Alfa Mist, Delilah Holliday, Divide and Dissolve, Horsegirl, J Mascis & Kurt Vile, Jehnny Beth, Kam-Bu, Lael Neale, Paris Texas, A guide to Alan Vega & Suicide, Inside Cornwall’s DIY Rave Scene
J A P A N E S E BREAKFAST
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, Al Mills, 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, Steph Phillips, Susan Darlington, Tara Joshi, Tom Critten, Tristan Gatward, Woody Delaney, Zara Hedderman.
Our previous two covers featured Squid and Sleaford Mods – a band who’ve made a bleak, claustrophobic album about an approaching dystopia, and Sleaford Mods. But it’s not been a cheerful time, and the coverline on our SM issue at the start of December (Things Can’t Only Get Better) has, in many ways, played out as written. It’s now time for something completely different, and the return of Japanese Breakfast is a gift for a more positive springtime. No stranger to trauma, Michelle Zauner new album is, as Katie Cutforth’s review accurately puts it, “a celebration of joy, life, colour.” A change of pace. I’ve just deleted Zoom. 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 Alex Cull, Frankie Davison, Rob Chute, Will Laurence, Tom Sloman, Katie Pilbeam, James Cunningham, Lauren Barley, Nathaniel Cramp, Thom Denson, Steve Philips, Sharen Norden. 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
Jehnny Beth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Paris Texas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lael Neale . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Delilah Holliday . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Kam-Bu . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Horsegirl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Alfa Mist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Reviews . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Japanese Breakfast . . . . . . . . . . . Nico Walker & Fat Possum . . . . . . . Cornwall’s DIY Rave Scene . . . . . J Mascis & Kurt Vile . . . . . . . . . . . . Divide and Dissolve . . . . . . . . . . . . A Guide to Alan Vega & Suicide . . . 05
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
12 14 18 20 24 28 30 35 52 60 64 70 74 78
The Beginning: Previously
Since the last edition of Loud And Quiet
CORPUS Family Studio Residency Originally set up by New York hardcore band Show Me The Body by means of releasing their own records, the group’s CORPUS label has steadily morphed into a passionate community outreach program focused on amplifying marginalised voices in their city. They’ve already held self-defence classes, started a book club called Burning World, raised $45k through the pandemic via their CORPUS Family Mutual Aid Fund, and organised a coat drive through the winter months. At the end of February they announced the CORPUS Family Studio Resi-
dency, opening up their own studio space in Blissville, Queens to local artists this spring. “We spent the summer building out our own space together,” say the band. “We understand how hard it is to afford and book studio space in New York. The goal of this program is to extend our studio to other musicians.” Successful applicants to the program will receive 36 hours of free recording time at the CORPUS Family Studio, with use of the band’s professional equipment and the aid of an engineer. The band describe the program as “seasonal”, and say it will return in the future. corpus.nyc for more on the band and their projects.
The Beginning: Previously Golden Lion Sounds Under threat like so many pubs across the UK, The Golden Lion in Todmorden has launched a record label to help it survive the COVID-19 pandemic. That might not sound like the most bulletproof plan, but it makes a lot of sense for a pub that’s become the musical heart of the West Yorkshire market town. Golden Lion Sounds launched in February with its first split 7” release, from local residents Working Men’s Club and W.H. Lung. They’ve already followed that up with a split between The Lounge Society and The Orielles, and they plan to continue releasing these special 45s bi-monthly, from acts that have played their venue, including Jarvis Cocker, Jane Weaver and David Holmes. Visit their store at goldenlionsounds.bigcartel.com for not only the records but an impressive array of merch by designer Wall-Russ and illustrator Bom Carrot.
Wide Awake At the start of 2020 we were excited to be involved with a brand new festival launching in the summer called Wide Awake. One year later, having retained a majority of its excellent lineup (including Black Midi, A Certain Ratio and Crack Cloud), tickets are now on sale for a new inaugural date of September 3, taking place at south London’s Brockwell Park. Along with the music, Wide Awake will also include a series of talks, debates and workshops focused on the climate crisis and sustainability in their Climate Café, created in partnership with climate change publication It’s Freezing in LA. wideawakelondon.co.uk
Rina Sawayama vs the BPI In late February, the British Phonographic Institute (BPI) announced a change in the eligibility rules of the Mercury Music Prize and the Brit Awards. It was thanks to a year-long campaign by British-Japanese artist Rina Sawayama who was refused entry to the 2020 Mercury Prize. Despite Sawayama having lived in the UK since she was four years old, and having permanent residency here, her lack of a British passport deemed her “not British enough” for the award. As Sawayama pointed out at the time, originally to no avail, Japan (where her family lives) does not allow dual citizenship, meaning she is not allowed to hold a British passport. After further talks, the BPI have now confirmed that in future artists will be able to enter the Mercury Prize and the British categories of the Brits if they have been a permanent resident in the UK for more than five years.
