kat Tinker at the festival to bring to life his impressive catalogue of film scores, whilst other highlights will include the likes of Sleaford Mods and Arab Strap finally being able to air new tracks
from albums released in lockdown. Even a cursory glance across the lineup, meanwhile, shows us that the reshuffle of the pack has allowed the organisers to give more of a platform to showcase new acts – Taffe, throughout the 18 months of turmoil, has consistently looked for positives like this. “Especially lower down the bill, there’s more fresh talent than ever,” he concurs. “As much as the whole pandemic’s been a shitshow, there’s been little reasons to be optimistic about the future. I think it’s helped forge a really close bond between independent festival organisers. We’ve always gotten on with the guys from Green Man, for instance, but this past year has brought us a lot tighter; sharing ideas, working things out together. The time away has given us the chance to rethink certain things and work on other projects, too.” He takes a similarly sanguine stance on the help that’s been available to events like his during the pandemic, too,
pointing out that the money they were able to claim from Arts Council England was more generous than has been available in many other European countries. “Not that that was anything to do with the fucking Tory government,” he reflects, “but it was a turning point for us, because it allowed us to press on, to keep paying people, and not have to strip ourselves down to an absolute skeleton staff. I’m grateful for that; things wouldn’t have gone as smoothly without it.” The wider government response, though, has been a cause of extreme frustration, and there’s no doubt in Taffe’s mind that the music industry, and the arts as a whole, have been neglected, particularly in terms of the constant flip-flopping meaning an inability to plan too far ahead. “There’s definitely a lot of festivals that were screwed by the four-week delay,” he says. “Festivals like Boomtown and Kendal Calling, where really there was no reason they couldn’t have gone ahead – they just
Loud And Quiet at EOTR 2021
L&Q Presents: Time-Hop Silent Disco Opening Party The Tipi Stage Thursday Sept 2, 23:30 - 02:00 After a record number of positive comments (8), our silent disco returns by popular demand. Channel 1 will exclusively play music released in 2001, and Channel 2 will only play music from artists that have performed at EOTR over its 15-year history. That’s The White Stripes to Black Midi. Bring dancing shoes and a £10 deposit for your headphones.
felt they couldn’t take the risk. For us, we just found the uncertainty really fucks everything. It leaves your staff feeling down, and we’ve lost contractors because they’ve had to go off and take other jobs. When you look at the support lent to, say, the film industry to get back up and running, the constant chopping and changing has been infuriating.”
L&Q Presents: The L&Q Stage The Big Top Sunday Sept 5
— Serious loyalty — Given how many dark nights of the soul Taffe must have had over the past eighteen months, you wonder whether he ever seriously doubted the long-term viability of End of the Road. “To be honest, I never quite did. I mean, I certainly thought I’d be fucked, paying debts back for ages. It got a bit hairy as we got into year two of the pandemic, but my logic was always that if our hand was forced, we’d be bailed out. We’d already had huge chunks of arts funding, but just as importantly there was serious loyalty from the festival-goers. More than 80% of ticket-holders held on to them and didn’t ask for a refund. We’re lucky to have that.” Taffe confirms that many of the U.S. bands booked for 2020 and 2021 have shown similar loyalty. “One good thing is that a lot of my work for 2022 is done, because we’ve pencilled a lot of those acts in,” he says. Before then, though, he’s expecting a genuine party atmosphere this September. “I think having a year-and-a-half kicked out of the festival calendar has helped people to realise that live music is therapy. It lifts people out of themselves. Even the socially-distanced shows I’ve been to this year, there was this sense of real relief that we had gigs back in any form. Everyone’s gagging to get back to it now. It’s going to be really quite special.”
Girl Band Dry Cleaning Scalping W. H. Lung PVA William Doyle John Oldboy Lineup subject to change. Check endoftheroadfestival.com for updates
Sherelle “The goal is to help Black artists feel like they are able to thrive within the [electronic] music scene, to be able to cultivate that community, and to actually keep that stronghold because there’s a lot of whitewashing within dance music history, and there’s been a lot of LGBTQI+ erasure.” Sherelle, the London-born DJ and label owner, is recalling the impetus behind her latest venture BEAUTIFUL. Recently unveiled with the announcement of a compilation on the near horizon, the label-cum-creative hub is clearly the next stage in what has been a fascinating journey. Her shift from being a well-respected, albeit decidedly underground DJ to becoming one of the most kinetic personalities in UK club music made complete sense to those who saw it unfold. But it wasn’t just the infectiously exhilarating DJ sets, heard across radio, viral Boiler Room videos and clubs up and down the land, or the championing of fringe genres such as Chicago’s beloved footwork that made her such a captivating and vital figurehead in modern
dance music; it was her infectious personality and headstrong politics that set her apart. “The idea behind BEAUTIFUL is essentially to help new artists build their careers, while also working with established artists I love. It serves as a label and a platform. It came about in lockdown, where I just felt a bit powerless. I basically came up with the idea pretty fucking quickly. I was just like, you know what, I need to do something and it took roughly about a year to get to this point.” As well as the more traditional label aspects, there’s a clear sense that education plays a key role across the project, with regular workshops planned. “I want to educate people extensively about the history of dance music,” she says, “and what that means for their chosen genres. So, house and techno people can learn about Chicago and Detroit, and we can draw that over to something like jungle even, how a lot of the samples came from someone like [techno legend] Kevin Saunderson.”
The DJ and label owner building a platform like no other for Black and queer electronic artists, by Oskar Jeff. Photography by Gem Harris These workshops will run alongside more practical lessons in DJing and production, but it’s clear that for Sherelle, the two sides of musical education are inseparable. Access to equipment and technical knowledge for young people is invaluable, but it’s a shift in attitudes and discussion of the historical context of music, race and sexuality that will truly benefit the wider scene. “I’m not trying to tell anyone that you can’t be in the music scene,” she says, “but I want someone like myself to feel super confident talking about the dance scene and where those origins lie. People get so hurt sometimes when you explain this music is of Black origin. Dance music can obviously be extremely inclusive, but it doesn’t always look that way with lineups or audiences. A lot of people have said to me that they feel safer and happier when they see me on stage; they feel like they can come to the front because this big ol’ dyke here is shelling it down! It’s nice to see girls and non-binary people feel like that they can come through and just be like themselves. Some people outside
of those groups can take for granted how safe they can feel in a venue, or how they don’t have to think about having to dull down their personality to not get attacked.” Throughout our chat, this idea of a safe space for discussion and education is at the forefront of Sherelle’s vision: “There’s not much space owned by someone like myself, you know, Black and gay,” she says. “And I know for a fact that, if I want to cultivate the Black and queer scene, I can only do so much without that. A dedicated space would just help the scene grow a lot more. In the future, I want to put any money made through the label into developing that. But it’s a gradual thing – I stupidly looked up the cost of a London space, it’s a lot of fucking money! But the gradual process suits me because it just means I can build it properly.” As we discuss all this, I ask how wearing it must be at points to be within the constant crossfire of these conversations; the feeling of having to repeatedly assert your place and your viewpoint.
“There’s a lot of whitewashing within dance music history, and there’s been a lot of LGBTQI+ erasure”
“That’s just being Black in general, to be honest with you. But I always knew that I never wanted to just be a DJ. It wouldn’t serve me well to be going around being paid for a dream job, and then just sit back and take that. I can see issues within the scene, I’m just pointing out extremely obvious things. I think whoever has come before me has obviously been worn down by it, and that’s fine, because they fought their fight, and unfortunately, they’ve not had the energy. I’ve got time, I’m young. I’ve built this platform, what’s the point if you can’t get people thinking about things? I’m excited to think about the amazing connections I’m going to be forging for myself and new artists.” There’s a joyful defiance as Sherelle lays out her plans for the future, fed by her clear belief in the young talent she’s keen to nurture. “I want to represent how amazing Black electronic music can be, and how wide the scope is. I remember being a lot younger and people framing dance music as ‘white’ music. So it was important for me to make sure that that the compilation was the fucking widest scope possible in terms of what might be expected. [We did a] call-out for new artists and seeing the amazing women and non-binary people that came forward for that was sick. There’s some fucking silly tunes that have come from that – it makes me super happy.” — Hooversound — BEAUTIFUL’s mission statement is unique, and the necessity of this kind of project becomes more clear by the day, but it isn’t Sherelle’s first foray into running a label. Hooversound Recordings, a label co-run with fellow DJ Naina, is, while slightly more traditional in its structure, quietly radical in its own right. “There aren’t many female label-heads that are of particular prominence historically,” she says. “Only really Kemistry & Storm [iconic drum & bass duo who co-founded the legendary Metalheadz label with Goldie] come to mind.” Fittingly, Hooversound is another label borne from an undeniable kinship: “Me and Naina did a b2b set a few years ago. We had never DJ’d together before, but we had a great synergy from the get-go, both bringing out all of these old school tunes which I don’t think either of us would have expected each other to know, be it old Production House Records bits or some really obscure Dutch techno or whatever. We were obviously big fans of each other’s, but we’d never had a real conversation about music, so I don’t think either of us expected for the mix to be so coherent. After that went so well, it was a given. We were on the same wavelength; we are in sync.” Where BEAUTIFUL achieves its aims through showcasing the sheer breadth of electronic music being produced by young Black musicians, Hooversound’s curation is more tied toward the shared sonic sensibility of the pair, a coherence that aims to
reject staid stylistic barriers while highlighting new neural pathways across the bass spectrum. “Hooversound for us is meant to be the weird and wonderful side of bass music,” says Sherelle. “We wanted it to have a particular sound, like straight away you’d know it’s us. We also want to keep people on their toes. I don’t think anyone ever really knows who we’re going to release, or when it’s going to happen. We go from footwork to jungle, to 130/140 BPM stuff. I’m glad to see that there’s a change happening not only within the bass scene but also on the techno side of things too – people are being a little bit more dangerous with their music choices.” — Mistakes you need to make — Across our conversation, it’s clear that the South Londonbased community station Reprezent Radio was a formative part of Sherelle’s personal development. Both through its place in the formation of Hooversound, and the clear influence the practical side has had on the workshop plans for BEAUTIFUL, it’s obvious that community radio alongside wider youth projects play a necessary part in helping young people creatively thrive. “I’ve been with them since 2014,” she tells me. “I started on a couple training courses. Then they let me cover morning shows, then a specialist show. Originally I was playing lo-fi house/ future garage stuff. Then I had my footwork epiphany when I watched a DJ Rashad Boiler Room on YouTube. As soon as it came on I couldn’t work. ‘What the fuck is this?’ It’s sick, it’s rowdy and it’s exactly what I wanted to do. Reprezent gave me the time to be myself and make the mistakes that I needed to make.” In a different respect, the Covid pandemic provided its own twisted space for development. When the clubs closed their doors indefinitely, Sherelle turned to music production as a form of anxiety relief. With guidance from partner and esteemed producer LCY, as well the influence from the likes of Tim Reaper, Coco Bryce and old favourite Machinedrum, Sherelle began developing her own creative process. July saw the debut self-release 160 DOWN THE A406 – a lovely, decidedly less intense release than most would have expected. “I wanted to test the waters, to see what people’s reactions would be,” she tells me. “I don’t want people expecting me to make a particular sound.” I tell her I think she succeeded in subverting expectations, and if anything, it now seems like she can do whatever she wants. “The stuff I’ve got planned for next year is definitely more of a club vibe,” she says. “I first started when I had nothing else to do, as a release. Now I’m a bit more confident in it. [Also] there’s only so much time you can play The Sims 2.”
Steam Down The collaborative jazz night that turned into a band, by Mike Vinti. Photography by Sam Walton
Down an unassuming alleyway next to a railway bridge in Deptford, one of London’s most exciting nights is about to take place as ‘normal’ for the first time in sixteen months. It’s the first Wednesday evening since the UK – for better or worse – eased almost all Covid-related restrictions, and a cautious buzz fills the air outside Matchstick Piehouse as the assembled musicians and attendees prepare for the return of Steam Down. Half an hour later and the night’s founder, saxophonist and singer Wayne ‘Ahnansé’ Francis, is presiding over a joyous scene: people – both masked and unmasked – dancing just feet away from a live band, with no limits on singing, hollering or showing enthusiasm of any kind. Most of the room are regulars and there’s no stage, with only a set of monitors and mics dividing the crowd and the band. The assembled musicians for the night open with a reggae-flavoured jam, meandering through heavy grooves and improvised vocals until Francis sneaks in the melody to Chaka Demus and Pliers all-time classic ‘Murder She Wrote’. The crowd loses it, and as is only appropriate, the band pulls up, comes in again, and for a moment the last year and a half fades away into the jubilant noise. Speaking via Zoom a few weeks before the return of Steam Down proper, Francis explains how vital the collective atmosphere of the night has been since its start. “It’s always been central to me to bring musicians together and to try to have regular connections with a musical community in London,” he says. Founded in 2017, Steam Down’s ethos was born from Francis’ time in London’s DIY jazz circuit and adjacent scenes. He cut his teeth at such pivotal institutions as Passing Clouds, Total Refreshment Centre and STEEZ, the south London open-mic night where you could find anyone from King Krule to Moses Boyd back in its day. As if those chops weren’t enough, Francis was also one-quarter of United Vibrations – alongside drummer Yussef Dayes and his brothers – the group widely credited as the pioneers of London’s current jazz-meets-Afrobeat-meets-rap wave. In regular times, you’d find musicians, singers and MCs of all stripes and scenes performing at Steam Down. “Jazz is a central part of what we do, but there are another two thirds,” Francis stresses. “One-third of that I would say is hip-hop, rap and grime... and the other is soulful R&B,” he says, before adding that “West African and Caribbean kind of vibes” are also an essential part of Steam Down’s DNA. While most guests are drawn from the seemingly endless pool of young talent in London – think Nubya Garcia, Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso and KOKOROKO’s Sheila Maurice-Grey – there have also been a few special appearances from further afield, such as the time contemporary saxophone colossus Kamasi Washington dropped by between dates in London. During the pandemic, Steam Down has, unsurprisingly, not been running at 100%. For months the weekly night was put on hold entirely as lockdowns rolled on and tour dates across the world got pushed back further and further. Then earlier this year, as things started to ease, Francis and co. started up again with a new socially distanced Steam Down. Whereas the pre-pandemic night was known for its often rapturous, energetic crowds, the socially distanced SD weekly
was altogether a more “introspective and meditative” affair, says Francis. “I started one of the sets with a kind of musical meditation, and that completely transformed how the space felt,” Francis explains of recalibrating the night, though he admits the socially distanced nights were “maybe more of a calm down rather than a Steam Down.” — Fruit for the spirit —
But things haven’t been entirely calm for Francis and his group of friends and players. While Steam Down started life as the weekly jam night, in recent years, core members have begun to tour and record under the name, playing festivals across the UK and beyond and inking a record deal with Decca. With all live commitments cancelled for a year, Francis spent most of the pandemic obsessing over how to capture the energy of Steam Down on record. In some ways, he tells me, it’s been “nice to be able to not tour, not do a weekly night and just focus on writing music.” However, he admits he’s deeply missed the connection and collective energy of the weekly nights that Steam Down was founded on. “When you play together with a group of creatives every week, you start feeling another person’s energy and their voice and their vibe, essentially,” he says. “Not just their kind of playing, but their voice. And I think some of those voices became a bit more distant through this period of time because we weren’t together regularly with each other. “With recorded music, it’s almost impossible for me to capture the feeling of an SD weekly,” he continues. Instead, Francis “started with thinking, ‘what is the energy that I was feeling, then?’ And then how can I recreate the energy rather than trying to recreate what we played? I kind of reverse engineer it.” The result of that process is the group’s upcoming debut EP, Five Fruits, due out in late September. Featuring a mix of tracks that will be familiar to regular SD weekly goers and new material, the five-track collection is heavy on uplifting horns, statements of affirmation and a spirituality that nods to greats like Alice and John Coltrane and Sun Ra. “Each song is a fruit for the spirit,” Francis explains. “The idea was that each of the songs was going to have a
different emotional quality and a different message to it.” Title track ‘Five Fruit’ is a soaring statement of intent that opens with a spoken word manifesto from Francis before building to a triumphant conclusion layered with horns and keys. Meanwhile, ‘Unite’, with its swooning vocal from Lady Shaynah, is all “about being gentle, and allowing yourself to heal from your depression.” To round things off, closing track ‘Can’t Hold Me Back’ showcases Steam Down’s versatility, enlisting MCs Shumba Maasai and Tinyman to lay down a series of defiant verses over a pulsating grime-inflected instrumental that glistens with flourishes of jazz. In total, Five Fruits is a snapshot of the Steam Down universe. Featuring more musicians than Francis can name off the top of his head, it’s as close to the weekly nights as is possible on a recorded project. “I’ve always kind of seen Steam Down more as an organisation than a band as such,” he muses. While the weekly sessions, touring line-up and recording ensemble might not necessarily feature the same combination of musicians, and on occasion might not even feature Francis himself, each part is still equally Steam Down. “It’s always been about expanding beyond the people who are even in it right now,” Francis says. I’m really inspired by bands like the Buena Vista Social Club that have rotating musicians. They do that a lot in a lot of the bands in West Africa as well. “On the one hand, [Steam Down] is my baby,” he admits as our conversation turns to the future. With the release of Five Fruits on the horizon and touring becoming possible again, chances are that Francis might have to spend a few Wednesday evenings outside of Deptford in the coming months. “But you know, your babies grow up, and they leave the house, and they have to have their own life.” Reflecting on what the next chapter of Steam Down may be, Francis seems genuinely content to let other group members take control of the weekly nights if need be. “There have been times when I’ve been away, or the core band has been on tour, and it still carried on with other people that are part of the community,” he says. “So it happens with or without me and with or without any of the musicians that are in it.” True to its community and improvisational roots, even if the nature of the project changes and expands, the energy of Steam Down will remain the same.
BIRD ON THE WIRE PRESENTS
Aoife Nessa Frances
Les Filles de Illighadad
TUE 31ST AUG THE LEXINGTON
WED 1ST SEP MOTH CLUB
FRI 3RD SEP PECKHAM AUDIO
The Goon Sax
Black Country, New Road
MON 6TH SEP THE LEXINGTON
MON 6TH SEP MOTH CLUB
TUE 14TH SEP ELECTRIC BALLROOM
WED 15TH SEP ST MATTHIAS CHURCH
Kings of Convenience
THU 23RD SEP PRINTWORKS
FRI 24TH SEP MOTH CLUB
SUN 26TH SEP ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL
WED 6TH OCT SERVANT JAZZ QUARTERS
WED 13TH OCT VILLAGE UNDERGROUND
SAT 16TH OCT STUDIO 9294
Climate Music Blowout
SUN 17TH OCT EARTH
TUE 19TH OCT EARTH
SUN 24TH OCT MON 25TH OCT OSLO
WED 27TH OCT MOTH CLUB
WED 27TH OCT THE LEXINGTON
WED 27TH OCT BUSSEY BUILDING
FRI 5TH NOV QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL
THU 11TH NOV ALEXANDRA PALACE THEATRE
Drug Store Romeos
Anna B Savage
THU 16TH SEP ST PANCRAS OLD CHURCH
THU 30TH SEP PECKHAM AUDIO
MATINEE & EVENING SHOW
CONFERENCE, LIVE SHOW & PRE-PARTY
TUE 12TH OCT 2021 THE LEXINGTON WED 17TH NOV SCALA
THU 18TH NOV EARTH
WED 8TH DEC BUSSEY BUILDING
FRI 21ST JAN 2022 KINGS PLACE, HALL ONE
Big Thief WED 2ND MAR THU 3RD MAR FRI 4TH MAR O2 SHEPHERD’S BUSH EMPIRE
THU 30TH SEP 2021 THE LEXINGTON TUE 15TH FEB ISLINGTON ASSEMBLY HALL
THU 17TH FEB 2022 VILLAGE UNDERGROUND
TUE 1ST MAR EARTH
The Weather Station
WED 23TH MAR SCALA
WED 30TH MAR O2 FORUM KENTISH TOWN
WED 30TH MAR THU 31ST MAR BARBICAN HALL
MON 4TH APR O2 FORUM KENTISH TOWN
The War On Drugs
TUE 30TH NOV 2021 JAZZ CAFE
SUN 12TH JUN O2 ACADEMY GLASGOW
WED 27TH APR 2022 ELECTRIC BRIXTON
MON 13TH JUN ROUNDHOUSE
TUE 12TH APR THE O2
FRI 22ND APR EARTH
MORE INFO & TICKETS
Regressive Left Everything is political, even when you just want to make people dance, by Ian Roebuck. Photography by Luis Kramer
“We’re waiting for the invite from GB News to interview us on their programme,” says Will Crosby with a smile as bandmates Simon Tyrie and Georgia Hardy produce symmetrical eye-rolls. “Well, we want to reclaim the term,” says Tyrie. “To be honest, I thought it had gone out of fashion but it’s become apparent people are still using it.” To be ‘regressive left’ is to be a far-left zealot who supports extremist ideologies. It’s just a matter of time, though, until the slogan is synonymous with angular art-pop from Luton instead. “We think it’s more popular in America than it is in the UK,” says Crosby, “but people like GB News – I know we keep mentioning them and we shouldn’t give them as much airtime – those kinds of organisations have been using it more and more. They’re trying to bring it back.” “We weren’t sure if we would attract neo-Nazis or the other end of the spectrum,” says Tyrie. “Either way, it works out fine. We bring the left because they understand the irony, or we bring the right because they think we are being serious.” He arches his eyebrow. “Everything is political.” Content to live both inside and outside the culture war, Regressive Left are quick to point out this is not a call to arms but more a call to listen. “We really like the fact that because of our band name people will approach everything politically,” says Crosby. “The idea of them finding hidden political meaning in some of the more nonsense lyrics, like what’s the political meaning of having hand lotion in ‘Cream Militia’, I don’t know.” The hand lotion lyric (“You got notions / You got lotion / You got who knows what”) arrives midway through the band’s third single in a run of impressive, club-ready, distorted dance-punk tracks, released by a band riding a wave of post-pandemic creativity. “We have all played music in various unsuccessful bands before, since we were around 15,” says Hardy, “but I think with this project we weirdly cared less about it being a success. It got to the point where we were so busy with our day jobs, and just life around lockdown, that when we were making music it was just for fun and a release. We finally wanted to play what we really liked and wanted to hear. “As musicians we all come from different backgrounds,” she says. “I come from funk, soul and disco, whereas Simon was
brought up with guitar music and Will was classically trained. The lineage that we all cross paths on was that DFA, punky stuff. Music like ESG encompassed everything we were interested in.” Crosby agrees, doubling down on Hardy’s comments. “It’s basically those two little bits of New York,” he says, “– late ’70s and early ’80s New York mixed with late ’90s and early 2000s New York.” “One of the things we wanted to make sure we achieved with these songs was making them danceable,” says Tyrie. “After the various bands we had been in before, this one had to be different, so during the pandemic we were just jamming together and playing stuff inspired a little by our DJing. So far, all our music has a groove to it – we haven’t written anything slow and sultry yet.”
— Play the hits, make the hits — There’s a real connection between this group of friends glued together through years of putting on gigs whilst packing (and clearing) dance floors, and there’s no doubt that Regressive Left’s sound has been shaped by their love for throwing a party, from jazz events in Luton to DJing ’80s hits at Hackney’s Moth Club. “I just love seeing people having a good time and knowing that you were the person who orchestrated that, so I am definitely not scared to play the bangers,” laughs Hardy, who as well as promoting shows under the name Spilt Milk also co-founded TheRoute.co, a platform helping young people from marginalised backgrounds pursue careers in music. “Being a musician you are more used to seeing people standing there and nodding their heads,” continues Tyrie, “so it can be a lot more enjoyable DJing, because it’s obvious everyone is having a good time, and that can be better than performing. If we can get a snippet of that with this band – the whole room vibing – I would be happier, although saying that, I think we were all guilty of playing music that we liked rather than what the crowd wanted.” Crosby doesn’t necessarily agree. “Simon and Georgia are quite willing to play genuinely good pop music,” he says, “whereas I would refuse to do it… I am not a very good DJ to be honest.” This gets a big reaction from Simon: “Just like our
music! I try and steer it in a poppy direction and Will fucks it up, makes it as avant-garde and angular as possible.” Interestingly, jazz’s influence on Regressive Left has never been far away. Hardy first promoted jazz nights back home in the suburbs of Luton, as far back as 2013. Once she moved to London, her and her friends flung themselves into the city’s still blossoming jazz scene with great interest. “It was just so exciting seeing musicians passionate about what they were doing but also completely ripping up the rule book for their genre,” she says. “In our own music, it made us realise we can do whatever the hell we want. So although we don’t make jazz in any remote kind of sense, the ethos of that scene influences the way we make our music.” That ideology becomes even more potent when you consider the band’s political messaging, even if Tyrie does insist
“We weren’t sure if we would attract neo-Nazis or the other end of the spectrum”
that it’s a deliberate provocation to introduce debate. “To be honest, I think so many bands write political lyrics you can’t escape it, but the choice to call ourselves Regressive Left just changes that dynamic,” he says. “You can find so many political lyrics in pop songs, but because they’re a pop star you might not jump on that straight away. Even the name is a contradiction. A lot of the lyrics are quite contradictory as well – it’s something I don’t try to resist, having two opposing thoughts about a situation and not being absolutist about stuff.” Once again, the band are reluctant to be dragged into the culture war, a turn of phrase similar to Regressive Left that comes loaded with suggested meaning. “That’s a really weird one, the culture war,” says Tyrie. “There is an element within left wing politics saying don’t get involved, but you look at the English football team who very much did confront it head on, and due to that you have people at GB news who are forced to eat their own words, so there is a kind of standoff position with the left where avoiding the culture war is valid. We care about all these things but we don’t want to get down in the gutter. Equally though, the fact that the English footballers took the knee despite the criticism and being called Marxists, it’s shown that you can confront it and they’ve made a good example of taking a stand for decency.”
Hardcore pub rock from London’s cheap shit holes, by Dominic Haley. Photography by Christopher Fenner
Chubby and the Gang “Funny story,” says Maegan Brooks Mills after a long sip from her pint of Amstel. Pausing slightly for effect, she glances again at the faded interior of Walthamstow Trade Hall, just to make sure. “I used to come here every weekend with my grandparents – I remember dancing with a man with only four fingers, I think he’d had the others blown off in the war.” This revelation, delivered with a combination of perfect timing and studied nonchalance, stops Chubby and the Gang in their tracks. The rest of the band had been chatting excitedly about watching Metallica and their drive to Latitude Festival that next morning, but now, they erupt in surprised laughter. “No fucking way,” laughs guitarist Tom Hardwick, “London really is smaller than you think!” Sat around a pub table, flipping beer mats and chatting shit, Chubby and the Gang feel weirdly at home in a place like the Trade Hall. A band that manage to straddle both the past and the future with ease, The Chubbies’ sound may be the streetwise, mosh-pit anthems of New York hardcore acts like Agnostic Front and Madball filtered through classic pub rock influences like Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods, but it’s also a vehicle to tackle subjects that feel distinctly relevant to these uncertain times. Whether it’s dealing with police brutality or the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower, the band’s music captures the experience of life as an inner city, working class kid. “There’s a tendency to see London as this expensive shit hole,” says drummer Joe McMahon. “There’re certainly parts like that, but there’re also parts of it that are cheap shit holes. I think we really wanted to tell stories from those kinds of places.” While Brooks Mills and singer Charlie ‘Chubby’ Manning Walker hail from East London and West London respectively, the three remaining members – Hardwick, McMahon and guitarist Ethan Stahl – have roots in Guildford and Huddersfield. So, like almost every other group of friends sat around any other pub table, everyone has their own view on the matter. “I think West London, in particular, is one of the most misunderstood places in England,” says Manning Walker, throwing his hat into the ring. “You’ve got very posh shit and very not posh shit in really close proximity to one another. I mean, Latimer Road and, say, Holland Park are literally so close you can look into one another. It makes for an interesting culture.
“People always talk about the same old shit and reminisce about how it used to be, but I wanted to talk about West London as it is,” he continues. “I don’t know if it’s all that original, but I’ve always thought it’s more interesting to talk about what’s happening in Acton over, say, some abstract shit that no one can understand. Not that I’m saying that there can’t be something for everyone, but sometimes people just need to know how it is.” — Everything you want as a teenager — Chubby and the Gang’s connections to London’s DIY scene run deep. Growing up as part of the ramshackle hardcore scene that formed around the 12 Bar Club in Soho’s Denmark Street, Manning Walker has been in one band or another for a little over 15 years now. In fact, all five members remain active participants in South England’s hardcore circuit, splitting their time between Chubby and acts such as Violent Reaction, Boss, Abolition and Big Cheese. In many ways, it’s this sense of closeknit community that’s the bedrock band’s hard working spirit. “I think I got into hardcore mainly because I wanted do something that was way more extreme than what my parents listened to,” Manning Walker tells me, as we discuss the band’s route into music. Growing up in a household that loved classic punk bands like The Clash and The Damned, in a way, hardcore was the next logical step. “I think in England, bands like the Clash are so ingrained into the mainstream narrative that it’s only just one step away from pop music,” he says. “I mean, you can pick up a Sex Pistols shirt in H&M these days. So I think the natural reaction is to go a little bit deeper and get into things like Crass and Discharge – those bands are always harder, more extreme. It’s everything you want as a teenager.” The band’s debut record Speed Kills definitely ticks those boxes. Produced by Fucked Up drummer Jonah Falco and released in January 2020 to almost instant acclaim, it’s mix of breakneck punk and singalong melodies catapulted Chubby and the Gang to overnight cult success. On the back of a handful of UK shows, the band headed off to the States for a string of headline dates in early 2020 and it all started to snowball from there. Glowing features in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Paste magazine meant that the 50-person crowd they’d played to in New York at the beginning of the tour
grew to almost 500 by the time they came back. Safe to say, it was all looking great until the pandemic struck. “Speaking strictly for myself, it’s been good to have a little bit of time to work out what this band is really about rather than just cracking on,” explains Manning Walker discussing Chubby’s experience of the lockdown with typical down-to-earth bluntness. Determined not to rest on their laurels, the band spent the better part of 2020 working on a second album – The Mutt’s Nuts (out August 27 via Partisan). “Speed Kills was always kind of this stream of consciousness thing, and I wanted this record to be a bit more reflective,” continues Manning Walker before going on to describe the band’s vision for its follow-up. “It’s actually been good that we’ve had the chance to sharpen the knife a little bit. I think that where the first record was meant to be a statement, this record is meant to be more of a reminiscence. ” — Introspection as a privilege — On the evidence of the advance singles, Chubby and the Gang’s edges are looking as sharp as ever. ‘Lightning Doesn’t Strike Twice’ is a both a classic slice of shout-along hardcore and a sharp response to social inequality. “I wrote this song about social inequality. Not mine but the people I saw around me.” Manning writes in the track’s accompanying statement. “I feel like the whole premise of poverty is presented like this game in which if you play your cards right you can escape. In reality, it’s more like playing a game of dice when they’re loaded against your favour. Constantly being struck by lightning and being told that it will never happen again.” June’s ‘Coming Up Tough’ covered similar turf; telling the story of one of Manning Walker’s family members who, through a stint in jail at a young age, found themselves locked out by a world that too often turns it back on young offenders. The band wanted “the song to feel like a snowball effect. The character
gets thrown out of his house at first and it feels almost juvenile, but then as it progresses you realise the real trouble he’s in. Too often, once you’re in trouble you can’t get out.” “I’ve always seen introspection as a privilege,” Manning Walker explains as we talk about the social issues that have been the backbone of the band’s output so far. Although he doesn’t describe himself as political, he’s certainly not afraid to call it as he sees it. “How can you not talk about what’s going on? It’s like when you hear people talking about this Covid shit like it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened because they’ve had to work from home or whatever. I’m like, ‘for once, talk about someone other than yourself.’” What makes Chubby and the Gang different, though, is that they actually appear ready to ante up when they need to. Earlier this year, the band contributed a track to the second Group Therapy compilation, with profits going to Black Minds Matter and Help Musicians, raising awareness for those struggling with poor mental health. Manning Walker, a London cabbie turned electrician, is an active member of Bectu, a union made up of workers in non-performance roles in the creative industries. Speed Kills even ends with a song called ‘Union Dues’, which serves as both a rallying cry for organised labour and keeping the far right out of the punk scene. “I feel like a lot of politics in music is very top level. It’s almost like people are trying to make infographic music – small bitesize shit that doesn’t really get anyone anywhere,” he tells me, summing up Chubby and the Gang’s take on politics in his own ‘no bullshit’ fashion. “I want to make music that gives people something to do, and the most effective thing most people can do is organize your labour, because it’s the only leverage you really have. You can sit there until you’re blue in the face and say ‘capitalism is bad’ but unless you actually start doing something about it, you’re just kind of pissing in the wind.”
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Modern Woman Folk horror colliding with DIY punk, accompanied by… a table, by Tristan Gatward. Photography by Tom Porter
A week before the first week of sun this year, the overground is flooded. Modern Woman are playing Hackney’s Moth Club, supporting The Deep. The venue’s trademark golden curtain is gone, the stage now dressed in ocean regalia. A salt water candle séance lines cardboard flats of buttresses coming to life and doing the Argentine tango. Schools of pink fish with monstrous grins shell the curtains. Upstairs, Modern Woman sit around the edges of the dressing room, a treasure-chest table holding a vegan feast in brown paper bags, with some over-salted chips. A blow-up unicorn, whose popularity boomed with those pictures of the England football team’s training camp, sits ceremoniously next to them. It’s not theirs. Sophie has just arrived from Wales – a few days at a hidden lake in Snowdonia, where her mum had a caravan in the ’70s; Adam has recently narrowly avoided a Covid-ping, which nulled the band’s ability to rehearse – although rehearsal only really brings confidence, they tell me, not finesse. A matinee show has just finished and gone well, all things considered. It’s a band that has gone through a few line-ups and moving parts, but in their current form they look eager and composed. Sophie is a natural frontperson, with a soft South Manchester accent – one her Dad always said was lazy, dropping its Ts – while the band of David (violin, table), Juan (bass) and Adam (drums) sits around her. “I really like a matinee,” she says. “I hope it continues. Although, I think there are a lot of people who can’t make these shows. People that watch matinees at the theatre are a very different audience to ours. I like the idea of playing throughout the day, though. The band is a day thing. It occupies your mind at all times, so gigs shouldn’t be any different.” Modern Woman were a late addition to the line-up here. Their music is hard to grip: their debut single, ‘Offerings’, is narrative post-folk-come-art-rock, creepy in its intentions, voyeuristic, animalistic and completely engaging. They’re both off-shoots of the south London DIY scene and its complete antithesis at once. The internal dialogues and squeaking sax of Gen Z’s sonic revolutionaries has thudded an old soul, were Joni Mitchell to meet Talking Heads playing symphonic metal and drone ambient. Sophie’s lyrics are articulately primitive,
indebted to literature, ecology, folk horror and English mythology, and so is the concentrated theatrical fusion of analogue sound around her. — Mike Wazowski syndrome — “It’s a big stage,” Sophie grins, visibly excited to be playing the Moth Club for the first time, “but I couldn’t see anyone. At [pivotal south London venue] the Windmill, you can see everyone. I like to see people in the crowd so I can sing to them or speak to them, or have something to latch onto.” “I’m exactly the same,” says David. “When you can see people react to what you’re doing, it helps you feel like you’re performing to them, not just doing a thing.” “To be fair, for most gigs it feels like I’m playing to the spaceship from Close Encounters,” says Adam, whose hands and drumsticks made at least one appearance in the spotlight peripheries during the matinee show. “It’s normally just a mass of lights staring me down.” “We’ve got this thing with Adam,” Sophie explains, “I don’t think he’s ever been in the live shot. He’s either completely in the darkness or I’m in the way or –” “You know at the end of Monsters Inc.?” he interjects. “I’ve got Mike Wazowski syndrome. There’s always something just slightly blocking my face.” Sophie runs through some examples, drawing particular attention to a photograph from a show at London’s Shacklewell Arms, where there’s no obvious obstruction to his face or drum kit, but still, somehow, he’s not there. It’s as if he took an early cigarette break before the set ended, or was never playing at all. “Is it a drummer thing or a you thing?” David probes. “I think it starts as a drummer thing, but now it’s just a thing thing. I’ve invited friends down before, specifically to take pictures of me, and even those bastards can’t do it.” Maybe it’s a blessing, he says: “We had the amazing opportunity to do the End of the Road live stream and I had a camera right next to me for that. We watched it back and maybe there’s a good reason why people leave me out of the shot. It looks like I did that whole set cross eyed.”
“Recently I feel like you’ve been looking up more to us,” says Juan, supportively. “It’s good. You’re making eye contact more in shows now. I think you look cool.” “That live stream was so nice, though,” says Sophie, reminiscing back to last September, where the band joined The Golden Dregs, Katy J Pearson, Billy Nomates and Squid in End of the Road Festival’s ‘Garden of Streaming’, live from the famous domed Singing Theatre of the festival’s site. The band’s live show was so captivating that it even made the festival set up a record label for the sole purpose of releasing their first single. “Playing on a stage like that… that was a proper stage. It was the best stage I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve actually never been to End of the Road,” Sophie continues, slightly embarrassed. “But the live stream was incredible, even if Adam was being very dramatic. A wasp stung his finger just before we played, and he was like –” “Woah, hang on, how about the person who got stung tells the story?” He spreads his arms melodramatically; the lights fade in the dressing room; we’re in Adam’s world now. “I was doing a stellar job of just sitting on my arse while everyone else was setting up, and this wasp came out of nowhere. I had this searing pain in my little finger, and immediately it started to swell up. Now, drumming, you need your fingers to curl and the bastard just didn’t. My finger just stuck like that.” He imitates his finger staying obstinately straight. “Is that the scar?” jabs Sophie. “That’s a freckle. But actually for the sake of this… yeah, that’s the scar. That’s the big scar that the wasp… the hornet… the Japanese murder hornet left me with, and shot my mum. All I did was ask for some antihistamines to stop the swelling, and now it’s somehow evolved into this story of me crying, bleeding out and crawling towards the sound guy begging for help.” Sophie laughs. “If you watch back the set closely, you can see the wasp flying around Adam’s head; he spends half the time trying to subtly wave it away.” “It looks like I’m trying to do really shit stick tricks. I’m not flipping anything, I’m just...” Again, he imitates a kind of puerile celebration, raising one drumstick limply in the air. — The table — “I wrote a lot of these songs prior to the band formation,” says Sophie, aware that a quick internet search paints them as a new band with one song; more are coming. “I knew that it needed to be a band from the start but it’s really difficult to find the right people who complement the songs. I knew we needed to have violin, so I contacted my friend who suggested David. We met up in a pub in Camden – what’s it called? – the folk pub with all the instruments on the wall – sorry, but what a place. Did you suggest that or did I?” “It was you,” says David. “It was also closed. I don’t know how we got in.” “Anyway, I felt a real connection. David’s a composer in his own right and we had a lot of interests in common – folk horror films, literature, and some music as well. David scores a lot of horror films.”
“Well, a few films,” he says. “I like horror films and my ambition is to score horror films. But I’ve only had a few here and there.” “I think we were both drawn to that wooden, primeval feeling,” Sophie says. “You know, bringing things down from being very heavy and intense, together with the folk vocal. That was something I was always very interested in doing as a project. I feel like David made me really excited, and we became really excited together, especially about having a table.” The table might be the secret to Modern Woman’s intrigue – positioned at the front right of the stage (here, behind a cardboard wave), it’s operated with a childish academia and wonder. David found it on his street, and decided to take it with him, minus the legs. “We always talked about having a table where there are loads of things screwed in,” he explains, “chimes dangling off, strings, smashing it with drumsticks – it’s a work in progress – it had a toy piano on it at one stage.” “We got a 90p colander…” adds Sophie, “or is it a pasta strainer?” “I reckon it’s a steamer,” says Juan. “Well, it’s a metal ball with holes in it which David screwed to the table and it sounds great.” “With the traditional drum kit, everything’s designed to sound good, to sound clean. When you hit a drum skin it oscillates for a long time and fills space in a really economical way. The percussion table is kind of exactly the opposite, because everything’s smashed up. It sounds really dull,” says David. “The cymbals don’t really resonate anymore and the colander is a short, metallic sound. I can just slot in with these very transient sounds.” “It was really important for me to have this differentiator to traditional punk,” says Sophie, excited to share more of their curdling heavy folk music. Where Tom Waits famously worried that his percussion would sound like Buddy Rich having a seizure – like a train wreck – Modern Woman are buying the steel clippers to cut the railroad track. “There’s been a long time where I’ve been doing it alone,” says Sophie, “and trying to explain that sound was always a difficult thing.” ‘Offerings’ is an anomaly on the debut EP, due this September on End of the Road Records, although its primeval, animalistic core is explored throughout, with more songs that strip away an exterior to greet desire quite earnestly. The songs are Sophie’s, embellished by a band with the freedom to express itself creatively, free from trend. “With this lineup, everyone knows what fits,” Sophie adds. “Everyone knows when to step back and leave space. They know when it needs to be loud or quiet.” The others nod, and she smiles, as the headline band filter through the dressing room doors and finish up Modern Woman’s chips.
THE BEST NEW MUSIC
QUICKLY, QUICKLY THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
INDIGO DE SOUZA ANY SHAPE YOU TAKE
Portland, Oregon’s Graham Jonson makes his Ghostly International debut with a kaleidoscopic, vocally-driven collection straddling jazz, beat music, R&B, and psych-pop. Here he reinvents his project as a full-fledged songwriter, vocalist, and arranger, playing nearly everything from drums to keys and guitar, and of course electronics.
This dynamic record successfully creates a container for the full spectrum—pushing through and against every emotion: “I wanted this album to give a feeling of shifting with and embracing change. These songs came from a turbulent time when I was coming to self-love through many existential crises and shifts in perspective.”
MANO LE TOUGH AT THE MOMENT
BENDIK GISKE CRACKS
Glasvegas return with their triumphant fourth album ‘Godspeed’, produced, written and recorded by James Allan, and mastered at Abbey Road Studios. Includes Keep Me A Space, and Shake The Cage (für Theo), as featured in ‘Creation Stories’. All artwork beautifully illustrated by James Allan, reflecting the essence of each song.
Mano Le Tough announces his new record, ‘At The Moment’, on DJ Koze’s Pampa Records. After more than a decade of releases and touring, Mano has spent the past year focusing on the positives of 14 months without performing. In the face of horror, Mano channelled inspiration. With ‘At The Moment’, those struggles have produced a record which balances the ambivalence of the current moment, with wistful streaks of unguarded optimism.
‘Cracks’ follows Giske’s 2019 acclaimed debut, ‘Surrender’, and ‘Untitled’, a collaborative project with Pavel Milyakov aka Buttechno. Collaborating with producer André Bratten, ‘Cracks’ sees Giske using his signature physical and hypnotic techniques in addition to Bratten’s extensive studio of electronic machines, including the new “resonant” space of Bratten’s reactive studio tuned to his original sounds. If this new studio-as-an-instrument process has brought Giske one step closer to the man-machine, it’s also a way to bridge the separation – or crack – between the two. This kind of liminal space, according to Giske, is to be treasured.
SHE DREW THE GUN BEHAVE MYSELF
JOHN MURRY THE STARS ARE GOD’S BULLET HOLES
ALABAMA 3 STEP 13
John Murry’s ‘the stars are god’s bullet holes.’ is not an album for an ordinary world, because it’s not an ordinary album. It’s an album of startling imagery and insinuating melodies that penetrates to the very heart of you with its burning honesty and twisted beauty.
South London’s beloved roots-futurists Alabama 3, like many of us these past couple of years, have been through a trial by ordeal. They’ve emerged stronger, wiser and with a brand new album, ‘Step 13’. The wartorn Brixton collective triumph according to their own peerless standards of cross-pollinating experimentation and Class-A weirdness.
Under the moniker She Drew The Gun, songwriter Louisa Roach is fuelled by a spirit of rebellion, drawing you into her darkly ornate and evocative lyrics. Roach’s upcoming fuzzy psychpop album, ‘Behave Myself’, speaks of food banks, rallying against injustice and celebrating outsiderdom.
SPACE AFRIKA HONEST LABOUR
ISHMAEL ENSEMBLE VISIONS OF LIGHT
Space Afrika create “overlapping moments” – mosaics of dialogue, rhythm, texture, and shadow, half-heard through a bus window on a rainy night. ‘Honest Labour’, the group’s first full-length since 2020’s landmark ‘hybtwibt?’ mixtape, expands their palette with classical strings, shimmering guitar, and visionary vocal cameos, leaning further into their enigmatic fusion of ambient unrest and cosmic downtempo.
‘Visions of Light’, the expansive new album from Bristol’s experimental jazz collective Ishmael Ensemble, out now!