Tusk TV Experimental music festival Tusk – which has taken place in Newcastle each year since 2011 – have launched a 5-hour monthly TV show. The first episode was broadcast on April 2, hosted by author, writer and presenter Jennifer Lucy, and featured free jazz musician William Parker, US rapper Nappy
Nina, Italian percussionist Valentina Magaletti and Norwegian skronk supergroup SPUNK. It was free to watch and repeated 12 hours later to allow for overseas time zones to more easily tune in. Future episodes will do the same. Tuskfestival.com for information on this month’s show.
Sweet 16 podcast Members of Loud And Quiet are currently receiving a new series of our Sweet 16 podcast, where artists recall what they remember of that wonderful, horrific age. We’ve also now made series 1 available for all non-members at loudandquiet.substack.com, where you can also sign up for future episodes without needing to become a full L&Q member at all.
Fan-powered Soundcloud On April 1 Soundcloud became the first streaming service to launch a user-centric model by way of paying artist royalties. Although really boring to read about, it’s potentially great news for independent musicians. The reason all other streaming services are biased towards major labels and massive superstars is because they work to a ‘pro-rata’ model, where fees are collected and pooled and paid according to their market share. In contrast, Soundcloud’s new ‘fan-powered’ model will collect your money (either your subscription fee or the ad revenue connected to your plays) and split it only between the artists that you’ve listened to that month. On announcing their new model in early March, Soundcloud offered two examples for comparison, of artists Chevy (who has 12,700 followers on the platform) and Vincent (124,000). In Chevy’s case, the user-centric payout model would apparently increase their revenue by 217%, while Vincent’s would multiply by five, from $120 to $600.
Sounds Like A Plan Ahead of Earth Day on April 22, a new podcast has launched called Sounds Like A Plan, which looks at how the world of music is responding to the climate crisis. Hosted by L&Q’s Greg Cochrane and Music Declares Emergency co-founder (and Savages drummer) Fay Milton, each episode focuses on the different ways music is trying to save the planet – from the artists building their own solar energy farm to the record label reducing their carbon footprint. Guests include Reading & Leeds boss Melvin Ben, rapper and conservationist Kam-Bu and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. Listen now via all podcast apps.
Bez lives! Against the laws of modern science, Happy Mondays’ hype man Bez has completed his workout regime, Get Buzzin’ with Bez, and is still alive. The 5-week program remains available on YouTube, including a bonus episode entitled ‘Bez’s Revenge’, where student becomes teacher and Bez makes his PT do a thousand lunges. Backwards. It followed a week when Bez confessed, “I feel like I’m fighting fit, the only problem is, Valentine’s weekend has really messed me up. My missus instisted we got right off our heads, and now I’m paying the price.”