Submarine Cat Records
Submarine Cat Records
Submarine Cat Records
Album of the Day - BBC 6 Music “Flawless astral jazz with dance floor savvy” MOJO “Ecstatic sax solos & tribal rave anthems” Uncut “A band that reveres innovation & creativity” Future Music
Go Wow Records
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Best New Track – Pitchfork
Poison Anna An experimental hip-hop artist takes an unsettling look at the pressures around us, by Alastair Shuttleworth. Photography by Jake Kenny
about how well we’ve used this time, and whether we’ve grown as much as we’d have liked. This cocktail of personal and political disquietude endows EXELSiA, the electrifying debut mixtape from POiSON ANNA, with a special urgency. Having collaborated with the likes of Dean Blunt and A$AP Rocky, 23-year-old Londoner Chloe Anna has maintained a deliberately low profile through a smattering of low-key releases, quietly honing her craft as a vital new force in experimental hip-hop. Her first substantial release, EXELSiA explores the difficulties of realising one’s potential when ailed by systemic oppression, consumerism and misinformation. Set in a quagmire of dark, cold, bracingly futuristic music, Anna’s hushed vocals promote self-empowerment through heightened awareness of the forces that limit our growth. The result is a record deeply concerned with ‘the truth’, but that demands attentive, active reception of it. “I was discovering all these things about society, and the things that are put in place to condition us,” she says, “– to disengage us from others, food, what we put into our bodies, and where we lay our heads at night.” — EXELSiA —
Since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic in Britain, many commentators have framed it as an opportunity for personal growth: to use these myriad disruptions to normal life to re-evaluate our livelihoods and relationships, undertake ambitious new projects and develop in ways usually impeded by newly-unsettled daily pressures. While the politically-divisive easing of restrictions may elicit joy and relief in some, in others it prompts powerful anxieties (regardless of their legitimacy)
EXELSiA follows a roughly linear narrative, in which POiSON ANNA awakens to these pressures and navigates out of the traps they present. It opens with a discussion of consumerism in ‘SPACE’, pointing especially to the estrangement of animal life from the ways in which meat is marketed to us. “I wanted to present that in the bleakest way,” she says, “because I had to do that for myself to change my lifestyle.” ‘COMiN FOR YA’, meanwhile, explores social pressures faced by young people, “whether that’s drinking, taking something that doesn’t agree with us, or just being around people that don’t relate to us or understand us.” Alluding in turn to how this can lead young people to fall into crime, ‘WASTE’ then explores how “when the shit hits the fan, they’re given no support or way to change their lives.” “They sent you away / goodbye, good-day,” she seethes in the track’s hook.
An increasing frustration with these revelations reaches its climax in ‘GOASH’, as POiSON ANNA realises she needs to “bask in this feeling, otherwise she will never overcome it,” Anna tells me. This gives way to the meditative pairing of ‘SLOW PERRY’ and ‘RUNT’, before she elevates herself to a place of greater control in the triumphant closer ‘FAINT’. However, this ending is only partially celebratory, and a lingering darkness conveys that this compendium of iniquities has not been dispelled, but merely recognised. “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it,” she says. — Coughing up blood — POiSON ANNA, the performer, is referred to by Anna in the third person. An alias reflecting the part of her identity most acutely engaged in this political awakening, she uses it to “deliver those kinds of messages that people don’t want to hear.” Depicted coughing up blood in the videos for ‘COMiN FOR YA’ and her scorching one-off single ‘KOKO’, POiSON ANNA is characterised as a survivor against the malevolent forces her music explores. “They tried to ‘poison Anna’, and they weren’t successful,” she explains. In discussing her use of hushed vocals, she describes it as, “a way of tuning into my higher self. Those softer tones and whispers are me getting to the root of the problems I see or feel. It’s quite delicate, and kind of simplistic, because it’s honest.” Anna has been hands-on in EXELSiA’s visual side too, directing the video for lead-single ‘FAiNT’. It centres upon a group of dancers twisting and contorting themselves under the street-lights of Brixton, with each figure representing “different aspects of how to empower and elevate your being.” These are signified by crystals worn by the dancers, which Anna considers useful tools for understanding the world around us. Dancing, through which Anna claims to “lose all the things that
don’t serve me” is presented as a constructive means of relating to our surroundings. — Patience in mad shit — EXELSiA’s means of conveying its messages – building a disquieting sonic fog, only to pierce it with moments of great emotional and political clarity – evokes Anna’s careful concealment of the project to date. The record was effectively written in 2018, preceding a clutch of low-key releases ranging from ‘Doll Dance’ – an industrial-facing collaboration with Heron Fischer – to the sparse electronic record ‘AWAKENiNG’. From her earliest demos as POiSON ANNA, Anna claims she had resolved to maintain a low-profile until she’d developed the skills required to fully realise the project. “I knew I was doing some mad shit, but I was very content that I was going to be developing myself.” These convictions were strengthened by her surprising first brushes with the industry. After stumbling across an early demo of hers, A$AP Rocky invited Anna to assist him on his 2018 album TESTING. “I was just honoured to be there, and to be able to have a seat in someone’s studio as great as Rocky – to observe and learn,” she recounts wistfully. “Then he turned to me and said ‘This is your part,’” inviting her to contribute vocals to ‘A$AP Forever’. Also working on the album was Dean Blunt, who would work with Anna on the gorgeous track ‘SUBMiSSiON’. Experiencing a “heartfelt feeling that had to come out” upon hearing Blunt’s instrumental, Anna scribbled the lyrics on the back of a letter in the studio and laid down her stunning performance in the session’s final moments. While one might expect these thrilling early experiences to have hastened Anna’s own pursuit of the spotlight, they increased her commitment to quietly developing her style. “I learned a lot of valuable lessons from those processes, that helped me remain completely myself,” she says, remaining firm friends with both artists today. And after years of sharing EXELSiA solely with her collaborator Mobbs, Anna last month finally released it into the world via NTS’s new label. “The whole process was an incredible way to learn how to keep creative control,” she says, noting the lack of compromises demanded of her by the beloved radio station, in its role as her label. The release of EXELSiA also marks the broader unveiling of POiSON ANNA itself. “There’s so much more to come,” Anna grins, as the project begins to reach far beyond the small crowd who have already stumbled across it. When I ask how she relates to the project after its release, Anna exhibits a fond nostalgia. “EXELSiA being out is staying true to what I believed in at the time.” Reminded of what an early stage in her growth this mixtape actually represents, one can only imagine the dizzying creative heights she might eventually reach. Whatever future releases hold, we can certainly expect that POiSON ANNA will continue to be powerfully defined by Anna’s strange, bracing originality. From her earliest efforts, Anna knew she was “going to pursue extremity: of sound, of feeling, of emotion. If you can understand that,” she says, “then you’re definitely meant to be riding with me.”
Low — Hey What (sub pop) It’s inevitable – and a little unfortunate – that Hey What, the thirteenth studio album from Low, will only be discussed in direct relation to its predecessor, 2018’s Double Negative. That was the album on which the already beloved Minnesotan band took their greatest creative leap forward yet; a deeply strange, spectral record that sounded like little else they or indeed anyone else had created before (intermittent shades of the work of experimental artists like Ian William Craig, William Basinski or, perhaps, Mark Hollis notwithstanding). Upon its release, it was greeted by many as an outstanding sonic analogue of Trump’s America, a baffled and battered lash outward from deep within a suckerpunched nation. Yet there was always something about that that seemed a bit literal; to these ears at least, it was just as fundamentally a confrontation of far more deep-rooted, profound decompositions and traumas as a timely response to the Washington soap opera. Aesthetically as much as anything else, Double Negative could not be adequately appreciated solely as a response to American neoliberalism’s latest schism; as is so often the case, it felt a little like the sheer formal brilliance of the record was getting lost in the clamour to ascribe to it an unambiguous political meaning – unambiguous being the operative word. Not, at all, that we shouldn’t strive to carefully frame music in its social and political context – that’s vital – but great art is also capable of (and deserves) a certain autonomy. The unique power of Double Negative is inextricable from its singularity, its abstraction, its noisy, seasick imprecision – and, in certain ways, that’s just as true of Hey What.
If Double Negative was an arresting, shapeshifting intrusion into the contemporary alternative rock landscape, a sudden starling cloud of an album that constantly lurched, disentangled, disintegrated and reconstituted itself before blinking out of view, Hey What is the sound of those birds coming home to roost. From the intro of opening track ‘White Horses’ – a series of melting slide guitar samples solidifying into a jittery chord progression that slowly augments itself with more noise and dissonance beneath Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s interlocked vocals – it’s clear we’re listening to a self-consciously postDouble Negative Low, who’ve understood the potency of the niche that record found for them. Yet from the production to the vocal performances, there’s a newfound crispness here, an audible confidence that was (necessarily) missing from this album’s anxious predecessor. ‘Days Like These’ provides another striking, if sly, example of that confidence. As the lead single with which Hey What was announced, it’s actually a bit of a red herring, its clarion-call first half somehow even serving that purpose for the overall song itself. Its near-acapella beginning is one of the boldest statements Low have ever made, and this boldness nearly makes it come unstuck: lyrics like “When you think you’ve seen everything, you’ll find we’re living in days like these”, sung with utmost earnestness, drip with a certain “in these strange and unprecedented times…” pseudocandidness that just feels clumsy. Yet as the song progresses, familiar slabs of distortion pounding home each verse before the instrumentation opens out into a wonderfully desolate vista of nudging kick drums, impressionistic vocals and rich, bassy veils of synth, this unfamiliar boldness is brilliantly undercut, Sparhawk and Parker’s every repetition of the word “again” sounding more exhausted, smartly inverting the track’s platitudinous opening mantra: difficult “days like these” are not, as the first verse might have suggested, somehow exceptional – and that’s what makes them even harder to deal with.
Having said that, Hey What, taken cumulatively, radiates a little more hope than much of Low’s recent work. It’s hardly happy-clappy, and there are vast swathes of this album that are as bleak as one might expect from a band who sounded world-historically miserable before Covid-19 turned the world inside out, but the solace that Low’s Sparhawk and Parker (a married couple as well as creative partnership) draw from faith and family is keenly felt. It’s not an optimistic record as much as a stoic one; it makes no promises about the future, but seems at least to have the temerity to believe that there will be one. A three-song run early in the album showcases several glimmers of this cautious resolve. The elegant arc of ‘I Can Wait’’s central melody, plaintive and hymnal; the toddling synth of ‘All Night’, guided along by a tender, parental vocal; the broad sweep of ‘Disappearing’, whose mentions of “cold comfort” and “the constant face of the unknown unknown” evoking a certain broadness of perspective, a willingness to be lost in the enormity of life as we gaze at “that disappearing horizon”. Again, it’s hardly ‘Walking on Sunshine’, but Low’s intermittent, intimate appeals to both their and our better judgement strike what feels like a necessary chord. There are several places here where the band draw not only upon their most recent output but also cast a creative net out through their entire back catalogue. ‘More’ is the track that most neatly encapsulates the full range of their artistry: the flickering noise of recent years coats its instrumentation like oil on a bike chain, but Parker’s crystal vocals are elevated high above the dirge to deliver a lilting melody that could just as easily be layered atop the skeletal atmospherics of their youthful slowcore or the relative accessibility of the almost-conventional-almost-hits they’ve been variously capable of throughout their career (‘Murderer’, ‘Monkey’). The arrangement is head-spinning, the distortion allowing a wild fizz of contrasting harmonics to shear away from the central chords with the abandon of sparks
Albums off an anvil, all propelled along by a deadsimple, dead-eyed kick drum set low but purposeful in the mix. Elsewhere, ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’ also evokes the Low of slightly longer ago, its stately pace and monolithic textures recalling tracks like the portentous ‘Violent Past’, from 2007’s Drums and Guns; ‘Don’t Walk Away’, were its digital curlicues and sea-breeze synths subbed out for acoustic guitars, could happily sit on almost any of the group’s fairly diverse early-2000s releases. Quite regularly, too, the album’s arrangements take a dynamic plummet, settling at a subterranean level of reverb, vocal, and barelythere chords that reminds you of just how sparse this band’s sound was when they first started out. I set up this review by noting the sad inevitability of a constant comparison between Hey What and Double Negative, and I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate myself on being right – it’s what I’ve spent most of the piece doing. The truth is, though, that this new album does feel like a reflexive project for Low, a piece of work that re-evaluates their craft and investigates what it all means. On a technical level, they sound as good as ever, the performances supple and heartfelt, the timbral innovations that made Double Negative such a revelation retaining their power now the surprise value of that release has subsided (BJ Burton’s sensitive production helps). In pure, oldfashioned songwriting terms, it’s harder to be so definitive; the most affecting moments here are mostly those in which the track structures suddenly collapse in on themselves, the internal logic of the record feeling looser than before, occasionally lacking a certain bite. The uneasy compacts between lyric and melody, timbre and dynamic, minute detail and overall narrative that just about hold together the very best Low records are still just about intact, but they’re shaky. Yet perhaps that’s sort of the point: Hey What is all about the diffuse tensions of contemporary life, the trembling balances of social forces that seem more fragile than ever, and the tiny personal details that make it all more or less bearable day-to-
day. In this way, it’s in dialogue with work from across their entire 27-year career, not merely their last album, although current events and the singularity of that previous record arguably throw those themes into sharper relief than ever. It’s a richly imperfect LP, whose broad contours one can just about discern, but onto which an infinite number of meanings can be projected; for that, it’s a record worth cherishing. 7/10 Luke Cartledge
Amyl and the Sniffers — Comfort To Me (rough trade) Australia is always vaguely apocalyptic, but perhaps never more so than in 2020. In Melbourne, people were already wearing face masks to protect themselves from the smoke of a particularly bad bushfire season well before Covid ever came down. For a long time, it was best to stay inside. So Amyl and the Sniffers did. Their second album is the result of the band’s time in isolation. For the most part, the forced proximity and narrowed focus of months indoors has served them well. The frenetic energy of their selftitled debut remains, but in places is sharper, more sleek. Singer Amy Taylor also had more she wanted to say this time around. ‘Knifey’, with its propulsive, stepping bassline, recounts the defensive manoeuvres of a woman walking home at night, turning the violence on its head. Meanwhile, the head-banging ‘Capital’ takes aim at government exploitation – of bodies, of the environment, of migrants’ rights – in the name of corporate gain. Amyl and the Sniffers are still at their best when serving up pub-punk bangers, though. The thrashing nightout anthem ‘Freaks to The Front’ is a
standout; the shorter, faster sibling of album one’s ‘Monsoon Rock’, its AC/DC guitar riffs crackling with electricity. While Comfort To Me usually stays just the right side of manic, the frenetic pace spirals slightly out of control towards the end, and the last three tracks somewhat unravel. It’s not an ideal send-off, but the album walks the fine line between chaos and control. It’s easy to slip just a little too far to one side. On Comfort To Me, Amyl and the Sniffers get stuck into the fundamental weirdness of humanity in all its messy, drunken, complex glory. 6/10 Liam Konemann
Chubby and the Gang — The Mutt’s Nuts (partisan) An ill-mannered variation of “the bee’s knees”, only to be led further astray by a similarly vulgar image of “the dog’s bollocks”, to describe something as “the mutt’s nuts” feels like an unusual compliment. It’s one of those brilliantly nonsensical English phrases, all too illogical to derive any real origin or meaning. But West London’s Chubby And The Gang have never been interested in calmly-spoken pleasantries. Continuing to take heed of Jimmie Rodgers Snow’s invigorating speech on the ungodly visceral power of the beat, the rousing passage that opened the band’s namemaking 2020 album Speed Kills, Chubby And The Gang’s music is mostly fast, potent, and deadly. Whether by accident or design, the band’s razor-sharp concoction of punk, pub rock, doo-wop, and blues has managed to unravel the well-cordonedoff UK hardcore scene, cementing Charlie Manning Walker (aka Chubby Charles) and his troupe of inner-city loudmouths
Albums as frontrunners in a new wave of breakout artists looking to bust the genre wide open. The Mutt’s Nuts takes another bold leap into more dynamic territories; they retain their million-mile-an-hour pace, but as Chubby puts it, “you can’t tell someone you love them by throwing a chair across the room.” Take these words with a pinch of salt: The Mutt’s Nuts is still seething with just about every anti-establishment jibe you think of. Chubby’s guttural rasps throatier than ever before, he calls out vicious social hierarchy on ‘It’s Me Who Will Pay’ and gets chewed up and spat out by a broken judicial system on ‘Coming Up Tough’. Migrating from the streets of London, the pace slows to address police brutality during the BLM protests on ‘White Rags’. Far from pulling any punches, these weightier moments allow Chubby to really dig deep as he drags those responsible through the mud without the faintest whiff of mercy. 7/10 Ollie Rankine
Maarja Nuut — Hinged (selfrelease) Hinged, the third solo album from Estonian singer, violinist, composer and electronic artist Maarja Nuut, is so called because its title is bilingual. “In Estonian, it means departed spirits and souls,” she explains, “in English, a link that holds things together. These songs are a thread between the two meanings, and a summation of a year spent exploring my family history and my place in it.” Hinged was recorded and produced entirely by Nuut in her seaside studio, in between trips to the farm she recently inherited from her grandmother. Here, she sifted through five generations’ worth of personal possessions and uncovered
family artefacts, both physically and emotionally peeling back the layers of history upon which her very existence and identity hinge. It’s no surprise, then, given the context of its creation, that listening to Hinged feels like eavesdropping on an intergenerational family reunion that’s not your own, the musical equivalent of watching a sprawling family tree traced back and then forwards again, to the present day. While album opener ‘Hinged’ is an undulant and ambient offering that showcases Nuut’s experimental approach, both to music production and self-discovery, the ethereal vocals and ghostly vermona organ notes of ‘Vaheala Valgus’ speak of the ways that Nuut’s creativity is shaped by her ancestry. Elsewhere, on ‘Kutse Tantsule,’ which translates as ‘A Call to Dance,’ insistent instrumentation points less to a past that haunts the present, and more to the manner in which, for Nuut, what we are and what has come before us are intimately intertwined. 7/10 Rosie Ramsden
Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (age 101) Something’s shifted for the revered, MOBO and Ivor Novello award-winning rapper and poet Simbi Ajikawo (AKA Little Simz). On the epic, nineteen-track Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (S.I.M.B.I), it feels like there’s a new currency that she trusts. Little Simz is drilling more deeply now, and touching on some of the most acute personal issues. And it’s resulted in her finest work yet. She sets the tone with a sharp examination of her notorious tendency to “bottle it up then spill it in verses”, on opener, ‘Introvert’. Whilst on ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, Simz picks apart her
dad’s absence, and on ‘Little Q Pt2’, she peers into the early years of her cousin’s life, and how it was so close to being cut short by the cyclic, systemic racism that haunts an upbringing as a young man of colour in London. Little Simz’s lines can leave you capsized. Musically, S.I.M.B.I. is varied. Produced by Inflo and backed by a fortypiece orchestra, the record smudges together such a vast, freewheeling mix of sounds that it recalls the instrumental range of artists like J Dilla or Madlib. From epic orchestral quest on ‘Introvert’, to silky jazz on ‘Woman ft. Cleo Sol’, to joyful ’80s funk and Afrobeat-inspired ‘Protect My Energy’. On S.I.M.B.I., Little Simz levels her successes by being herself, being introverted. And with that, she has made a record that prompts the kind of introspection that can lead to personal breakthroughs. It’s an album to listen to over and over. 9/10 Cat Gough
Eyedress — Mulholland Drive (lex) After witnessing him drop three fulllength releases in as many years, anyone who’s aware of Filipino singer-songwriter Idris Vicuña may know more or less what to expect from his next album. Whilst his trademark stamp on lounge-y lo-fi bedroom pop continues to tick enough boxes to keep turning heads, his music’s tendency to rehash the same scuzzy, washed-out quirks has rarely managed to satisfy much beyond mild interest. But Eyedress seems determined to hang in there. Always wallpaper than showstopper, he still manages to sound as if he’s on the cusp of what could be his unlikely masterpiece. His new record Mulholland Drive may not quite be that, but it
Albums suggests that he might just be heading in the right direction. Invigorated by its own diametrically-opposed tracklist, Mulholland Drive smooths out the tedious repetition of previous ventures and replaces it with a surprisingly dynamic temperament. Though not quite as Lynchian as the album title suggests, Eyedress’s take on positivity and life’s simple pleasures bids to jump, hop, and on a few occasions, trip its way through a busy list of artist features – some more recognisable than others, ‘Chad An Gordy (feat. King Krule)’ being the most standout of the pack. Between the retro laser quest synthesisers on ‘Brain Dead’ and the damning gothic eyeliner riffs of ‘Spit On Your Grave’, very little can prepare you for the sleazy French noir porno whispers of “Dom Perignon” on the happy-golucky ‘Something About You (feat. Dent May)’. There’s still a good deal of filler here but Eyedress feels like he’s clunking into gear. 6/10 Ollie Rankine
Space Afrika — Honest Labour (dais) “In the city,” says Blackhaine on ‘B£E’, the aching centrepiece of Honest Labour, “...there’s no one left”. He could be speaking about any number of cities in the UK. After a poetic verse that mirrors the beauty, despondency and isolation elsewhere on the record, he’s swallowed up by a sweep of cinematic strings – another voice buried under the weight of Space Afrika’s opaque soundscapes. The Manchester duo are documentarians collecting found sounds and vocal fragments, adding layers of rich electronics and subtle beatwork. On last year’s breakthrough hybtwibt? mixtape, the result was a power-
ful snapshot of political tension and community action, all told through fractured ambient and half-there techno. Honest Labour is more ambitious and refined in its execution, incorporating strong vocal features and even some hazy guitar playing – but the creeping energy that has made them stand out remains their most powerful tool. The tracks here work as connected vignettes that form to create an ineffable sense of place, or an internal feeling the band share. It’s teaming with detail. Some moments that stick out are the comforting noise of ‘Ladybird Drone’, which recalls whirring machinery and rain hitting a tin roof. The suffocating low-end of ‘Indigo Grift’ gives Andy Stott a run for his money, while Bianca Scout’s airy vocal presence on ‘Girl Scout Cookies’ plays brilliantly with the heaviness of the bass playing. The band incorporate triphop, warped techno and classical with ease, all with skeletal song structures and elusive melodies. As the album progresses you occasionally wish they’d flesh out their ideas, or sit in a moment just a bit longer. ‘U’ with kinseyLloyd and the previously-mentioned ‘B£E’ prove what they can do when allowing an image to fully form, but perhaps these moments hit with such a weight because of the space around them. Many tracks disappear soon after arriving, blurred by grey skies and city traffic, but the group are keen to leave a lasting impression. Second to last is ‘Strength’ with LA Timpa, a tense and monolithic hymn performed as if in another language. The title track concludes with an optimistic piano loop – a gentle yet sturdy foundation for Space Afrika to build on with layers of cello and ambience. Just like ‘Strength’ before it, there’s a hymnal quality, but the tone is thankful rather than repentant. After the crushing atmosphere of much of Honest Labour, it’s a reminder that even after the gloomiest days, light will shine on your face again. 7/10 Skye Butchard
Deafheaven — Infinite Granite (sargent house) Deafheaven are a singular group who’ve been subtly transforming throughout their career, such that you could say they’ve altered the landscape of black metal itself – from the art form of dungeon-dwellers to a nearstadium-sized prospect. It’s a trajectory that’s attracted equal amounts of scorn and awe; are these men – their long, black greasy hair gradually receding into respectable bankers’ short-back-andsides with every consecutive press cycle – saviours, heretics or common sell-outs? As totally stimulating as the conversation always is, it’s easy to see why Infinite Granite might push some towards the lattermost category. Previous records have kicked off with tracks like ‘Dream House’, ‘Brought To The Water’, and ‘You Without End’ – Deafheaven albums usually lash you with a hailstorm of sound and fury within the first five minutes. So turning on ‘Shellstar’, the opener of Infinite Granite, is bound to disarm, if not disappoint. The guitars shimmer, the drums plod, and George Clarke’s rasped screech has softened into a croon, more elven than orcish, save for the occasional snatch of aggression placed far in the background of ‘Great Mass of Colour’ or ‘Mombasa’. But the Deafheaven of Infinite Granite have developed, and are capable of greater power for it. The gulf of sentiment between Deafheaven’s oft-memed lyric from ‘Dream House’ – “I’m dying / Is it blissful? / It’s like a dream / I want to dream” – and the breakdown of ‘Shellstar’ – “When it takes you / You’ll be remembered / Young and kind / For all time” – marks the kind of growth we’re not accustomed to seeing in this genre. The ebb of angsty nihilism is reflected in
Albums the fact that, for the first time, Clarke’s performance allows us to actually understand what he’s saying. For a man who thinks of himself as “not a natural singer”, he can deliver lines with real conviction and emotive range. Really, this is a Slowdive album by a band who usually sound more like Ash Borer – but as much as it seems like Deafheaven are not your black metal band anymore, Infinite Granite shows that they never really cared enough to have the argument anyway. 6/10 Dafydd Jenkins
Tropical Fuck Storm — Deep State (joyful noise) Forced, like pretty much everyone else, to make 2020 into a fallow year, by their standards Tropical Fuck Storm gave Deep States a relatively long gestation period. However, time and inaction have done nothing to dull Tropical Fuck Storm’s edges. The band’s music has trodden this line between sonic experimentation and lyrics that sketch the darker corners of the modern psyche, and their third album is no different; unafraid to wade into QAnon, the US Capitol riot and other such weighty topics. ‘Suburbiopia’ is a case in point, a four-minute pen portrait of a conspiracy theorist that comes across like Magazine’s ‘Song from Under The Floorboards’ filtered through an apocalyptic-sounding glitch. This all makes it more inexplicable that the rest of Deep State feels patchy. TFS clearly have the talent to hit the nail on the head, (the taught nailbiter ‘Legal Ghost’ might be the band’s best yet), but track after track on this album just descends into caterwauling, unfocused electronica. They were clearly aiming at Cabaret Voltaire, but somehow ended up
with a record that feels more like a parade of unfinished Deerhoof demos. And let’s not even mention ‘Bumma Sanga’, a song that’s easily one of the shittest hot takes on Covid-19 you’ll ever hear, and only spares us from paying it undue attention by being pretty much unlistenable. 5/10 Dominic Haley
W. H. Lung — Vanities (melodic) Whilst recording Vanities, the anticipated follow-up to W. H. Lung’s acclaimed debut Incidental Music, vocalist Joe Evans claimed to have been in the “best place in my life.” You have to admire his glass-halffull mindset during a period of great adjustment for the group. They lost member Tom Derbyshire to his pursuit of a filmmaking career, relocated from Manchester to Todmorden, and adopted a rip-it-up-and-start-again attitude for album two. In the finished product, the euphoria emanating from W. H. Lung’s frontman is shrouded by an overarching darkness. Scenes of anarchy (“I saw a fight break out at Wembley”) and anxiety (“I see faces everywhere I go / I lose control”) dominate Vanities’ visuals. W. H. Lung deftly intensify the mood conjured by their evocative lyricism with denselystructured soundscapes influenced by 1980s new wave and synth-pop. That’s a well-mined era by contemporary artists, it must be said, yet it’s proficiently done on this LP, particularly on the alluring melodics of ‘Showstopper’. Beyond that, M83-like exuberance abounds on ‘Figure With Flowers’, ‘Ways of Seeing’ evokes mid-2010s Beck, while Future Islands (‘ARPi’) and Field Music (‘Pearl in The Palm’) also feel important to the work.
Vanities’ arrival demonstrates how mannered Incidental Music was in its demeanour. Their latest offering lives up to the excesses and indulgences insinuated by its title. A dexterous record. 7/10 Zara Hedderman
Chvrches — Screen Violence (emi) The last Chvrches record, Love Is Dead, represented a bit of an Icarus moment for them. They’d always been a polished outfit, even on the singles that preceded debut LP The Bones of What You Believe, so the only obvious trajectory for them on the albums that followed was to lean into their anthemic, arena-ready side, something that paid off handsomely with the festival-friendly likes of ‘Clearest Blue’ and ‘Never Ending Circles’ on 2015’s Every Open Eye. You know, however, that you’ve travelled too far down that road when you begin sounding like Imagine Dragons, and Love Is Dead was too often overblown; the sense was that the trio had definitively lost touch with the taut melodies that made their biggest singles such triumphs. You wonder whether they’ve recognised that, too. By accident or design – the album came together largely over video calls, with singer Lauren Mayberry in Los Angeles during the pandemic and Martin Doherty and Iain Cook in Glasgow – there is a renewed simplicity of approach to the songwriting on Screen Violence; even the title goes back to their roots, a name they’d once considered for the band. Fists-inthe-air moments remain, but Mayberry earns them with some of the best lyricism of her career, particularly on blistering anti-mansplaining lead single ‘He Said She Said’.
Albums Elsewhere, there’s breezy, reflective pop, like the handsome ‘California’ and ‘Final Girl’, the latter heavily imbued with the kind of ’80s-referencing synth that defined Paramore’s After Laughter. The Robert Smith collaboration ‘How Not to Drown’, meanwhile, provides an epic centrepiece; whilst never quite hitting the heights of those massive early singles, Screen Violence is the sound of Chvrches back on track. 7/10 Joe Goggins
audiobooks — Astro Tough (heavenly) David Wrench and Evangeline Ling make an unlikely pairing: he a veteran producer who’s worked with David Byrne, Frank Ocean and Caribou; she a recent Goldsmiths art graduate and model. As audiobooks though, they’ve created a winning formula, with Ling’s eccentric vocal performance giving a human quirk to Wrench’s uber-clean production. On their second album Astro Tough, it’s a combination that proves endlessly fruitful. Anyone who has seen them live will attest that the pair don’t shy away from weirdness, and there’s plenty of that here – opener ‘The Doll’ is especially off-kilter, with Ling weaving a surrealist narrative around the pulsating, meditative beat. ‘LaLaLa It’s The Good Life’ answers the question “What if 100 gecs, but for adults?”, an ode, like much of the album, to London’s nightlife. If the album centres on the dancefloor thematically, it also does so sonically. audiobooks know how to make people dance, and tracks like ‘Black Lipstick’ and ‘First Move’ are destined to become audience favourites. The latter, about the heady anticipation that comes before a night out, sees Ling
take on the role of the narrator, oscillating between empathy and voyeurism. Her imaginative and graphic storytelling throughout Astro Tough calls to mind writers like Leonora Carrington or Lydia Davis in its endearing strangeness, particularly on ‘The English Manipulator’ and the brooding ‘He Calls Me Bambi’. If Wrench’s masterful production is the expertly-made canvas, it’s this storytelling which gives the record its colour, and combined they make a brilliant piece of art. 8/10 Jessica Wrigglesworth
Pip Blom — Welcome Break (heavenly) Pip Blom would have sounded perfectly at home on a post-grunge compilation tape when they debuted in 2019 with Boat. Not much has changed for the Amsterdam revivalists on their follow-up Welcome Break, which is self-produced and was recorded in just three weeks. The quartet, who take their name from their singer-songwriter and guitarist, continue to be influenced by the Britpop acts they grew up listening to. This translates into 11 tracks with bulletproof melodies and a keen sense of loudquiet dynamics. These qualities are bolstered by their ability to capture their gig energy, with tracks being assembled out of live takes. It’s a technique that’s at its strongest on the fuzz-pop of ‘You Don’t Want This’, which could be a Lemonheads cover, ‘Keep It Together’, which has the cuteness of a grungier Camera Obscura, and the slightly spikier ‘Not Easy To Like’. The musical fizz is occasionally peeled back to reveal lyrical sadness (“I’m feeling homesick,” Blom admits on ‘I Love
The City’) but for the most part the vocals are mixed low enough to be of secondary concern. It’s an approach that places the focus on the indie-pop tunes and offers a welcome break from more po-faced acts. 7/10 Susan Darlington
GOAT — Headsoup (rocket) Five years after their explorative and occasionally folky double album, Requiem, GOAT fans await a chance to embark on another psych-rock ritual with the anonymous Swedish troupe. They’ll have to wait longer for a full-length album, it seems. Headsoup is a collection of B-sides with just a couple of new tracks. Though it lacks the ceremonious presentation of past releases, this mixed collection does offer an interesting chance to reassess the band’s work, free of gimmicks or dodgy headgear. For the uninitiated, GOAT claim to be a voodoo-practicing sect from an isolated locality in Sweden. Their undoubtedly ballsy live shows feature pagan-style costumes and literal bells and whistles. They also claim to consume the souls of the audience during sets. A decade into their career and this secretive band have managed to remain masked, which is an impressive dedication to kayfabe. GOAT are undoubtedly a talented jam band, combining their varied influences with extravagance and focusing on noodling instrumentation and scrappy song structures. When it works, like on the thrilling fuzzed-out guitar soloing of ‘Dreambuilding’ or the krautrock-leaning hypnotism of ‘Goatfizz’, it’s easy to sink into the premise. Mostly, though, Headsoup is a lethargic and unfocused offering. Taken from various sessions across their career,
Albums it’s worrying how frequently songs bleed together. There’s a lack of distinct melodies or performances to make individual moments land. GOAT knowingly work with an amateurish delivery, emphasising feeling and some vague mysticism – as is made obnoxiously clear on the chorus on ‘It’s Time for Fun’, delivered in typically flat and shouty fashion (“Take off your clothes / Put down your guns / No time for problems / It’s time for fun”). The two new tracks that finish the collection have more polish and momentum behind them, but they hardly signal a change of pace for the group. Still, when the freaky guitar melting of ‘Queen of the Underground’ takes its hold, you can see why this band remain so captivating for their die-hards. 4/10 Skye Butchard
DJ Seinfeld — Mirrors (ninja tune) If you didn’t know already, you might not guess that Mirrors is is the successor to DJ Seinfeld’s Time Spent Away From U, the album that included the 2017 smash hit ‘U’, a lo-fi house co-anthem alongside scene backbenchers like Baltra, Mall Grab and DJ Boring. They were simpler times: this was dance music’s answer to vaporwave, lapped up by teens and 20-somethings taking their first steps into the world of electronic music beyond their parents’ iPod classic playlists of New Order and Heaven 17. With visuals of gloopy Simpsons characters imprinted on our warped memories, DJ Seinfeld levitates out of his inaugural musical identity and refines his sound. He achieves this by pairing a tasteful reconfiguration of commercially bubble-wrapped deep house with garagetinged breaks and melancholic trance
hooks, all the while refurbishing remnants of the short-lived lo-fi explosion. The vocal samples are superficially simple, the riffs pleasant. Yet these qualities are what seem to hold this album back from really letting go. There are pockets of sentiment, like the breakdowns of ‘These Things Will Come To Be’ and warbling vocal skits of ‘Song For The Lonely’, but the intermittence of genuine emotion seems to be overridden by a desire for mass appeal. Is that a negative thing? Maybe not for most, but it is for me. 5/10 Eleanor Bickers
Devendra Banhart & Noah Georgeson — Refuge (dead oceans) Refuge is an album like nothing the magnetic singersongwriter Devendra Banhart has made before. In this new ambient project with Banhart’s long-time, Grammy-winning producer and sometime co-writer Noah Georgeson, there’s none of the singular, esoteric folk sound, the fingerpicked guitar, or striking, screwy vocals that made Banhart’s name. Fluidly and beautifully weaving together a trellis of woodwind and strings, with floaty, weightless synth drones, Refuge is an ambient gem that marries the two very different compositional angles of its composers. It’s a subtly entrancing collection of tracks, comprising harp, dreamy pedal steel, and piano, alongside field recordings of Nepali Buddhist ceremonies on ‘Asura Cave’, and a mantra recited by Banhart’s Bhutanese teacher, Neten Chokling Rinpoche. Deep Listening legends Pauline Oliveros and Lou Harrison are spiritual touchstones for this album, and like the incredible compositions of the mavericks it’s inspired by, Refuge possesses the kind
of command that can envelop you, wherever you might be. There’s a conscious fascination here with rhythms and sounds that might induce the kind of internal psychological space needed in people to feel a sense of renewal. In the deepest chaos, Refuge is an ideal record to become submerged in. 8/10 Cat Gough
Wolves in the Throne Room — Primordial Arcana (century media) Wolves in the Throne Room have certainly been on one hell of a journey. Since forming in 2003 the band have been on a quest to capture the energies of their home in the Pacifc Northwest and take them elsewhere; but now, the band are returning sonically, physically and spiritually to the forests where it all began. Famously, Wolves in the Throne Room formed in a tumbledown log cabin, but Primordial Arcana is the band’s first record to be recorded entirely at their Owl Lodge Studio, with brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver alongside guitarist Kody Keyworth handling all of the production, recording, mixing and mastering on their own. As you’d expect, the result is the most DIY-sounding record Wolves have made for years. For the first time in years, the band seem more concerned with mortal matters than transcending into more lofty, atmospheric realms. Opener ‘Mountain Magick’ sets the tone with an almost folksy guitar melody building ever skywards into a triumphant monolith, while tracks like ‘Masters of Rain’ and ‘Storm’ nod towards early inspirations of the band such as Slayer and Bolt Thrower. It’s a weird comparison, I know, but in a way Primordial Arcana kind of reminds me of Taylor Swift’s Folklore. Yes, both records are clearly radically
Albums different in terms of tone and structure, but at their hearts both are products of artists attempting to peel away artifice and mythology and find something truly genuine underneath. I don’t think Wolves In The Throne Room have ever sounded more human. 7/10 Dominic Haley
Anna Leone — I’ve Felt All These Things (all points / half awake) Anna Leone is a reluctant public musician. A self-proclaimed introvert, the Stockholm singer-songwriter was signed after she was heard playing through her bedroom wall. Her love of solitude and tendency towards eviscerating self-reflection is evident across her debut album. A marked progression from 2018’s Wandered Away EP, which positioned her as an acoustic folk troubadour, it’s defined by her determination to expand her sound-world. The move has paid off, with I’ve Felt All These Things being lyrically insular yet musically engaged with external sources. Its ten tracks are quietly embellished by ambient piano lines, subtle samples, and ethereal backing vocals. These are all to the fore on opening track ‘Intro (I’ve Waited)’, which is constructed around little more than the repeated title, and ‘Wondering’, on which slight distortion is used to create a sense of acceptance. Other tracks place her fingerpicked guitar playing and soulful, bruised voice centre stage. ‘Your Light’ has the ’60s folk and soul-searching of Vashti Bunyan, while at the same time suggesting a meeting of minds with Haley Heynderickx. In contrast, ‘Still I Wait’ has a touch of the blues in her tone while she addresses the internal struggle of standing “in the shade / While I crave the light.”
It’s a tussle with self-doubt and negativity that reaches a sense of release on the album’s fitting closer, ‘All That I Ever Did’. Sounding like she’s singing to herself in her bedroom, she brings hope as the sun “leads me out from my cage.” 8/10 Susan Darlington
Spencer — Are U Down? (4ad) Spencer Miles Abraham Allen’s parents gave him his middle name after none other than jazz master Miles Davis. It’s a big name to live up to – but, thankfully, the young New York City-based singer, songwriter and producer clearly has an understanding of his craft. Learning trumpet from the age of four, studying jazz at summer school as a teen, all while listening to the likes of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, Spencer would start to gain traction releasing his own music from his parents’ basement. On this, his debut album, he makes a lush kind of soul that shifts and swoons, sitting in the school of hearts-onsleeve Gen Z raconteurs (think Steve Lacy and Omar Apollo), while his vocals nod to the smoothness of Musiq Soulchild or, occasionally, Frank Ocean. Like Ocean, there’s a lightly experimental bent to Spencer’s sound too (this is out on 4AD, after all). The tracks can bleed into each other, with songs sometimes feeling like motifs of moods rather than fully-formed moments: take the striking beauty of ‘staywmecassette’, a slow dance which builds to crunchy, skittering crescendo before cutting off suddenly. The album explores romance, and though there’s a simplicity to the lyrics, they capture all the thrills, excitement and sauce of love and attraction (“I could take you out to eat, then eat you up for dinner”) combined with the insecurity of
it (“I bet whenever it’s over, when push comes to shove, that you’ll drop me”). Overall, it’s a rich and promising debut. 7/10 Tara Joshi
Jana Rush — Painful Enlightenment (planet mu) Calling Painful Enlightenment a footwork album is like calling Derek Bailey a jazz guitarist. All the consummate pieces of Chicago musician Jana Rush’s production are present and correct – slow-mo swordplay percussion, pulsating bass, back-slipping samples – but only as raw materials for a much darker, more abstract re-think of what the genre could be. Naturally, with that comes a certain amount of baked-in difficulty. At nine minutes of sparse, throbbing rhythms, crusty video game exclamations and a single, orgasmic moan played over and over again without ever allowing the listener to become desensitised to its much-too-clear fidelity, album centrepiece ‘Suicidal Ideation’ is hard work. ‘Spot’ too feels like watching an incredibly uncomfortable sex scene where the camera lingers far too long with too few edits. It’s less a song that manipulates erotic sounds than one that suggests Rush forgot to close all of her tabs before recording. But the slow jamlike chord sequence shades the hardcore pornographic grunts with oddly tender cadences. While the record delivers satisfying, stuttering beats all across the board, it’s at its absolute best when it provokes the listener into thinking about what they themselves deem to be gratuitous, all-too-explicit, irritating or even kind of sexy. Rush continually breaches the limits of her past work (and good taste) by putting revulsion, baseness and
Albums discomfort to use – with truly affecting results. What’s more, Painful Enlightenment feels like a rewarding, groundbreaking footwork record for daring not to sound much like footwork at all. 9/10 Dafydd Jenkins
Injury Reserve — By The Time I Get To Phoenix (injury reserve) Death has a way of framing people and music in a way that makes looking back in a certain way an inevitability. After the success of their 2019 self-titled debut, Injury Reserve had all the momentum and were already working on By The Time I Get To Phoenix before the year was out. Less than a year later, founding member Stepa J. Groggs died at just 32. It leaves By The Time I Get To Phoenix sounding like a posthumous tribute Injury Reserve never intended to make. In the aftermath, some fans forensically jumped back to Groggs’ heart-on-his-sleeve verse about alcoholism and depression on ‘What a Year It’s Been’ in a desperate search to process and get a sense of closure around the unrevealed nature of his passing. And while it’s understandable to listen to the album through a lens of grief and loss, it’s also still a salute to a bandmate and friend framed by a lot of the incongruous defiance that made Injury Reserve such an exciting listen on that debut. The experimental beats that characterised Injury Reserve are here and still land, but they’re denser, brasher, angrier, hitting different – closer to the aggravated ‘GTFU’ than the clean cleverness of ‘Jailbreak The Tesla’. You can feel the agitation on ‘Outside’ as the album opens and builds up to a barrage of breathless, pounding anger. It’s quickly followed by the discom-
bobulated percussion and vocoder of ‘Superman That’ and the kind of chunky industrialism you’d get if Pixies recorded at a steelworks on ‘SS San Francisco’. We hear Stepa on ‘Footwork in the Fire’ with its restless Brainfeeder meets Death Grips energy, and ‘Smoke Don’t Clear’ is stripped back, throaty and satisfyingly sinister, but it’s not all violent, cathartic discordance. Groggs features again on the staccato ‘Knees’ as he raps over what, fittingly, seems to be a long crashing encore whereas ‘Top Picks For You’ has Ritchie with a T in a heart-onsleeve reminisce about the once inconsequential things that help to keep a person’s spirit alive. Here, it’s Netflix and Spotify algorithms in action, oblivious to loss, a distinction where both human and machine mine the past for very different reasons. You can hear the rawness in the delivery: the exhale, the smile, the painfully relatable little triggers that both give you comfort and break your heart. We know this wasn’t the album Injury Reserve set out to make, but as difficult second albums go, we should just celebrate the fact it’s here at all. 6/10 Reef Younis
Indigo De Souza — Any Shape You Take (saddle creek) If there was any doubt that Indigo De Souza was being sincere when she called her debut album I Love My Mom, its follow-up sets the record straight. “Call your mother / Tell her you love her,” sings the North Carolina-based musician on ‘Kill Me’, which opens with the sparse directness of voice and electric guitar. This tightrope between heartfelt confession and slacker sarcasm is one she walks across the ten tracks on Any
Shape You Take. On the Dinosaur Jr-like grunge-pop ‘Die / Cry’ she grandiosely claims in a sweetly untutored voice, “I’d rather die than see you cry,” an assertion that’s countered by the upbeat melody. Nonetheless, there’s apparent honesty to ‘Hold U’, when she admits over a lightly funk inflected guitar, “I would go anywhere with you.” The tone is intensified on ‘Real Pain’, which evokes Mitski’s Puberty 2 until a cacophony of layered fansubmitted screams cracks open the surface and admits real human connection. De Souza has entered a crowded field of artists influenced by ’90s grungepop, but in moving past the confines of a home studio to self-produce the record she’s already flexing her wings for fresh musical shapes. 7/10 Susan Darlington
RP Boo — Established (planet mu) The ever-reliable RP Boo returns to Planet Mu with a selection of disjointed rhythmic oddities, yet again showcasing the beguiling possibilities of footwork through charmingly ergonomic means. A true pioneer of the movement, Boo retains the sound’s intrinsic link to the Chicago dance battle scene, a key element that has not necessarily translated as the music has exploded worldwide over the last decade or so. From the uncompromisingly shifting polyrhythms, to the jaggedly-inserted audio samples, the objective is to first test the feet, then the mind. Boo’s signature spoken ad-libs grace a majority of the track, with references to the ‘the circle’ further reinforcing the rightful home of this sound that has excited audiences globally. From a pure listening perspective, the most affecting cuts marry the simple voice and drum machine arrange-
Albums ments that Boo has built his career on. Tracks such as ‘Now U Know!’ or ‘Haters Increase The Heat!’ take this strippedback foundation and contort each sound beyond recognition; words become truncated grunts that fight against the main thrust of the drum pattern, the spoken mantras shifting from lyrics to pure sonic putty. These multiple rhythms layer like a dizzying game of Jenga, threatening to derail the whole track in the process. For tracks that are so often challenging, if not downright confrontational, there’s a joyful playfulness to the execution. These fundamental contradictions are what keep Boo, as well as the wider footwork community, at the forefront of electronic music. 7/10 Oskar Jeff
Ray BLK — Access Denied (island) In the build-up to the release of Access Denied, Ray BLK made it pretty clear that she isn’t playing around. Having put out a few EPs (2016’s Durt and 2018’s Empress) either side of winning the BBC Sound Of 2017 poll, this hefty debut has her feeling bold, bossy and baring her teeth. An album of self-love, empowerment, revenge, and SE London swagger, there’s poise and polish to the icy, minimalist production, from classic R&B to hard-hitting beats and hand-clapped choruses. ‘Lovesick’ goes hard on taking control after a bad relationship, ‘Smoke’ is an effortlessly catchy FIFA-soundtrackstaple-in-the-making, and ‘Go-Go Girl’ is another future anthem with its big chorus and clinical trap beat. There’s even room for UK rap icon Giggs to add his playful, patient delivery to ‘Games’ in an unexpectedly complementary cameo. At 14 tracks, there’s a lot to unpack, but Access Denied is a statement
of style, self-confidence, and saying what needs to be said – whether it’s in a heavy bar or a hook-laden chorus. And when you can switch between soulful vocals and biting verses as seamlessly as Ray BLK does here, this debut deserves to be more than a mere platform for her talents: it should be a podium. 7/10 Reef Younis
The Bug — Fire (ninja tune) Going into a new release from The Bug (aka Kevin Martin), you can count on a few key things being in the mix: cavernous atmospherics, check; an incredible level of dub, dance, hip-hop, dancehall, hardcore and experimental music literacy, check; most importantly, punishing, relentless, life-affirming bass – check. All are present and correct on Fire. But there’s so much more to this record than that. From dislocating opener ‘The Fourth Day’, featuring poet and frequent Martin collaborator Roger Robinson tracing a grimly vivid, Children of Men-meets-The Drowned World vision of post-pandemic dystopia, we’re dragged through a procession of brutish, uncompromising sonics, led through the suffocating murk by a cast of superb guest vocalists. There’s the pugilistic doom-grime of ‘Pressure’ and its typically lean, agile Flowdan appearance; Moor Mother’s imperious turn on the relentless ‘Vexed’; a smart, meme-nodding feature from Northampton’s FFSYTHO on ‘How Bout Dat’; a cocktail of cheekiness and threat from Logan on ‘Fuck Off ’. Most striking off all, though, is the utterly heart-breaking ‘The Missing’, on which Martin’s production takes a step back to cede the floor to Robinson once more, as the poet combines magical realism and all-too-
earthly eulogy in tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Career-best stuff, this. 9/10 Luke Cartledge
Lyra Pramuk — Delta (bedroom community) Lyra Pramuk’s Fountain explored the outer limits of the human voice. Constructed entirely from her vocal, the artist’s debut album acted as a study of the self and the body’s relationship to it. Her powerful performances and deftness as a composer were matched with innovative and startling electronic manipulations to morph her voice into a sonic landscape. The wordless incantations that made up its tracklist twisted classical and club sounds into new shapes. It’s a gorgeously operatic and otherworldly album, but the sole use of Pramuk’s vocal made it feel like a personal excavation first and foremost. Delta reshapes Pramuk’s vocal once again, but for a whole new purpose. Where Fountain explored an inner world, this engrossing take on the remix album explores collaboration, vastness and regeneration. Twelve artists from across different continents and genre spectrums reinterpret the music of Fountain using familiar fragments of Pramuk’s voice. Caterina Barbieri, KMRU, Ben Frost, Hudson Mohawke and Tygapaw are just a few of the musicians who take the reins on Delta. Where Fountain comprised a concise seven tracks, the remix album is over double that, and feels downright infinite as a result. Somehow, it comes together as a unified piece. Valgeir Sigurðsson’s opening epic sets the tone, with a surprisingly faithful reimagining of ‘Witness’. Now, the song is carried by booming orchestral drums and a wider instrumen-
Albums tal palette. Immediately following is Colin Self ’s own reinterpretation of ‘Witness’, instead matched with busy hand claps, a shuffling beat and anxiously presented slices of Pramuk’s breathing. Her voice becomes disembodied, like a tool to be chiselled down before being melted and remoulded all over again. That same feeling of dislocation happens again when the memorable vocal line from ‘Tendril’ is repurposed by Hudson Mohawke, Kara Lis Coverdale and Caterina Barbieri, back to back. All three remixes are compelling in their own right: Mohawke’s characteristically bombastic take is pure ecstasy; Barbieri instead constructs a dizzying web of synth arps and searing leads. Eris Drew’s soothing duo of tracks bring Pramuk into her own trippy world, filled with spiritualism and cathartic dance grooves. Elsewhere, Ben Frost constructs an apocalyptic mantra out of a familiar melody we heard used to convey joy just a few songs before. It does so powerfully, with guttural and mechanical manipulations – but it’s the eerie disembodiment that once again is causing the shivers. The album’s most affecting moment might be saved for a more traditional dance remix, though. Tygapaw’s ‘New Moon (In Pisces Rework)’ is a masterful piece of trance, propulsive, meditative and climactic in all the right places. Pramuk’s vocal threatens to overwhelm the mix at the five-minute mark, her passionate shouts erupting from each side. And yet the track keeps rising upwards, propelled by a steadfast kick drum. We’re in a golden age of remix albums. From Jessy Lanza’s 24/7 Lanza rework to Róisín Murphy’s Crooked Machine, artists are finding inventive ways to reinterpret their full-length projects. What could just as easily be a shallow way to extend the relevancy of an album (and yes, it’s kind of that too), has been made far more interesting by the sheer quality of many of these projects. But the project Delta reminds of most is SOPHIE’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides Non-Stop Remix Album. It shares the same uncanny ability to unpick the inner fabric of an album and have it
come unravelling all around us. Both projects magnify tiny moments, extrapolating them to show the infinite uses for the source sounds. If the face is the front of shop, the remix album removes the shell and peeks inside, and on this occasion the resulting album lives up to Fountain, and makes a strong case for the remix LP as far more than a handy tool for prolonging an album’s impact. 8/10 Skye Butchard
Dave Okumu — Knopperz (transgressive) Often, we tend to assume that solo side projects are there to give a songwriter space to play around with styles they might not get away with as part of their band. This begs the question: which muscles did Dave Okumu feel unable to flex as de facto frontman of London experimentalists The Invisible, who have worked everything from neo-soul to funk to dream pop into their three albums to date? The answer, on the basis of Knopperz, is that Okumu at least appeared to be operating within some kind of clearly defined structure as part of the group, whereas here he’s produced a series of downtempo vignettes intended in part as an homage to J Dilla’s seminal Donuts. At points on Knopperz, Okumu is riffing on Sen Am, the freeform 2017 album by the multi-disciplinary artist Duval Timothy, interpolating parts of that record into his own with nuance and intelligence – see the way the opening ‘Intro’ segues into the quietly brooding ‘Son of Emmerson’. The percussion is perhaps the closest nod to Dilla, consistently referencing as it does the hip-hop of the ’90s and ’00s, but there is enough instrumental heft here to render vocals unnecessary, in large part due to Okumu’s willingness to set his predilection for
jazz over the top of his beats. Undeniably lowkey, Knopperz is nonetheless a fascinating experiment in the melding of styles – Okumu is a deft inter-weaver of genres. 7/10 Joe Goggins
Big Red Machine — How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? (37d30d / jagjaguwar) “‘How long?’ is what you asked, ‘how long do you think it’s gonna last?’” Well, couldn’t that apply to a lot of things? The opening lines of Big Red Machine’s second album are disarmingly pertinent. From the major chords and melodies that glide through you like a rush of wind, to the wistful whistling and effortless build, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to being the “experimental” side-project that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner billed this as some years ago, but it does capture a time. A quick glance at the wristwatch and years have passed, with social and economic catastrophes barely a memory. We’re still wearing masks, the climate’s still fucked and so is Loud And Quiet, but you can’t correct everything. ‘Latter Days’ sounds like Big Red Machine and Anaïs Mitchell remembering our current existence, sometime in the future. It’s the project at its best, with an evangelical but quiet melancholy and a campfire’s open arms. And then Taylor Swift enters, and the songwriting changes. An outwardlooking record seeming to skirt nostalgia tumbles through the egocentric narratives of folklore and evermore, which could still carry bandwidth in a Swift-times-Dessner world, but dilute a space created to explore the persevering originality of indie music’s comfortable luminaries. Vernon’s voice carries ‘Birch’, but is lost on ‘Renegade’. The highlights instead come from
Albums Dessner’s almost-embarrassed solo work (‘The Ghost of Cincinatti’, ‘Magnolia’) and first-time collaborations of Ben Howard joining This Is The Kit on ‘June’s A River’ and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold combining with Mitchell on ‘Phoenix’, lovingly tinged with the folk/psych euphoria of the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. Over the course of an inconsistent hour, the lasting sadness is the ease with which Big Red Machine has waived its original goal; they’ve found an unclimbed mountain, and given up to sit on the first bench with a nice view. 5/10 Austin Laike
Proc Fiskal — Siren Spine Sysex (hyperdub) Four years on from The Highland Mob, his debut for prolific bass brute Hyperdub, Joe Powers returns with Siren Spine Sysex under his Proc Fiskal guise. This latest jaunt is considered a contemporary rework of a family legacy: Power’s Gaelic heritage. The angelic and agrarian tones of his motherland are chopped and screwed with grime-infused frequency modulation, lush synth patterns and random interjections of field recordings that push the listener’s attention towards its obscuring leftfield qualities. Proc Fiskal’s approach to combining all of these elements into a coherent sound board is a testament to his technical and musical ability, evoking the joyful raw emotion of some urban folklore phantasm. Without his rhythmic, tonal and creative vision, this album would risk falling into the trap of becoming a rather pedestrian bass record, but fortunately Fiskal has done quite the opposite by removing all gimmicks and maintaining an organic ethos. Nor has he neglected his former production identity; he retains the off-
kilter sonics of Insula, but has matured conceptually for Siren Spine Sysex. Fiskal’s work with FM synthesis really stands out; like the saturated ebb and flow of ‘Recall (Throate Achres)’ or the oxymoronic dissonant harmonisation of ‘Thurs Jung Youtz’ and ‘Her In’. Each track is unique in its own right, tampering with source material and cultural sirens, varying dynamics preventing listener fatigue, yet they make total sense when pieced together. 7/10 Eleanor Bickers
Wilma Vritra — Grotto (bad taste) From the moment its brief opening track ‘Find An Hour’ bowls into earshot, its spiralling vocal sample wrapping snakelike around a drum groove that sounds as brittle as it does effortlessly in-thepocket, it’s clear that with their second album Wilma Vritra have made a hip-hop record quite unlike any other you’ll hear this year. Utterly self-assured yet audibly vulnerable, meticulously constructed yet compellingly naturalistic, their second project together is an incredibly rich, knotty piece of work, dense with invention and intrigue. These two artists – Newcastle-via-London producer Wilma Archer, whose production and composition credits include work with popfocused heavy hitters like Jessie Ware and Celeste, and LA-based Odd Future affiliate Vritra (aka Pyramid Vritra or Hal Donell Williams Jr.) – have blended their disparate styles and backgrounds almost seamlessly, without losing any of the eccentricities that make their separate work so appealing. ‘Double Vision’ is astonishingly good, slinky drum machines and a suggestive, melancholy bassline giving ample breathing space to Vritra’s steady,
laidback flow. His vocal approach is a wonder all of its own, melodic and graceful without ever losing its conversational heart; even when he speeds up or weaves a complex rhythm into a tight bar, it sounds entirely natural, as if he’s lighting up at the sight of an old friend walking unexpectedly into the room. 7/10 Luke Cartledge
Desire Marea — Desire (mute) In the opening bars of Desire Marea’s astonishing debut a feeling of ceremony is established with a steady organ line that’s ungraciously disrupted by flashes of combative brass. These tonal punctuations scorch like lava spitting from a volcano, the late arrival of a darklytoned loop conjures a blanket of charcoal clouds above. In under 90 seconds, the KwaZulu-Natal born multi-disciplinary artist creates a vivid soundscape that instantly sucks you into their intoxicating world. A founding member of FAKA, a Johannesburg collective, Marea’s intricately textured compositions, which previously fit within the gqom strand of electronic music cultivated in Durban, South Africa, now sit somewhere between harrowing avant-garde sound design à la late-era Scott Walker on ‘The Void’, warm jazz instrumentation (‘Ntokozo’) and infectious dancefloor-fillers like ‘Tavern Kween’, a song inspired by Marea’s aunts fight for empowerment in male-dominated spaces, sung in their native Zulu. Desire is a truly singular record. One where the varying styles incorporated shouldn’t co-exist as harmoniously as they do. Their assured artistic sensibilities drive the tonal dexterity at dizzying speeds. 8/10 Zara Hedderman
Albums Live Joe’, one of the year’s best songs, muted slightly with their eyes closed and vocal canned as if hearing it through a spaceship’s wall. Its solemn swill is arresting – heartbreak in the sea of surrealism at Vout-O-Reenee’s. Tristan Gatward
Still House Plants Camden Art Centre, London 23 July 2021
Voka Gentle Vout-O-Reenee’s, London 29 July 2021
In the crypt below the church on Whitechapel’s Prescot Street is a private members club for the Surrealistically Distinguished, named after the great Slim Gaillard’s jazz dictionary. A landing entrance forces your shadow to interrupt a projection next to a seaside-style cut out board jammed against the wall, gladly quashing all photo opportunities; an adjoining bright white gallery dangles and displays All Kinds of Naughty, a touring art exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of Ian Dury’s death with upcycled busts and old lyric sheets. In another room, the bar is filled with dusty velvet chairs and a sicklysweet non-alcoholic beer spills over the barstools, while the well-dressed man at the door hands out bottles of cider in bright yellow bags. “I’ve got a song for y’all but first I want to tell you about my horse.” Gloucestershire two-piece Freya and Moina begin the night as Mermaid Chunky (so named after a special kind of wool you can buy
from a local drapery in Stroud), with frantic skits and experimental electronics that chaotically wriggle around a rotating procession: saxophone, recorder, swanee whistle, saxophone, ’90s trance banger, recorder. From Arkansas character studies in a silk dress and neon yellow slippers to spoken word poetry about the motorway, a wide-eyed glee envelopes Chunky’s world, as they read from a phone that lobsters are immortal (unless another animal kills them), and shout the word “trees”. The main event is then sinking into the chairs and listening to Voka Gentle’s new album WRITHING!, due this October on Leafy Outlook, as a psychedelic visualiser spans across the ceiling from the pupil of a papier-mâché cartoon eye. Its depth is remarkable, from the pounding oneiric rhythms of ‘Horse Latitudes’ and ‘Respect My Eccentricity’ to ecstatic heights of ‘TV Bra’ to bird song on the peripheries of music made by recording pollution levels. A life-size puppet of The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne even floats into the middle of the room to rapturous applause, just to sing along. At the album’s close, Voka Gentle stand in front of a skeleton with a rosette, and play an extended version of ‘Slow
Still House Plants’ music isn’t always what you’d call easy listening. The trio, who met at Glasgow School of Art in 2013 and have since garnered a reputation as one of the UK’s most exciting experimental groups, take an approach to songwriting and performing that fits with their art school education – deconstructing conventional tropes and structures, and using heavy repetition to create emphasis and recurring motifs. While on record it can be a jarring, if gleefully challenging, experience, watching the group live is altogether more rewarding. You get the sense this is music that was never meant to exist in a final form, but instead to evolve and morph. The tracks start and end at a fixed point, but what happens in between is akin to alchemy. The garden of Camden Art Centre is a suitably magical setting for the band’s first show of 2021. As the sun gradually sets behind them and the traffic of the A41 hums in the background, they perform to a rapt audience who sit in the long grass or around tables of the garden’s cafe. Not that they pay much heed to the crowd – even vocalist Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach spent most of the gig focused on her bandmates, the three of them intensely studying each other’s next move as they improvise a mix of old and new tracks. Between them, drummer David Kennedy and guitarist Finlay Clark lay a framework of intricate post-rock, while Hickie-Kallenbach’s meandering and expressive vocals echo around them. It takes a few minutes for them to settle into a rhythm, but once
photography by isabella barter
Albums Live it’s established, there’s a meditative quality to the music, a sort of gravitational, all-encompassing pull that draws you in to listen closer. Even the sirens blaring behind them feel somehow part of the whole, incorporated in its delicate chaos. Jessica Wrigglesworth
Emma-Jean Thackray Colour Factory, London 28 July 2021
“It’s been a long eighteen months,” says Emma-Jean Thackray with a smile as she takes to the stage of Hackney Wick’s Colour Factory for her first headline show since before the pandemic. It’s the week after the release of her debut album, Yellow, and also the week after so-called ‘freedom day’, meaning that dancing at gigs is finally allowed. Which is a relief, considering Thackray and her band play the kind of vital, deeply energetic jazz that is very hard to stand still to. As the rain lashes outside, warm lights bounce off the disco ball in the
photography by joe magowan
repurposed garage as she runs through a set of mostly new material. Yellow is just a few days old, but the audience’s enthusiasm for it is evident. Where her breakthrough 2016 EP Walrus introduced her as a talented bandleader and multi-instrumentalist (primarily playing trumpet and synth), Yellow sees her take on vocal duties with equal dexterity, and live she switches between roles. Deftly conducting her band (made up of the indefatigable Ben Kelly on tuba, Lyle Barton on keys and Dougal Taylor on drums), she also does a good job of conducting the mood – which moves from serene to sultry, to joyful, to defiant. Like many great jazz albums, social justice is a key theme in Yellow, and tracks like ‘Our People’ (“My matter is your matter / We are one and from the same”) and ‘Say Something’ (“Don’t just speak / Say something”) take on new power when sung by a crowd. Thackray is right – it’s been a long eighteen months – and we might not be out of the woods yet, but to dance, in a crowd, basking in the warm glow of horns, feels something close to healing. Jessica Wrigglesworth
Real Lies Corsica Studios, London 29 July 2021
Safety is the watchword at Corsica Studios tonight. With the government gunning to set up nightclubs as a potential fall guy for their back-of-a-fag-packet COVID response, the South London venue isn’t taking any chances. To get in, punters need to show that they’ve done a negative lateral flow test in the last 48 hours, and in my case, the result has been an afternoon navigating a variety of NHS websites to get the all-clear. “Oh, you only need to show us the text message,” says the bouncer as I proudly present my hard-won QR code. Crestfallen, I head through the doors. Inside, it’s like the pandemic hasn’t happened. People are queuing for the bar or huddling in conversation, while what can only be described as a mutated version of Roy Orbison’s ‘You Got It’ pumps out over the PA. As the song comes to an end, the lights dip and the stage is filled with dry ice as a minimal garage drum beat kicks in from beneath the haze. The band is starting. Real Lies are a band born to play venues like this. Despite being down to a two-piece after co-vocalist Tom Watson’s departure, the North Londoners still manage to fill the room with their trademark blend of downbeat garage and stretched-out Balearic pop. Wrapped in dark shades, singer Kev Kharas stares into the spotlights as the duo runs through a set of stone-cold crowd-pleasers. In turn, these are lapped up by an audience that seems primed to dance. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen an audience get into a band as quickly as this, and by the time 2014’s ‘North Circular’ drops mid-set, the whole gig is beginning to feel like a weird combination of a rave and the home end of a football match. The gig ends with a rendition of the new track ‘Boss Trick’ that has the whole place erupting in giddy dancing. And Real Lies have been the perfect antidote to 18 months of lockdown. Dominic Haley
FilmAlbums and Books
@Zola (dir. janicza bravo) With any story, it’s how you tell ’em, as Zola proves: Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of a jaw-dropping viral Twitter thread by A’ziah “Zola” King is, like its source material, brash and addictive, and, with quick cuts and salty freeze-frame asides, the movie does its best to ape the ambiance of the Twittersphere. However, although an increasingly WTF roller-coaster pace would honour the tone of the original thread, Bravo instead opts for a series of different storytelling modes, fairytale road-trip romance rubbing up alongside claustrophobic underworld realism and crime comedy caper, and in that mutation from social media to silver screen lies Zola’s curiosity. Our protagonist is Zola (Taylour Paige), a Detroit pole-dancer and diner waitress who serves the infectiously bubbly Stephani (Riley Keough) one lunchtime at her restaurant. Stephani, a fellow dancer and (we swiftly discover) a prostitute, seduces Zola into a weekend road-trip to Tampa with the promise of earning big bucks together at strip clubs. However, events go south as the pair do: joining them on the trip is Stephani’s pimp, X, played with genuine unsettling menace by Colman Domingo, with whom Stephani is conspiring in an attempt to coerce Zola into turning tricks too. Also aboard is Stephani’s dweeb cuckold boyfriend Derrek (Nicolas Braun in an extension of his Cousin Greg role from Succession, with extra white trash and heartache), tagging along in the misguided pursuit of keeping Stephani honest. What follows is an escalating tale of semi-consensual sex work, gangsta gunplay, a botched kidnapping and a suicide attempt; how that story is told is even stranger than the events, some of it for laughs, others for horror, and others still – most jarringly a sequence where the four principles sprint across the screen brandishing suitcases and
guns watched by a dwarf on a sun-lounger – for absurdist japes. This tonal restlessness, while resolutely watchable, makes it difficult to discern what @Zola is about. It’s not about victimhood, nor is it really about the fates of Stephani and X, and the plot, while moreish as a Twitter thread, is too thin to carry the film. When it’s not in full pulpy thriller mode, there are nods to issues of institutional racism, feminist self-empowerment, white privilege, mental ill health and the male gaze, but these are fleeting, and mostly met with blank ambivalence. Both Keogh and Paige turn in captivating performances, but crucially @Zola’s detachment and lack of heart and depth works on Twitter but not on film. “Show don’t tell”, goes the cinematic maxim, but this too-literal showing of a brilliant original telling is entertaining eye candy but little more. Sam Walton
Junglist — Two Fingas & James T. Kirk (repeater) Isolating in my South London flat, my plans for one of the hottest weekends of the year scuppered by a brush with you-know-what, I experienced a near-perfect double bill. Firstly, I watched Mike Leigh’s astonishing film Naked for the first time, a grinding, caustic vision of mid-’90s London at its most apocalyptic; the same day, I read Repeater Books’ reprint of a long-overlooked classic of working-class Black fiction, depicting more or less the same period, in the estates, clubs and streets of the same city: Junglist. The London of Junglist is dark, dank and intimate, one second bending to the protagonists’ will, the next closing up, threatening, fickle, dangerous. The novel plays out over a single hectic weekend, following the nightlife of a close-knit group of jungle obsessives – Meth, Q, Biggie and
Craig; young Black men resembling the authors themselves. We hear their music, their bickering; we speed in their cars, laugh at their jokes. It’s an incredibly visceral read, as pacey and tangential as the conversations that rattle between the group constantly. The novel was written quickly, by very young authors (both in their early twenties at the time) who hated the gatekept elitism of the kinds of self-consciously “literary” fiction that Junglist so brilliantly out-manoeuvres. In his enthusiastic introduction, academic Sukhdev Sandhu notes that much of the book was dashed out in the small hours of the morning, after the authors got home from the club, and you can really tell. The sheer energy of the prose, percussive and jagged, is something to behold; grandiose digressions collide unpredictably with unsparing baseness (I think we get a separate description of each individual character scratching his bollocks), crude one-liners (“It was amazing how the policeman was still calm, sounding like some nonce in playschool”) breaking the spell of intermittent passages of genuinely affecting tenderness. It’s obvious to say it reads like the music its characters love so much – fast, restless, awkward, misshapen, thrilling – but I suppose I’m saying it anyway. There are elements of the book that jar slightly to the contemporary reader: it was, after all, a different time, so for all the talk of Meth or Q being a sophisticated “1990s man”, some of the more contentious language grates. Elsewhere, the book’s female characters feel a bit underwritten, their objectification by the central lads a touch gratuitous, and there’s one particularly grim scene of heavily gendered violence that’s shocking in its sudden intensity. I presume any justification for the inclusion of this stuff would point out that this is meant to be a realistic and uncompromising book, not necessarily a pleasant one. Much has changed in the city outside my window since its initial publication; yet as the clubs reopen and a constrained country is let loose, Junglist’s cocktail of rumbling bass, platonic infatuation and threat-fringed abandon feels potently relevant. Luke Cartledge
This is 52
audiobooks turned writing songs about creeps and weirdos into an art form on their debut album, quite by accident. They’re now back, heavier in mood but no less joyous, spontaneous or accessibly odd, by Stuart Stubbs. Photography by Jonangelo Molinari
It’s hard enough to call someone you’ve met at a party when you want to sleep with them; when you just want to be mates, a vast majority of us do the right thing and forget it ever happened. I’ve met people at weddings I’d take a bullet for by the speeches only to be unsure that they knew my name the following day. Not Evangeline Ling, who met David Wrench at a party in 2018. The next morning, she turned up at his studio unannounced. A producer and mixer of Frank Ocean, David Byrne and The xx, Wrench was typically busy, and so Ling amused herself playing with a modular synth. When he heard what she was up to, he joined in and they started making music together. The day after that, Ling was back, in her pyjamas, having travelled from her home in south west London to Wrench’s studio in the east, too excited to bother getting dressed. “I guess you could call it a creative bond,” she says. It’s a story that perfectly sums up not only the two members of audiobooks but their music, too. Ling and awkwardness are lifelong friends. “It’s where my humour’s at,” she says. “Anything awkward gets me laughing, and sometimes I’ll purposefully draw up that awkward vibe knowingly, because I’m just enjoying it.” It’s how you get to meeting someone at a party and arriving on their doorstep the following day. But it’s also how you write a song like ‘Grandma Jimmy’, where a sleazy pensioner drives her sons-in-law to the beach on a quest to photograph them in their Speedos. Uncomfortable situations (and unsavoury characters) are what make audiobooks songs audiobooks songs, and Ling’s lyrics intensely, mischievously and brilliantly her own. They’re completely surreal, too, like a young woman travelling an hour across town in her pyjamas. Wrench is Ling’s enabler, and in more ways than one. A veteran musician and producer, he has the studio, the gear and the chops to make all of audiobooks’ music, and for it to be as varied and psychedelic as it is. But more important than that, he’s on the same spontaneous page as Ling. He opened the door to her in the first place, and once she was inside he encouraged
the pair of them to play with the type of freedom that no one ever actually does. He says: “It was like, if it feels good, just don’t question it too much.” For their 2018 debut album, Now! (in a minute), they ran with the idea, aggressively sticking to a first-take rule and improvising much of the finished record. It ended up a weird and wild listen; hilarious, unique and a constant riddle; a collection of easy-to-dance-to pop songs and hard-to-explain spoken word odysseys, with a couple of spacey numbers thrown in that were too long to be considered interludes. There was ’80s synth-pop indebted to the Human League, an autotuned lounge/R&B track that featured the line “eating mussels, staring at your muscles”, Italo disco, dub, industrial and two songs about periods. It was crackers. And even when it didn’t completely work, its inherent weirdness remained its brilliance. “It captured a moment,” says Wrench when I ask him and Ling how they feel about the album now. “It was such a different process. I listened to it about a year ago for one of Tim’s [Burgess] listening parties, and thought, ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as I remember it being.’” “It was very honest, I think,” says Ling. “Everything we said in interviews before was completely the truth. Things were first takes: my lyrics were just what came out in the moment. “I sometimes look back at that record and think, woah, I can’t believe we had the balls to go with that option! We went with whatever was happening…” Ling gasps for air for laughing, not for the last time. “… and I look back at those things we were saying yes to, and we were nuts! My lyrics in ‘Dance Your Life Away’, where I’m shouting about getting my legs waxed…” She howls at the thought of the song – a free-wheeling Moroccan bazaar jam that has her growing more and more hysterical as it noodles on. If she’s enthusiastic at the point of “Dyson Dyson Dyson Dyson Dyson hoovers in her hotel / Henry Hoover / Oh move over / Move over Henry Hoover”, she’s unhinged by her screams of, “We’re gonna go get our legs waxed / And our armpits waxed / And our vaginas waxed / YEAH!”. It’s the
clearest example of her improvising her lyrics and the pair of them having too much fun to think twice. And this became one of the album’s singles. Ling calls it their “primary school”, and notes how strange and vulnerable the situation was, “to form a friendship where the thing that you do when you hang out is make music.” Wrench says he didn’t want to be in a band at the time and kept suggesting how all of this could be Ling’s solo project; how she could take it on the road with a group of other players. But no, she wasn’t having it. “And that was a whole different trip,” she blurts, “– how people reacted to us live! We didn’t understand how we looked live. It’s quite extreme; me with my dark hair, and he’s got this white hair. We didn’t orchestrate it, obviously, because it was quite…” Once again, she runs out of air.
Alpacas and astroturf When we asked audiobooks if they had any ideas of where they’d like to be photographed for this cover story, an email came back that said: “Would an alpaca farm in Norwich be out of the question? Or astroturf?” An alpaca farm in Norwich was absolutely not out of the question, but eventually a lot more Covidimpossible than a deserted Crystal Palace athletics stadium in south London. I met Ling and Wrench nearby for dinner, who both greeted me like an old friend. Later, we walked to the stadium, where the video for their new single, ‘The Doll’, was partly shot, and where Wrench had visited from Wales as a boy in the ’80s with his father (a weightlifter turned track teacher) to watch Daley Thompson compete. Aged eight, Ling had run here herself, in a disastrous 200-metre sprint, a few steps into which she tripped over. She picked herself up just in time to watch the other kids running across the finishing line. Then she started a long walk after them – it’s a story she enjoys telling as much as Wrench and I enjoy hearing it. “Well, I never in a million years expected I’d be back here doing a photo shoot,” she laughs as we step onto the track. “In heels!” And definitely not with audiobooks – a project that both of its creators predominantly consider an accident. “I was living in the moment when I was with David and just going with the flow,” she says. “I didn’t for one minute think it would progress into a serious thing, just that I was going to learn a lot from this guy, and, y’know, he’s got all the gear!”
Painting was Ling’s thing, and “is still the goal in my head,” she says. When she met Wrench, she had just started a degree in fine art at Goldsmiths, and today she works as an artist’s assistant, to painter Alastair Mackinven. The cover of audiobooks’ new album, Astro Tough, has been painted by Ling too, in the style of hangover TV hero Bob Ross and his ‘happy little trees’. The record’s vinyl package will come with a further ten works – one for each song – in case anyone mistakes Ling for a straight-up singer from now on. The same applies to her successful modelling career, which has seen her follow in the footsteps of her elder sister, Bip Ling, since 2014. And yet something compels Ling to explore the possibilities (and frivolities) of music. When she first knocked on Wrench’s door, she was already in one unconventional band: no wave group Gentle Stranger. They remain a deeply experimental outfit today, yet Ling still longed for fewer rules and more freedom; to be able to scream we’re going to get our vaginas waxed. “All the ideas I wanted to do [in the band] before, David was just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, just go with it.’” She started writing short stories documenting her dreams, only to grow frustrated by how boring they were. “I got so cross about it this other side of my brain said, ‘you know what, Evangeline, you can write whatever you like.’” Her stories became her lyrics. Strange stories. Seedy stories. Absurd stories. Funny stories. Definitely funny stories. It’s a brave band that uses humour as much as audiobooks do, and it helps that they don’t take themselves too seriously. (“If I was an animal I’d be an alpaca,” Ling tells me when I ask my burning question, “so I had this fantasy of putting me next to one on the cover of a magazine to show the resemblance. They’re slightly goony and awkward, and I feel this is me.”) “But it’s a fine line,” says Wrench, “and we have to continually question if we’re stepping over that line. Maybe there’ll be a track where we write a lyric and we’re rolling around laughing, but then three or four listens in, you realise it doesn’t stand up for very long.” You could call it good, honest, grubby fun – for the everyday grottiness that coats a majority of Ling’s tales. Especially the ones that are preoccupied with sex, like Astro Tough’s toecurling peak, ‘Blue Tits’, which starts with the verse: “Heaven / When I’m on the sand, I don’t see sand, I see many tits / When I’m on the cloud, I don’t see clouds, I see tits / When I’m on a boat, I don’t see the sea, I see blue tits / When I’m on the plane, I don’t see people, I see tits / When I’m on the cloud, I see clouds again, but this time they’re bigger, bigger, bigger… tits.” Wrench is a one-man Doors, and Ling a Jim Morrison who no longer believes in metaphors. Morphing into Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, she goes on to disgust herself: “I saw you / Grabbing her mighty bum, near your thumb / And you want to finger her / Urgh / Yuck.”
‘I can’t believe we had the balls to go with that option! We went with whatever was happening’ 57
“You know those thoughts of, shall I go there? Shall I say that thought that’s just come through my head, or should I keep it back because it’s rude and uncomfortable? I’ve always been someone to verbally process that thought, and I’ve gone there,” she says. “It’s put me in lots of bad situations, socially, but in music it’s got a power to it.” “You can see it in the audience, because we play that song live quite a lot,” says Wrench. “I can see it – people are thinking, ‘what the fuck is she on about?’, and then they’ll be like, ‘urgh!’, and then they’ll start laughing. It’s quite weird. And by the end they’re on board.” ‘Blue Tits’ is even too much for its lyricist most of the time. “That’s the one song on the record I have to skip by,” says Ling, “because I’m not necessarily ready to go there, mentally. I can’t even handle it myself.” Perhaps no one really wants to hear their own voice yelp: “Come on baby, give it to me! / Give it to me raw!”
Lobsters and plague pits What’s incredible about Astro Tough isn’t that it’s better than Now! (in a minute), but that it’s better whilst being equally strange and free. Unlike the group’s debut, it wasn’t improvised; they did stop to think twice, and this is the record they’ve gone with, with a title that came from Ling mispronouncing “astroturf ”. I get the feeling that in a few years, when they’re asked what they think of it, they’ll be even more surprised at their guts in 2021. The tracks on their first album could be neatly labelled either song or story, but their new record makes a point of combining the two. Previously, opening track ‘The Doll’ would have lived out its days as an audiobooks spoken word number with minimal backing, only there to heighten the unease of Ling helping a little girl search for her lost doll. On Astro Tough, though, Wrench lays down some low-end techno that gallops towards Ling’s disembodied chorus chant of “So hard to let (you) go”, and at points overtakes it. What starts out as another surreal, melancholy saga ends up a sunset banger of real-life gravitas. “As a whole, it’s quite heavy, this record,” says Wrench. “I know there are moments when it’s quite obtuse, but the overall feeling is something heavy. If there’s a laugh, it’s usually followed by something with a bit more weight.” A case in point is ‘Trouble in Business Class’, which again makes use of Ling speaking her dejected verses and softly singing a simple, short chorus – this time a blur of “I’m losing you” and “I’m using you”, neither of which are particularly nice, even if they should be expected from a slow exploration into the wipe-clean world of corporate air travel at London’s City Airport. “I smell like a rich man / Dior Homme to be specific,”
deadpans Ling at one point, only to later channel the ghost of Bill Sykes and remind us that the neighbouring Olympic Park and surrounding area was once full of plague pits. It just feels like bad news, which is the same for ‘He Called Me Bambi’ – the track Wrench and Ling are most proud of on the album. It’s their take on one of Ling’s favourite songs – ‘Planet Caravan’ by Black Sabbath. You can hear it, too; a song that seems directionless whilst clearly trudging forward in a continual straight line. Ling’s troubled vocals are more audible than Ozzy Osbourne’s, but they slosh around too, and are no easier to make sense of. Wrench’s acoustic guitar strum is zombie-like and relentless, while his drums tumble at the end of every bar. Yeah, I don’t know what, but something bad is on its way. At least the wait is thrilling. “I feel like ‘Planet Caravan’ had come and soaked into both me and David,” says Ling. “When you connect sincerely with a feeling and then try to do something that contains that feeling, you’re never going to try to copy it, because it’s come in somewhere into your soul. We were just trying to tap into the space, because if you just try to copy something, you’re not connecting with the feeling of it.” “I don’t like songs where everything is so literal,” says Wrench. “As long as everything is pulling towards the mood of the song, it doesn’t have to be literal. Not every line needs to drive the narrative, some can just paint pictures.” He eagerly points to “Lobsters licking your legs in the outer space” (from ‘He Called Me Bambi’) as the perfect example, although Astro Tough is a goldmine for this stuff, where your favourite riddle of a phrase is likely to change on every other listen. “That’s why I like Bob Dylan,” says Ling, who gets bored listening to almost all other lyricists. “In ‘Isis’ when he sings, ‘And the world’s biggest necklace / As we rode through the canyons in the devilish cold’, you think, wow. He’s just singing stuff and going for it. He carries this confidence that’s so bold it stops being about the words on the paper.” Audiobooks are similar in that regard. Ling’s fantastical lyrics bear repeating and printing in articles like this one, but until you hear the way she delivers them – from spoilt brat scoff to ghostly warble – you’ll never really understand what all the fuss is about.
Friends and farmers When I first heard ‘Friends in The Bubble Bath’ (from Now! (in a minute)) I was convinced that audiobooks could easily write a straight-up, big-hook pop album if they ever wanted to. They were already close, deploying all the euphoric synth stings of the Pet Shop Boys at the height of their powers. They just chose to fill that perfect song with lyrics about not wanting to
‘You can see it in the audience thinking, ‘what the fuck is she on about?’, and then they’ll be like, ‘urgh!’, and then they’ll start laughing’
sleep with you, actually; Ling just wanted to share a bubble bath, y’know, as friends. Almost before I can finish asking them if there’s anything to my hunch, Wrench says: “I’m not sure we could. [Now! (in a minute)] was us trying to make a conventional pop record and we were so wide of the mark. Radio hated those songs. The feedback was basically, ‘No chance!’” For all the descriptors within easy reach – their being
hilarious, weird, intense, absurd, and so on – it’s easy to forget about audiobooks’ sincerity. Underneath it all, it’s perhaps their most defining trait, lost in the freedom of how Wrench and Ling operate. “There is nothing at all ironic in what we do,” says Wrench, “although everyone has their own definition of what is ironic. Humour and fun is as much a part of life as sadness. I think it’s very telling when people dismiss fun and humour in music, or have to classify it as ‘ironic’ in order to appreciate it. “Also, juxtaposing humour and wry observation with more heavy subject matter is very much part of the vocabulary of folk music,” he says. “It’s an ancient tradition.” Ling agrees. “But I am not anti-irony either,” she says. “Sincerity and irony aren’t opposites. There is irony in a literal sense in some of the lyrics on the record.” Radio might not go for Astro Tough either, but for the rest of us there’s a world of musical influences to discover as we pore over Ling’s lyrics. Wrench has mined modern techno, Brazilian music, dub, reggae and, on a bossy stomp fittingly called ‘Driven By Beef ’, Captain Beefheart. When audiobooks wanted a kosmische banger to play live they came up with ‘Black Lipstick’. It’s the record’s third track that depicts a different stage of a night out. The first is the wild ‘LaLaLa It’s The Good Life’ (the ‘getting ready’ song about ordering Uber XLs). The second is a glistening disco track called ‘First Moves’, where Ling anxiously attempts to navigate the evolving social rules of pulling in a nightclub. It’s the first audiobooks song where she fully sings the whole thing in a breathy high register, and it’s a highlight for it. The album ends on audiobooks’ most unexpected move of all, where they make light work of late Beatles balladry on a song called ‘Farmer’. It’s a beautiful, uncharacteristically simple piano song about the important things in life. It’s so different to everything that’s ever gone before it’s impossible to say whether it’s their best track yet. But it is. Probably. Think of it as another thing to consider in the world of audiobooks. Or don’t. If there’s one thing Wrench and Ling have taught us, it’s that sometimes the most joy comes from thinking less. As Wrench would say: “If it feels good, just don’t question it too much.”
As young trans and non-binary musicians gravitate towards a lo-fi bedroom pop aesthetic, Gen Z artists Claud, Carpetgarden, Evann McIntosh and Smoothboi Ezra talk about the communities they’ve built without help from the conventional music industry, by Liam Konemann
Remember the “transgender tipping point”? Way back in 2014, when the Brexit referendum was not even a glint in David Cameron’s beady little eye and the word ‘pinged’ was more likely to conjure up the image of an E’d-up lad in a bucket hat than a week of miserable isolation, TIME magazine declared that we were entering a new era of genderdiverse representation in popular culture. Sure, okay. And then what happened? While there has been an increase in transgender and nonbinary actors, musicians and writers in the public eye, it’s hardly what you’d call a flood. In many cases, the artists with the biggest mainstream platforms were already established before they publicly shared that they are trans or nonbinary – think global pop powerhouses such as Sam Smith and Demi Lovato, but also indie, rap, and punk musicians like Ezra Furman, Mykki Blanco, and Laura Jane Grace. To come out as trans or nonbinary when you are already a known quantity can mean putting it all on the line, and is certainly no mean feat. But although there are a few musicians who have been open about their identity for more or less their whole careers – such as prolific popstar Shamir, who has publicly identified as nonbinary since at least 2015, the year his first album was released – if we are truly in a new era of visibility, then we should be seeing new trans and nonbinary artists coming up through the ranks. Famously, though, progress in the music mainstream is slow going. Anyone who has seen the same kind of people dominating festival bills year in, year out can vouch for the industry’s problem elevating female or Black voices, for a start. Those campaigns have been going for years. Change creeps along. So, in the absence of widespread structural change, marginalised artists get creative. They build their platforms in areas with DIY traditions and fewer gatekeepers, they utilise technology and social media to deliver direct to the people. If they are young and trans or nonbinary, it seems, they flock to the amorphous, ambiguous arena of bedroom pop. —What dreams are made of — Bedroom pop as a genre is hard to define. It’s Billie Eilish, yeah, but also girl in red, beabadoobee, mxmtoon and Rex Orange County. Like Eilish, plenty of the artists who started out making music at home or in DIY spaces cross over into mainstream success, but many others build dedicated
fanbases online, avoiding industry input as much as possible. For gender diverse artists who want to speak candidly about their identities and experience, this can sometimes be the preferred route. “For me, it’s the easiest way to approach music as someone who’s very anxious about these things,” says Evann McIntosh [pictured top left], whose 2019 single ‘What Dreams Are Made Of ’ went viral on TikTok and netted them a strong following across social media. “It’s not [a community] where there’s a distinct idea of what you’re supposed to make, or what you’re supposed to look like, or anything like that. It’s coming only from you, and it’s got a very distinct audience because of how it’s only you.” They’re not the only one who feels empowered by that independence. Carpetgarden [bottom left], a bedroom pop artist whose tracks sweep up over half a million monthly listens on Spotify alone, presents the area they are working in as one with transformative potential, thanks to a lack of interference. “Most people that do bedroom pop are just making shit in their bedrooms,” they say, “so they’re free to talk about whatever they want and put it out with independent distributors – there’s no say-so of what you have to write about. It’s made it a lot easier for artists to talk about real shit and real problems.” This sense of openness, of intimacy, is characteristic of the genre. Part of this comes from the fact that many artists here are making music in their literal bedrooms – “It’s a safe space without judgement, and it’s just my process until I get to a point where I want to share it with someone else,” says Evann – but across the board it seems like bedroom pop artists are more willing to share themselves with others, not just in terms of gender identity or sexuality, but also when it comes to relationships, heartbreak and humour. “I don’t really put a barrier up of what I talk about in my music,” says Smoothboi Ezra [bottom right], the Irish artist whose lo-fi 2018 single ‘A Shitty Gay Song About You’ has racked up nearly seven million streams on Spotify. “I find it easier to be vulnerable than not.” This openness extends to the artists’ relationships with their fans, too. Many bedroom pop artists are prolific posters on Instagram or TikTok especially, and many have strong Twitter presences where they interact with fans. Both Evann and Claud [top right], whose indie-pop album Super Monster was released on Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory Records label this year, have public numbers for fans to text them questions, comments and anything else that crosses their
minds, like a 21st century version of The Simpsons’ Corey Hotline. “I think I am really, really honest and open about who I am online,” says Claud. “It was really, really great that I was able to reach people who are also genderqueer, or who understand what it’s like to be different in any sort of way. Then on the other hand, it’s like, oh my god I’m just a person figuring it out. Sometimes I feel like I’m twelve years old when it comes to my gender. I feel like a different person every day sometimes.” — Coming of age — It’s worth noting that trans and nonbinary people are a young demographic in general. While there are plenty of LGBTQ+ millennials, Gen X-ers and Boomers out there, the frequency of people identifying as not exclusively straight or cisgender has increased with each new generation. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, an unprecedented 15% of 18 to 23-yearolds in the US identify as LGBTQ+ in some form, with 1.8% of those surveyed indicating that they are transgender. This means that you are more likely to find gender-diverse artists in genres that skew Gen Z. “A lot of bedroom pop artists are Gen Z so [from growing up with the internet] there’s a lot more social awareness, and a lot of progressive thinking,” says Carpetgarden. “A lot of people who make bedroom pop are putting progressive things into their music, and the Gen Z audience can take it in and it buries the stigma of a lot of things.” The generational aspect can play into not just which themes bedroom pop artists are exploring, but also the way in which they are exploring them. Many of these artists began writing and releasing work in their high school years, and that combined with the hallmark openness of their work means that questions of gender and sexuality are often filtered through the lens of a coming-of-age. Speaking about their upcoming project Character Development, Evann, who is seventeen, says the release deals with “being a queer person in Derby, Kansas, in the middle of nowhere, and realising that I’m very fluid in a solid environment, and realising I don’t have to make myself digestible in that environment.” Smoothboi Ezra reflects a similar sentiment in their 2020 single ‘My Own Person’, an introspective track that touches on the confusion and difficulty of being an LGBTQ person who doesn’t quite understand their own identity, and hasn’t yet made peace with that ambiguity. “I wrote the song when I was sixteen, and I was very depressed. About everything,” they say. “I feel like within nonbinary, I definitely fall under gender fluidity. I feel more masculine one day and more feminine one day, and I’ve kind of made a conscious effort not to understand it now. I think most of the upset and the confusion came from me trying to have a reason, and trying to understand it, so that’s where that song came from, it was me being upset that I didn’t understand myself. Now I’m kind of at a place where I don’t care that I don’t.” Like Claud, Ezra has noticed their willingness to share has resonated with fans, many of whom may be grappling
with their gender themselves. “I’ve had a few people send me messages saying my music helps them hear themselves in music where they hadn’t before,” they say. For some artists, it’s important to represent an authentic experience for other young LGBTQ people. When releasing their recent EP The Way He Looks, Carpetgarden was hoping it could serve as a kind of beacon for other young queer people, and as a challenge to the heteronormativity of the mainstream music industry. “Growing up, I did not have many queer people to look up to,” they say. “Being queer was kind of the unknown, and especially with how stigmatised it was for me growing up, it was this secret. [Now] there’s a lot more representation, and I think it’s good to have that representation be authentic, and from an actual queer person who has been through it, who has been called slurs and whose life is at risk all the time. I’ve noticed a lot with pop music lately, it’s kind of queer-baity. I think it’s good to have that authentic representation from someone who actually knows what it’s like.” — Friendly faces — But it’s not all seriousness and deep exploration. Like its dialled-up cousin hyperpop, where performers can use vocal modulation as a tool to relieve dysphoria or invert notions of gender – a technique used by artists like SOPHIE, 100 gecs and others – bedroom pop as a genre makes space for artists to both give gender identity serious consideration, and also to play around with gendered expectations, to make jokes and exaggerate. “There are some songs where I’m a little more playful, or a little more joking with gender or sexuality,” Claud says. “On my song ‘Guard Down’, it’s a little kitschy the way I pitched down my vocals. It’s clearly an octave down, or many octaves down. Obviously it doesn’t sound like a male rapper, but I thought it’d be funny to cosplay as one basically. And in my song ‘Ana’, with the lyrics ‘it’s been a pleasure to be your man’, that’s me playing with gender roles and so on. I like to have fun with it.” This can be part of the appeal. There’s less pressure in working this way, making music in bedrooms and sharing directly with the fans, or working with small labels and independent distributors. The DIY approach and fluidity of genre, the lack of corporate interference and sense of community through social media all add up to a casualness that contributes to bedroom pop’s appeal among people who may feel locked out of more homogenous or prescriptive environments. “I never started on any label. I really was just posting things on Soundcloud, and then Spotify, and going on Instagram the way I would usually do it,” says Carpetgarden. “Having that connection with the people who support me is cool, because it feels like I’m just posting on social media for my friends. I feel like a lot of bedroom pop artists are more friendly faces than celebrity artists. All these people are just normal people, writing about their lives.”
Final Third: Infinite Login
Do the robot Why we shouldn’t worry about AI ruining pop music. Or at least not in the way we’ve been expecting it to, by Andrew Anderson
“We had to treat the AI like a drunk artistic savant, with a drug habit, that had wandered into the studio,” says Max Savage, part of the group M.O.G.I.I.7.E.D. (pronounced mo-jized) that won this year’s competition with their track ‘Listen To Your Body Choir’. “You have to say, ‘Wow, these are great ideas…but we really have to edit them.’” But before we go any further, let’s get down some basic definitions of what this AI stuff is, and what it can – and can’t – do.
When I first heard about the AI Song Contest, I was worried. Worried that this was just the next step in humans being replaced by machines. Worried that it would be full of generic songs designed only to shift units. Worried that I wouldn’t understand it. But now I know that this is not the case. The AI Song Contest – where teams from across the globe compete to write the best song using artificial intelligence – isn’t going to end the world, kill music careers, or make me feel like an idiot. There’s no need to worry, it’s all going to be fine… …probably. The AI Song Contest launched in 2020; the brainchild of Dutch TV producer Karen van Dijk. “I was working for Dutch public broadcaster VPRO, and I had this idea that AI could help us win the Eurovision Song Contest,” she recalls. “I soon found out that that is not going to happen.” Why not? Well, because AI is a lot more complicated – and a lot less competent – than you might think. It can help you come up with crazy, original sounds that are like nothing you’ve heard before. But it also writes lyrics like, “I’ve got bowels bigger than Oprah”.
AI (artificial intelligence): This can mean almost anything that involves computers simulating human intelligence. It includes machine learning, natural language processing and neural networks. Machine learning: This is when a computer is given a task and programmed so that it learns from its mistakes. The most famous example is Google’s AlphaZero program, where the computer learnt chess by playing against itself over and over until it became almost unbeatable. Natural Language Processing: Where computers try to understand – and replicate – human speech. At a very basic level the spelling/grammar checker in a word processor is an example of this, where your computer understands what you’ve written and suggests ‘better’ alternatives. Neural Networks: Also known as Deep Learning, this is where the computer tries to replicate the neural network in our brains. It’s a bit hard to explain (i.e., I don’t fully understand it), but essentially the computer is fed information and learns to recognise patterns in that information. For example, you could tell the machine “This is a cat” and then show it thousands of pictures of cats until it learns to recognise what a cat is.
Final Third: Infinite Login Chess, spell-checking and the ability to recognise cats doesn’t sound very promising for music creation, but in fact all of these tools can be used to write songs. Or rather, they can be used to help you write a song. First off, you can use AI to create new sounds, as researcher and AI Song Contest jury member Vincent Koops [pictured right with co-founder Karen van Dijk] explains. “If you feed your AI program with lots of samples of string quartets, you get an output that sounds kind of like a string quartet but also totally different,” he says. “Sounds morph together, and you might get a sudden pizzicato note in a strange place. It’s blurry: sort of like if you’re dreaming a string quartet.” The result is something more original than traditional sampling. “It’s actually more organic than any synthesizer or sample-based instrument I’ve ever used,” confirms M.O.G.I.I.7.E.D.’s Savage. “Because it’s created from scratch, the sounds morph and flow in an extremely organic way. Normally when you’re working with samples you’re trying to search for that humanity; that moment when the violinist plays out of tune for just a moment. But with this, that organic feel is already there.” Equally impressive, AI can come up with melodies and chord sequences, based on other songs it has studied. M.O.G.I.I.7.E.D’s winning tune was actually derived from ‘Daisy Bell’, the first ever song sung by a computer (in 1961) and later made famous by the psychotic computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Music has a long history of theory – what is a melody, what is a chord – and this use of AI is just a development of that,” affirms AI researcher Koops. “Classical music, for example, can be very structured. It’s easy to generate Bach Chorales with AI that sound so similar to the originals that it’s hard for experts to tell them apart.” And if you’re sick of rhyming ‘love’ with ‘dove’ then AI can help you out there, too, thanks to Natural Language Processing. You can feed text into the program and it will give you results based on similar texts that it has studied – although, as the
aforementioned lyric about Oprah’s bowels reveals, not always with entirely helpful results. To test this out, I asked Matt Simms from M.O.G.I.I.7.E.D. to generate a paragraph for this article, using AI, based only on the preceding paragraph. Here’s the result: The role of AI in the music industry is still in its infancy. The year 2016 has seen a number of pop stars release tracks with lyrics penned by an AI. The results have been mixed; the lyrics are certainly interesting but not always coherent. The best example of this is the lyrics to ‘Daddy’, by pop star/drag queen RuPaul. The chorus is “I’m busy livin’ life, I’m busy livin’ life, I’m busy livin’ life, I’m busy livin’ life.” Now, just to be clear, all of this is completely fabricated by the AI (in this case, OpenAI’s GPT-3 program) and, unfortunately, RuPaul hasn’t written a song called ‘Daddy’ (yet). Still, it’s pretty impressive, and kind of hard to differentiate from the rest of the article. “GPT-3 is extraordinary,” said Simms, when I mention how realistic the AI-generated paragraph is. “But it’s particularly good for these shorter text generation tasks. If I tried to generate an entire article, you’d be much less impressed. The paragraphs would be coherent on their own, but collectively they would most likely lose the thread thematically and rhetorically.
Imogen Heap presenting the AI Song Contest final scores
Final Third: Infinite Login “But just wait another year or two – extremely convincing generation across much longer contexts will happen in the very near future.” So that’s what AI can do. But what it can’t do (fortunately, for all the artists featured in this magazine) is write an entire pop song on its own. “Music is complicated,” answers competition co-founder van Dijk when I ask her why this is. “You have the lyrics, you have melodies, you have all the different instruments, and you have the performance. It’s a really complicated and very human thing to do. “AI is great at coming up with ideas – it can create endlessly,” she continues. “You could think of it as an inspiration machine. However, it’s not able to put everything together and make a comprehensive song. It’s the human touch that creates a great song.” “Working with AI is similar to jamming in a band,” adds Koops. “One person has an idea, you riff on it, another person changes it a bit, then it comes back to the first person. There is a complex interplay between all the band members. AI is more like a band member that plays a role in the process rather than a solo artist.” — Error — Well there you have it: AI isn’t going to replace human musicians, and in fact it can be a useful tool for enhancing creativity. So put on your headphones, stick on an AI-music playlist, and relax… …except, don’t relax, because that’s not the full story, and while AI isn’t likely to replace songwriters anytime soon, there are some downsides. The most obvious issue is that, although AI can be used to come up with cool original sounds, it can also be used to imitate already existing music – if you think Ed Sheeran is the master of creating derivative crap, just imagine what a top
AI Song Contest winners M.O.G.I.I.7.E.D.
40 powered entirely by AI might sound like. And then there’s the copyright problem. If you get hold of a machine learning program, train it on the back catalogue of, say, Prince, and then use the output to help you write a song, who owns the copyright: you, Prince, the person that wrote the AI program…or even the actual computer? Right now there’s no clear answer to this question… and there might never be. But maybe the most pressing problem concerns authenticity. “Let’s take the example of folk music,” begins AI researcher Rujing Stacy Huang. “Part of the authenticity lies in the people, the story, the history. It’s not just the music, but everything that surrounds the music. It’s about context. But now you have AI as the author, and you’re missing that context. So, is this music still authentic? Where does authenticity come from, and does AI destroy it?” In other words, AI can take something like traditional folk music and recreate and repurpose it in ways that might not sit well with the culture it came from. “There could be a risk of cultural appropriation, especially if we’re dealing with things like sacred religious music,” confirms Huang. “These things are very culturally sensitive, and all of a sudden AI allows us to use these instruments, melodies and lyrics in ways that are beyond their original permitted context.” And Huang adds that folk music is particularly at risk of appropriation because it isn’t copyright protected. “In order to train an AI program, we have to feed it hours and hours of music,” she says. “But data scientists aren’t allowed to use copyrighted music unless they have approval from the owner. So what happens is they often turn to traditional music, which is usually in the public domain and isn’t copyrighted. But should we use this material in this way, just because it isn’t copyrighted? It’s an ethical question that isn’t easy to answer.” However, these are dilemmas that most musicians won’t have to face anytime soon, because AI is still really difficult to use unless you know what you’re doing; there’s a reason that most of the AI Song Contest teams were based on partnerships between musicians and data scientists. Right now AI is in the same place that synthesizers were in the 1960s. Today, you can pick up a decent synth for not much money and work out how to play it right away, but back then there were just a handful of technically minded people that knew how to use them. AI is going to have to go through a similar transition before it can become an instrument that musicians actually use regularly. And besides, even if AI could replace humans, that still wouldn’t stop people making music. After all, chess players didn’t give up the game after Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1996. Instead, they used AI to enhance their own game. Today, more people are playing chess than ever before. “People like making music – it’s not some kind of chore that you want to avoid,” notes Koops. “People won’t be replaced by computers for making music, because people will still want to make music. I don’t think AI can remove the intrinsic need to be creative… it’s just a new tool for us to use.”
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Final Third: In Conversation
Final Third: In Conversation A long talk with Self Esteem, bringing the Superbowl halftime show to your local 500-cap venue, by Gemma Samways. Photography by Phil Sharp
Start showing off
Two months into the press cycle for her superb second album as Self Esteem, and Rebecca Taylor is having a lovely time. “I love all this shit,” she beams, sitting in bed at home in Margate. “I’ve always liked doing photo shoots, videos, and interviews: all the things you’re meant to actively hate as an indie musician. So being able to openly enjoy it now is really, really fun.” To say leaving Slow Club has given the 34-year-old musician a new lease of life is the understatement of the century. Since the indie-folk duo disbanded in 2017, Taylor has been absolutely thriving in her new role as Rotherham’s answer to Madonna. And with her forthcoming record she’s taken things up another gear entirely, as signalled by artwork which depicts her in a particularly defiant stance wearing a leotard, cowboy hat and leather chaps. Recorded, like her 2019 debut Compliments Please, with The Very Best’s Johan Carlberg, Prioritise Pleasure cements Taylor’s status as a feminist-pop firebrand, hellbent on tearing down the patriarchy one giant chorus at a time. Lead track ‘I Do This All The Time’ is already one of the standout singles of 2021. Billed as Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen’ for millennials, the dramatic monologue-cum-motivational anthem is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, wise and wonderful, much like the rest of the album. Taylor proves every bit as insightful and entertaining as an interviewee today, speaking candidly about trolls, patriarchal pressures and how her mental health journey helped inform Prioritise Pleasure.
Gemma Samways: Firstly, can I say how much I love the visual campaign for this new album. Do you have a creative director? Rebecca Taylor: No, it’s just me. I’m always like, well, maybe I should have a creative director, but it always ends up being uncomfortable and then I just say what I want anyway. I have a choreographer that I work with, and I do love collaboration, but if it’s for Self Esteem I’ve realised I can’t relinquish control. It’s just gotta come from my head. GS: You’ve been getting some very interesting/creepy responses to the visuals via Twitter. Is that standard for a Self Esteem record, or is this more pronounced than usual? RT: Oh, this has been way different. I’ve been shocked. I don’t think that photo on my album cover is that provocative? The thing is if you’re going to take a picture of me – and there’s budget for hair and make-up and styling – what I’m always going to want to do is make something that’s like a fucking Madonna photoshoot. I’m cosplaying being a pop star; that’s literally what Self Esteem is. It’s pop music, but I’m saying all the shit that probably doesn’t get said in pop music. It’s a Trojan horse thing: with Self Esteem you’re gonna get a horrendous amount of feminism under this layer of sexy, hot popstar or whatever. It’s not that groundbreaking I don’t think, but like some people can’t deal with it. So when I get like a troll-y fucking tweet from a guy saying how revolting I am for looking like this, it’s like, urgh. GS: It’s mad how social media emboldens these trolls to think everyone else is interested in their opinions. RT: I think maybe people forget that there’s a person with brains and feelings attached to these images. Because when people have been mean, I’ve been replying and going, “Look, I just make this for myself and I’m not harming you; think before you tweet.” And some people have gone, “Oh sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Saying that, I’ve got some
Final Third: In Conversation really freaky blokes now who are, like, really, really obsessed with tearing me down. And there’s no point in talking to them because they just want to hate women; it’s just pure incel vibes. I don’t mind the creeps that are nice though. (Laughs) GS: Am I right in thinking the album cover isn’t Photoshopped? RT: I mean, that’s my other point. We are bombarded with that Kardashian shape – and no shade to them because it looks unbelievable, but you can’t naturally be that wide without the lumps and bumps that come with it. I grew up in the ’90s, when Kate Moss was the body shape to aspire to, so I love that the Kardashians have done loads for people with arses. But I still think it’s irresponsible to not be honest about how you’ve achieved that shape. We did that shoot, the photos came back and there was a normal amount of retouching, but I was like no, I can’t bear this. I mean, I looked fucking awesome but it wasn’t true. So yeah, [with the album cover] you’re seeing an image where the lighting has been enhanced, but I refuse to alter my entire body shape, just because there’s enough misleading shit online. I don’t know, I think it’s important to be honest. GS: Last time you spoke to Loud And Quiet, you
“With Self Esteem you’re gonna get a horrendous amount of feminism under this layer of sexy, hot popstar” semi-joked that your top three ambitions were to attend the Glamour Awards, to have a tube poster, and to appear on Later… with Jools Holland. You just achieved the latter; did it live up to expectations? RT: Yeah, thank fuck for that: we did it! Obviously it wasn’t [filmed] in the studio, but I got to spend all day shooting a song I’m so proud of, with people I feel so loved and supported by, and I fucking loved it. And I do have that weight off my shoulders now. Not that you need to go on that bloody show to have succeeded, but it’s just always been a bit of a thorn in my side. GS: It’s really nice to see an artist actually admit what a thrill it is to be on TV. People play it cool a lot, don’t they? Why do you think that is? RT: I think in indie music, it’s actively encouraged to look like you’re not bothered, which is something I struggle with in life, as you can imagine. And the TV side of it, the photos, even videos… It’s like, part of why I’m making music in the first place is to enjoy all the different ways I can communicate the music. They’re all opportunities to make art, you know? Whereas I think cool people want to act like they just want to put the record out there and play the shows and that
be it. But my favourite bit is being like, “Is there any budget for me to show you something new?” I’m too tired and old to be cool anymore, as you can see. GS: I don’t want to use the word breakthrough because it feels patronising, but ‘I Do This All The Time’ does feel like a big moment for you. Why do you think that song has resonated with so many people? RT: I know, I can’t believe it. Maybe the timing has helped, because I think it’s never been more refreshing for someone to be really vulnerable and real. But musically, I don’t know. I’ve been surprised. I think it’s been helpful in the same way it’s helpful for me when I see Lizzo’s self-love angle on everything; like, that’s fucking beautiful to me, that. GS: I like the fact it’s a perspective that you don’t often hear in music: a woman in her 30s being brutally honest. And also the fact that it feels like a long-standing list of peeves, that you’ve been working up to sharing. RT: Well, even back in Slow Club, I’ve always wanted to do a spoken word song that feels like a meditation or something. But I was up north, my nan was dying, I was dating this guy and having a fucking shit laugh, and I hadn’t written any songs for ages; it was this miserable swathe of time. So I went into this studio in Sheffield just to experiment, and I ended up building the backing track up, and just reading out my iPhone notes in a row. Like, I couldn’t be arsed to think of a song. I wanted to say all these things and I was like, “What if I don’t have to sing it or make it rhyme?” And that’s what happened. That vocal is the only time I’ve ever done it. GS: The line, “All you need to do is fit in that little dress of yours,” is an actual comment you received, right? RT: Yeah. That entire verse is all things people have said to me, which some people don’t understand straight away. But yeah, that was a tour manager I had in Slow Club. We were sorting out what we needed for a big gig, and he said, “All you need to do is fit in that little dress of yours.” GS: Did you sack him straight after? RT: No, that was the thing! If I had said to the guys [in Slow Club], “He makes me feel like this – can we get rid of him?” I don’t know what would have happened. I’m never bashing anybody else in Slow Club, ever: it was all on me. I was so used to that sort of shit, I just swallowed it. Though that guy was particularly cunty. But yeah, I’m grateful now because that actually was the turning point. I was like: I’m out. Because I need to be able to say I don’t want to work with this person, and not worry it’s a ballache for everybody else but me. GS: You cover a lot of painful stuff in ‘I Do This All The Time’, but the line that absolutely winded me was, “Stop showing off.” Do you think it’s a British thing to be mortified at the idea of being seen as a show-off? RT: I think it’s a British, female, in-our-age bracket thing. Although I might be generalising that. But I still feel it. Like, this idea that you think something of yourself is a killer. I mean, my mum and dad are fucking amazing, but they did
Final Third: In Conversation
Final Third: In Conversation tell me to stop to showing off all the time. And now I’m 34 and I make a living out of showing off. But I don’t like being the centre of attention socially. I think it all feeds into that thing that society sees confidence and self-assurance in women as unbecoming and extremely threatening. And, I mean, it probably is offputting to be like, “I’m the fucking tits: look at me.” But in the last couple of years I had this radical idea that maybe all my depression is coming from how much I talk to myself like I’m a piece of shit. (Laughs) So as an experiment I’ve tried to stop talking about myself like I’m a piece of shit, and it’s changed my life. GS: Was that a consequence of therapy? RT: Yeah. I’ve had therapists on and off for years, and it’s so fucking expensive but it’s also saved my life. And after Compliments Please came out, I finally got [a therapist] that I made a bit of headway with, and who I’m still with now. I think leaving Slow Club – and getting out of feeling very trapped and creatively stifled – made me a lot happier in loads of ways, but still the fundamental reasons I was even in that situation were down to myself. And for the last couple of years with this album – and the pandemic even – I’ve just been curious about trying to think differently. I mean, I’ve spent 34 years torturing myself with myself, so I still have to force it. But I’m on a journey. GS: Even in terms of the titles, there’s a palpable shift in mood between Compliments Please and Prioritise Pleasure: you’re now making assertions rather than simply seeking validation. As much as I hate the word, it feels genuinely empowering? RT: Yeah, it is the word for it though. I’m empowering myself and if it empowers you too, then that’s the MO of Self Esteem. GS: The phrase “steady stand” is becoming a recurring motif in your work. Is it fair to call it the motto of Self Esteem? RT: Yeah, I would say so. It’s just that feeling when the tide’s coming in, and you dig your toes in the sand to steady yourself. The water is just gonna keep coming in and out, and it might get harder or easier, but you’ve just got to wait it out. Because I think that we’ve been fed this idea that you’ll meet the guy, get the ring on your finger, get the house, get a baby and it’ll all be fine; like these things complete you or solve you. My whole life I’ve been like, “When I’ve lost more weight I’ll feel happier.” Whereas it’s not the case: the goalposts will always move. With my mental health journey, I’ve learned you’ve just got to dig your toes in the sand and wait. Because the negative will always be there but the positive is just as plentiful. GS: Can you tell me about the musical world of Prioritise Pleasure? You can hear the influence of ‘Black Skinhead’ on ‘How Can I Help You’: were there any other reference points? RT: Yeah, Johan [Hugo] and I both love Kanye, and all the more melodic, wonky hip-hop stuff like Outkast.
And then also I’m always coming from a pretty classic rock place – Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Kate Bush. And also Max Richter. And I loved [Lady Gaga’s] Chromatica. But I’m never shy about telling people [my influences]. Like, I’ll play something I’ve heard and then we just do our interpretation of it. I don’t know why people are trying to act like they’re not just ripping things off every day: that’s literally what production is! But yeah, I just wanted it all to sound massive. Or tiny. I don’t want you to be able to play the album at your dinner party. GS: One of the highlights of the album for me is the spoken-word outro of ‘I’m Fine’, where a woman discusses howling like a dog to scare away predatory groups of men. That’s from a workshop you did with the National Youth Theatre, right? RT: Yeah, I keep doing these theatre things: I’m developing a musical at one place and I’ve written a play for another place. So a director friend was doing this summer school thing for 18 to 21 year olds, where you spend four weeks in a rehearsal room and you devise a piece of theatre, and she asked me to lead it as a writer. Our group was all female/ female-identifying, from different places from all over the
“As an experiment I’ve tried to stop talking about myself like I’m a piece of shit, and it’s changed my life” world, and they just blew my mind. I think I’d thought, “Oh kids today won’t have it like we had it,” but their insecurities and stresses are exactly the same. And now and again they would share this fucking amazing, wise gold, like the fact that if we’re seen as hysterical, men will leave us alone, but if we are just ourselves, we’re fair game. It’s just endlessly fucking heartbreaking. But I also love the idea that we’re just a big pack of dogs. GS: Totally: as depressing as it is that a woman feels she has to do that, I’m also in awe of how ingenious it is. RT: Yeah! At shows I want us to all just howl. GS: Last time I saw you live you were wearing a dress made out of Boots Advantage Cards. What’s the plan for the Prioritise Pleasure tour? Will there be fun outfits? RT: I’m graduating to handheld mics, so there’s me and three backing singers that dance. It’s me trying to do Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour but, you know, at the Bristol Fleece and the Hare and Hounds. Bringing the Superbowl halftime show to the 500-cap venues around the UK was always the dream. I’m not sure about outfits yet, but yeah, basically my tour is about being really fucking entertaining. And being really good. We’re all really on it: it’s exciting.
THE MERCURIAL MUSICAL MIND BEHIND: TEST ICICLES · OUTER LIMITS RECORDINGS · MATRIX METALS WINGDINGS · THE SWEETHEARTS · YOGA · MELT · EXPLORERS BLUES RUNNER · CURSE · FLASHBACK REPOSITORY
Final Third: The Rates
Final Third: The Rates
Each month, we ask an artist or group to share three musicians they think have gone under appreciated and three new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low discussed their selections with Sam Walton There haven’t been many live music highlights in the past 18 months, but one consistent pleasure has been the Friday I’m In Low series, a weekly 20-minute home concert beamed straight from the Minnesota living room of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, the married couple who formed Low in 1993, over Instagram Live. Unadorned and intimate, shot on a phone by their daughter Hollis, the shows are free of any live-stream circus tricks or commercial imperative, and instead capture everything that’s heartwarming about the band: the homespun warmth, the cathartic, sparse beauty of their songs, and the couple-goals chemistry of Parker and Sparhawk that showcases their pure joy at singing together. Add to that, since the arrival of spring, occasional tours of Sparhawk’s vegetable garden, and it’s a perfect prescription for beating the lockdown blues. It turns out, too, that Low needed the sessions just as much as their audience. “Oh yeah, the Instagram Live thing was key to keeping us engaged,” explains Sparhawk from his dining table in Duluth. “On tour, you’re singing every day, and singing great, and then two weeks later, you come off tour, and you notice, when you go to church or something, you’re not singing so well, and your voice kind of slipped away somewhere. Well at the start of all this we thought we might just take a break and chill, but then part of our minds were like, man, you got to stay with this, otherwise you’ll lose it.” Out of that conscientious persistence blossomed the ten songs that comprise Hey What, Low’s 13th album and first since 2018’s confrontational, ultra-distressed Double Negative, the kind of alarming, comfort-zone-escaping record that few bands make in their 25th year. Like its immediate predecessor, Hey What sounds unmistakably Lowlike but simultaneously alien, fractured and glistening, with just as many moments of crystalline beauty as harsh noise – which, says Sparhawk, is all part of the plan: “Every time in the past where we’ve done something extreme, we were glad we did it. And the few times where we’ve held back, we’ve kind of regretted it later.” “I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where we can gamble,” adds Parker, sat on her husband’s right, nudging him lovingly whenever he begins to ramble. “We have a legacy now, but I’d like to think that it’s dynamic, and we didn’t play it safe. Some bands have stuck with what they’ve done from the beginning and been hugely successful,” she adds, “but for us, we’ve
never had so much success that it’s made us say, ‘We’ll stick with this.’” “There’s never been enough success to stop us from keeping on stabbing around in the dark, essentially,” laughs Sparhawk. “Although the world’s full of countless examples of great artists who stay true to their form, and some of them die unrecognized, but there’s no denying the integrity of what they did, especially if it ran counter to what we were wanting to see.” It’s an observation, I suggest, that provides a good segue into his introduction to his and Parker’s favourite underappreciated acts.
THE DANIELSON FAMILE: SW: I saw these guys at an ATP about 15 years ago – it was a wild ride. AS: Yeah that sounds right. They had costumes, and very much interacted with the audience, right where the line between the band and audience is blurred, and it was always this lotsof-people-on-stage-making-a-cacophony-of-ecstatic-music thing. I don’t want to name names, but there’ve been several bands in the last 15 years that have taken that formula and made a more accessible version of it, based on what I feel the Danielson Famile pioneered. SW: It’s interesting you’re drawn to that as a performance style when the Low live aesthetic is almost the opposite. AS: Yeah, I guess it is in a certain way, although I do try to reach out and make it a communal thing. We definitely feel the
Final Third: The Rates responsibility of the room, and want to be reverent to that. The Danielson Famile aesthetic was different – much more outreaching, much more ecstatic and open – but still with similar goals to us: they’re trying to try to create a moment, trying to respect the power of people being in a room all focused on one thing, and maybe even shaking at the same frequency, and I guess we’ve always had reverence for that too. When you’re recording, if you’re in a safe place, and can feel comfortable with the people around you and really immerse yourself into the spirit of what’s going on, the studio will capture moments where real electricity came in, moments of epiphany and real transcendence, and that’s important. On stage, though, I’m probably more guarded about that, even though I try not to be self-conscious of the fact that people are there and looking.
SHANNON WRIGHT AS: She’s brooding, quiet, sometimes loud. She had a phase as a three-piece, her on guitar and these two guys from North Carolina that we knew playing bass and drums, and it was heavy. It was around the time when indie rock was a little lighter, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, and she was just going deeper and harder: she took playing loud guitar in a dirty rock band to a new level. It was a little like when PJ Harvey had that first threepiece and she was so on fire, but with Shannon just even more, to the point where I think a lot of young audiences at the time couldn’t deal with it. She was too intense for what people were ready for, too bright for unprotected eyes. But I always thought she was an absolutely true original artist. She’s a source, not an interpreter. SW: She has loads of albums. Where would you recommend starting? AS: Oh, Jeez. Go with the one with the song ‘Captain of the Quarantine’ on it [1999’s Flightsafety]. I loved the records she was doing when we were touring with her around 2002, and then there was another piano record she did more recently [2019’s Providence] that was really stunning. I saw a few of those shows where she promoted that, and that was equally intense. She’s a really dynamic and committed performer, a total cornerstone for me.
IDA SW: I was listening to their track ‘Maybelle’ and thought I heard you on backing vocals, Alan. Is that right? AS: I can’t remember if I sang background on that one in particular, but there was definitely back and forth between us: we were recording and they’d do stuff with us, and then we’d do stuff with them. We were tight for a few years and toured together like, woah, 20 years ago. MP: Oh yeah that was the tour just after I’d had Hollis, and Liz [Ida’s lead singer] was pregnant. So I would stay at the hotel watching Hollis while they were opening for us, then after their set Liz would come back to the hotel and we’d tag-team it so I could come and do my set and she could watch the baby for us. It was a good arrangement! SW: They’re another band with a couple at the centre. Do you think there’s something different about the dynamics of a band where there’s a couple? AS: Yeah I think so. You’d think it could be problematic, because the couple would always be a team, but that doesn’t always happen! The band and music really opens that up, and you’d be surprised how the siding falls, with one of us siding with the other person and against our partner. MP: Yeah, it’s a weird dynamic for the third person sometimes, for sure... AS: ... but it’s probably contributed to the longevity of the band. MP: Definitely. You commit to marriage and so you commit to the band. AS: Yeah, the marriage puts an extra bond on the band. But it works both ways. There are definitely things about being in the band that enhance the marriage: the fact that we’re doing something that’s creative together and struggling through the ups and downs of that – that’s the stuff that enhances a relationship. Like, who wouldn’t want to go on the road and be creative and do something with the person they love, you know? MP: [laughing] Really? Like, 24/7? AS: A stressful time on tour can translate to stressful relationships, sure, but sometimes the relationship is what gets you through the stressful times. SW: Do you feel a kinship with other bands that have couples in them? AS: We don’t seek them out, but it’s interesting to wonder how they do it, because every one must have a completely different dynamic for deciding what they want, and how the other person interacts with that. And that can be good and bad, you know – like, Thurston Moore and Kim, I mean, that was really sad, and probably not a very fun thing to have fall apart, but Yo La Tengo still look like they’re having fun. We played with them at a festival a few years ago – it was the first time we met them, and they were really nice! I always thought they might be like snooty New York record-collector people, but they’re super nice and I was like, why haven’t we been hanging out with these guys for the last 10 years?
Final Third: The Rates JOE RAINEY SNR AS: Joe’s a Native American guy, and a singer and drummer. Where we live, the Native culture is pretty prominent. In the past it’s been pretty ugly because of the oppression that the Natives have been subjected to, but the community is starting to re-establish and share what they have. There’s a lot of that here where we live, so you get exposed to it growing up, but for me lately that music has been very powerful. I can actually look at a few songs on our new record and see how they totally came out of Native music: the melodies and the way we deal with rhythm, in particular, are totally Native American rhythms – there’s no backbeat, or at least it’s less prevalent. Anyway, Joe right now is working on a record that I think, once it’s done, is gonna really blow people’s minds, and change the perspective of Native American music. SW: What is it about Native American music that appeals to you? AS: It’s simple, it’s easy-access, and yet it’s very deep and nuanced, and unabashedly spiritual. There’s an understanding that every time you sing or drum, you’re calling up your ancestors, and this is all the shit rock and roll wishes it was. SW: It’s more authentic? AS: Er, yeah! Have you listened to that stuff? Smashing the crap out of the drums with people wailing in the background, it makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck.
human about it, and that’s important because subconsciously the second the mind hears that there’s a human in there, then there’s permission to internalise and connect with the music. SW: Do you think that extends to things like effects pedals? They’re still basically machines that make noise, after all, and fairly important to the soul of recent Low records. AS: That was one of the things we were thinking about with this new record. I’d written all this stuff on guitar, but I don’t want to hear the guitar anymore. So the question became how do I turn it into something that doesn’t sound like a guitar, and a lot of what’s going on is just that. It’s generated organically, but then the effects unit is reading it and reacting synthetically, so you get this sound that’s more human than just a sequencer going boop-boop-boop-boop boop-boop-boop in regular perfect timing. It’s synthetic, but it’s being triggered and generated by something very complex and organic. I think as long as you set the machine up so you can put your soul into it, then the machine will translate that soul in a way that’s hopefully interesting and engaging.
LORD FRIDAY THE 13TH
COLLEEN AP: Everybody has those stories of walking into a record store and being like, holy crap, what’s this, and then they have a favorite band. Well, I first heard Colleen when we were over in Holland a few years back, doing press. Someone had her first record on in the background, and I was like, wow. I love how she manages to make machines channel her soul. I think it’s interesting when you’re using machines or a computer that our brains crave humanity. They want to know where the creative human decisions are. Like, is there a way to shape the sound so it’s reminiscent of something more human, to interject slight randomness that makes it more organic? With Colleen, there’s something about the way she tips the machine into a process that sounds alive. Maybe it’s all in my head, but there’s something so
AS: Just before the pandemic, our manager and I shot a few episodes of a TV show called Vansplaining – they’re on YouTube now, check it out – where I meet bands on the road and just hang out with them for the day, help them unload the van, talk through what they do while touring and then help them load out. Anyway, one of the bands we did was Lord Friday the 13th from Austin, and I think they’re just really great. They’re dynamic, they have a pure love for creative endeavour, and they’re an affirmation to me that the new generation that’s coming up now are really poised to figure this shit out. Sure, they’re gonna have their handicaps, because of the way the world has been, but I think they see everything around and they’re gonna float above it and show us all how to not get mired in our pretense and preconceptions. I think these guys are interesting because they’re young, and they love the idea of what rock and roll does, but they don’t have any history or connotations coming with it, and that’s so exciting.
Final Third: My Place Hayden Thorpe, in his own words, is sweating his tits off. It’s high summer in Kendal, and the town’s stoutly-built stone houses, designed to withstand the long Cumbrian winter, keep the heat firmly inside. “I’m in the attic, and under the rafters, it’s an oven,” he laments. He wasn’t meant to be here. Having spent a decade in London, as the UK’s exit from the EU approached, he was preparing to leave the capital and move to continental Europe, partly for the change of scenery, partly because life as a touring musician there looked, as it continues to, like a more viable occupation than it does in Britain. You can probably guess what got in the way. “The virus shut down the world, and I got stranded,” he says. “By chance I ended up back here; my dad still lives here but his partner lives in Australia, so he’s out there during this time. So I re-entered the womb of my becoming, if I can put it so poetically.” Fortunately, the move home seems to have worked out. Having partially written and recorded his second solo album Moondust For My Diamond in this house, along with sessions in Leeds and London, the former Wild Beasts frontman is audibly
delighted to have had the chance to reconnect with the place he grew up, and its surrounding countryside in particular. “Kendal’s got the right balance of mundanity and magic. Sadly, the high street is fading into the same generic shape as so many others, but then again, I can walk ten minutes up the road into a UNESCO world heritage site. “One thing I’d lost and didn’t realise as a young adult who’d left this space was an automatic connection to nature. That’s been a revelation. And now I can’t see myself doing without that. I’ve realised that to dedicate your art to a square mile of woodland, or a vista in the mountains or anything like that, is a lifetime’s work. You could literally spend a lifetime’s attention on a single tree; as a solo artist at a time when cults of personality are so strong, to have that freedom to find such interest and wonder in things that aren’t myself is a gift. There’s only so much about myself I can find interesting. I think that I’m far more interesting when I’m in this landscape. “There’s a point where you find people more fascinating than nature. But that can flip, and you find this tree far more charming and better company than most of humanity.” He stifles a laugh at his nature-boy misanthropy, and the tour begins.
The pastoral life Hayden Thorpe is reconnecting with nature in his childhood home, by Luke Cartledge. Photography by Juliet Klottrup
The print room I’ve re-appropriated the living room as my print room. One of the by-products of lockdown was that I’ve started to make prints quite intuitively, without really knowing what I was doing. I’ve been using lino prints, which is when you use a tool to excavate rubber and you make the print using that, so I’ve been creating these aerial landscapes – to go with the aerial songs ep I made last year – contour lines. Starting out copying a map and then the hand starts to guide itself. It’s quite a meditative practice, just letting the contours develop as you feel it. A lot of eastern printmaking has these spiritual connections; next to it is this marbled paper, this Japanese process I’ve been trying out called suminagashi, where you put the ink onto water and create these patterns; the water dictates the patterns and you have to be patient and gentle enough to allow that to happen. It’s a way of doing work that isn’t musical and doesn’t have the same importance. It’s strange when your great passion suddenly becomes your business… your escape becomes your way back in. It’s important to have side hustles, to make work
with it not really mattering. But it becomes a really beautiful way of connecting with people who my music resonates with, because there’s no middleman, it requires no upload or download. If people want them, I just post them to them. Merch HQ That is the print room again. That’s now my merch HQ. I’m very much of the opinion that the world is already too full of stuff, so if I’m gonna put more stuff into it, I’d better care about it and devote some time to it. That goes for the print – if I’m gonna sell you a print, I will make it, I will hand print it; if I’m gonna sell you a t-shirt, I’ll make sure it’s not been made in a sweatshop or cost the earth. I’m using local businesses – the paper for the prints is made at a local factory, the t-shirts are printed down by the river here in Kendal. In a global world, we still live so locally. I’ve been localising the work too; Leonard Cohen always said it’s about the detail – you have to name the colour of the raincoat to be able to harness the imagination.
Final Third: My Place
Mum’s allotment I wouldn’t say I’m a gardener but I spend a lot of time in gardens. That’s my mum’s allotment, down the alley at the back of the house. You have an automatic connection to nature in this part of the world – I feel passionately for the pastoral life, there’s a lot to be said for it. After a decade of emphasis on city life, and the virtue of city life, of the cream rising to the top and that always being in the city, I’m having to reorder that for myself. Yesterday I ate lettuce from that allotment with my lunch. When you work with allotments – well, I don’t work a lot with them, I just eat a lot from them – you understand how every morsel of, say, a beetroot or a courgette has quite a high energy exchange; you know, this has taken months. With the abundance we live amongst, you lose the sense of that exchange between sunlight, life and eating; growing things attaches you to a real sense of time – this is how long things take to grow, and live, and die. Most of your life we spend in completely invented timelines – the second and the hour – quantifying our times with quite abstract things, and we forget the very real timelines happening all around us.
Final Third: My Place The teenage studio This is the attic room where Benny (Little) and I first set up a studio for Wild Beasts. It’s the room that’s the furthest away from anyone else in the house, the first private space I ever had. There’s some of our graffiti on the wall: a signature – I had to do a “woz here”; a dandelion, which actually looks quite beautiful from a couple of stoned teenagers; some logos for the band, when we were called Fauve, which is French for “wild beast”. When I moved back, I began by clearing out the attic and making some room for myself again, piecing back together the family home in quite a ceremonious way; my dad’s the last person living here, and that person is the caretaker for all the detritus of a family. It’s quite beautiful to re-enter that space, and honour it and modernise it. Postman Pat Postman Pat should probably be more of a cult figure in this town. That’s about the sum total of it – that plaque. But Postman Pat was written on my road, and that’s the post office that inspired it. When quite remarkable things happen in quite mundane environments, you cling onto them as beacons of possibility, you mythologise. John Cunliffe, who wrote Postman Pat, should probably have his own statue in Kendal. I used to buy my sweets from that post office, every Friday, with my 50p. That would get you a decent amount of tooth rot, which I’m still paying for now.
17 years’ worth of notebooks Packing up all of my things to move house, I realised I’d kept every notebook I’d had since I was 18. It’s not actually that big a box if you think that’s 17 years of work, of dedication to scribbling. It’s a very precious thing to me. There’s some absolute nonsense in there, some quite cool things in there; now having amassed that stuff, my main observation is how little of it there is, how really when you’re creating work, you only ever really keep 1% of what you come across and it’s about choosing from those things.
Final Third: My Place I recognise the journey I was on then, because I’m still on it. Trying to carve the right word out, I recognise that because I’m still at the same rock face. It feels clumsy or crude at times, but those times are crude and clumsy. This time still is, just in different ways. I recognise the hand, but I don’t bestow too much value; I don’t think back too fondly, in a nostalgic way. I’ve actually got some demos from way back at the start on Minidisc – when I’m brave enough I’ll venture back into them. They say your cells are completely remade every seven years, so that’s twice over now since I lived here and started writing these. But it’s kind of an honour to go back into the family home as an adult in this way. It’s not meant to happen – you’re meant to leave home, start the band, take over the world, live in perpetual sunshine. But exploring that not-meant-to-happenness is so rich. School photos Judging by the pimply forehead and the crew cut, I think I’m about 14 or 15, and probably pretty adamant that I’m gonna lead an athletic life, but that my gift on the field was yet to be fully awoken, just the next kick away. But that wasn’t meant to be. It’s one of those fringe times where you start to realise that your energies are finite and you’d better dedicate it to something, and maybe not to the thing that you had always wanted it to be. This is a photo of me at a school that didn’t always do me well, but always meant me well. I think as someone who went to a Northern comprehensive at that time, in the ’90s, it felt optimistic and aspirational. But the academy system, university tuition fees… it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It is a generational loss for this country. Guitars I don’t play these guitars much really, they’re just objects I like to have around. When you have totem instruments you get a bit ruthless and leave stuff behind. They’re good company. The good thing is if you write songs and you play bass in a band, you get to write more parts – “Here’s a guitar part and here’s a bass part and I’ll sing it” – especially in a very democratic band like we were. I definitely understand music better for having played bass, and I only did it out of necessity, because the others were way better at guitar than me. It’s a bit docile now and I haven’t had the compulsion to pick it up. It’s a dream of mine to have musicians come here to create. It’s so normal for studios to just be these blackout rooms, with generic equipment in, and it feels so un-colourful. It’d be great to see how other artists work in the space. Fab (Fabian Prynn, drummer-producer on Moondust For My Diamond) actually came up and visited last month; I did the good Lake District Sherpa thing, which is to take people just far enough up a mountain to get scared, just far enough into a lake to get cold, then ply them with really good beer.
Due to popular demand, Steps didn’t release an album between 2000 and 2012. In recent years, though, the punk ethos at the centre of the band has really found its footing. Steps do not care what you think anymore – they care only about what they want to do, by which I mean they care only about what Claire and H want to do. And right now, Claire and H want everyone stood in black against a fuchsia light wall, looking… well… exactly how you would imagine Steps to look in 2021. If nothing else, it shows what a solid brand they’ve built. Last year, they released What the Future Holds Pt. 1, which some people did buy, and now it’s time for Pt. 2, whose cover was clearly shot on the same day (don’t Google it, it just was). It would be easy to be sniffy about the inspiration behind the band’s styling here, but Be At One is a good night out if you go with the right crowd and get there early enough to grab the sofas in the corner. In this instance, I think we can all agree that it works. If I saw this lot in the club, I’d either want to give them a very wide birth or send over a round of espresso martinis. And I mean that as a massive compliment. “I’m so here for this,” Claire would have almost definitely said as this image was captured, ignoring the childish eye-rolls from Faye and Lisa. She knows how to deal with Lee too, whose beautiful hands haven’t been seen in public for years. He’s now convinced his “mighty stance” was all his idea. It most certainly was not.
Still waiting for my money back Amazon kept serving me adverts for their new space flights after I bought a copy of Apollo 13 on Blu-Ray. As a Prime customer I was entitled to a special offer price of $1.8 million so I snapped it up. I can not overstate how much I WISH I HADN’T!!! When I arrived for my flight I was told that my “intergalactic experience” would last 70 seconds, not the 90 seconds I’d originally paid for, on account that “space is so far away”. What made me even more angry was the rocket itself. I made it clear that I would not be riding into space on a rocket that so clearly resembles a... well... y’know... a... a... a big cock, ok? I am not an idiot.
“I had the car there anyway,” says Cruise
illustration by kate prior
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