photography by david cortes. illustration by kate prior
The Beginning: Family
What to expect when your musician is expecting (an awkward song)
Last year I successfully implanted my genetic material in another person (I won’t bore you with the details of how I did it) and now I’m about to become a parent for the first time. Thank you for your well wishes! Mother and yet to be born child are both doing fine. But now the moment of birth is almost here, and after eight months of sitting around twiddling my thumbs it will soon be time for me to spring into action. As doctors inform me that, no, I won’t be able to breastfeed this new human myself, I have instead been searching for other ways that I can help – and I think I’ve found one: music. I don’t mean a birthing playlist filled with songs like ‘Better Together’ by Jack Johnson or ‘Make You Feel My Love by Adele’ (which, according to a recent study, are the two most popular songs to play for your partner while they are in labour. I know). I mean actually writing a song about the child once it is born. That way, when they grow up, they can fully appreciate what a loving, caring, cringey person I am. Of course, I didn’t come up with this idea myself – there is a long history of musicians writing songs about their children. From John Lennon to Kimya Dawson, to Kurt Vile, it seems that parenthood is a go-to topic for new fathers and mothers. It makes sense, because you can’t be writing about breakups, heroin or football every time you pick up a guitar. I’m not much of a musician compared to these famous names (in fact, compared to many un-famous names), so to help me out I’ve conducted a comprehensive* study of songs written about babies, birth and the general process of becoming a parent. Along the way I’ve discovered that these songs can be broken down into several distinct categories. I’ll now address each of these, which should help me decide which type I should write myself. The first category is perhaps the most obvious: the lullaby. This isn’t surprising, because – as everyone loves to tell you when you are about to become a parent – babies cry… a lot… and so you
words by andrew anderson. illustration by kate prior
need some way to put them to sleep. A nice gentle song (lullaby literally means to ‘lull someone near to you’) is a good way to do that. Songs that fall into this category are John Lennon’s ‘Good Night’ (which, weirdly, he then got Ringo to sing), Sheryll Crow’s ‘Lullaby for Wyatt’, and Billy Joel’s ‘Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)’. These songs are all rather nice, but quite frankly I don’t have the kind of voice – or personal dignity – that could carry something like this off. Similar to the lullaby is the schmaltz song. These are the oo-ee-gooey tracks that musicians seem almost compelled to write once their child arrives in the world. ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ by Stevie Wonder is maybe the most famous example, but you don’t have to look far to find them: Kanye West’s ‘Only One’, DJ Khaled’s ‘I Love You So Much’ and Adele’s ‘Sweetest Devotion’ are all nausea-inducing numbers. Given that babies are rather proficient at vomiting, perhaps this is appropriate. Another popular type is the empowerment track – a song that gives sage advice to the future-adult that you’ve helped create. This type is particularly prominent among cool parents: Sleater Kinney, Ben Folds and Lauryn Hill all have songs like this, ones that you would be proud your parents wrote. Yusuf Islam’s ‘Father and Son’ is maybe the most famous example of this type. However, as someone significantly less cool than all of these people, I don’t think an empowerment track would work… and, frankly, I can’t think of anything empowering to say. What I need is something more, well, stupid. Enter my favourite category: the embarrassment track. These are ones where the songwriter-turned-parent writes something that the child will be severely ashamed of once they become teenagers. In many cases these are excellent songs, just so long as they are not written about you. Bjork’s various odes to breastfeeding (‘Pleasure is All Mine’, ‘Mouth’s Cradle’) certainly come into this category, as does Semisonic’s ‘Closing Time’ (which, apparently, is about ‘the womb closing’ after birth rather than about a bar as everyone assumes). But the real king in this category is Loudon Wainwright’s ‘Rufus is a Tit Man’, featuring lines like, “Marco Polo craved the spice and silk, and Rufus craves the mamma’s milk.” Amazingly, Rufus survived this ordeal to become a successful musician and parent in his own right. So, having assessed the landscape, it is clear to me what I must do: write a song about parenthood so truly embarrassing that it will cause my future daughter to one day disown me. Maybe something with the line, “Your mother wore spectacles, you came from my testicles.” I’ll get working on it now. *I spent 15 minutes on Spotify
The Beginning: <1000 Club
Not all bedroom projects sound that way
The records that usually get chosen for the <1000 Club are lovably scrappy. Albums that exist in the hidden corners of streaming platforms are often self-released – recorded, mixed and mastered in the same bedroom. Many creators wouldn’t have it any other way. Part of the whole appeal of DIY music is this raw quality. It’s as little a gap as you’re going to get between listener and artist without breaking a few Covid restrictions. From the Coral to the Grey by Give Me Monaco is different. It’s a pristine and tactile album, with a level of polish that suggests major label backing. It’s far from being sterile though; the weaving electronic jams that make up the tracklist are subtly propulsive, ear-tickling and emotional. Its creator, Oxford-based producer Leigh Redding, made it at home, during late nights after work. Redding has been tinkering with music for years, under various aliases, but Give Me Monaco feels like a proper introduction. “I was always involved in music with bands and so forth but had never written a body of work completely on my own,” Redding says. “I learned to produce through trial and error, initially with Cubase and then Ableton, which I still use. “I’ve never sat down and actually learnt to use a DAW. I occasionally Google something when I need to perform a certain action. I do a lot of things the long way round as a result, but that lends to my writing style and process so I don’t think I’ll ever change.” Part of the reason Redding’s music sounds so professional is admittedly thanks to the growing accessibility of cheap high-quality music software. Crucially, the current generation at the forefront of internet electronic music communities seems increasingly collaborative, open and freeform. The high barrier of entry for hardware means more people are learning on their laptops before anything else. But the advancements in software synthesis makes this limitation transform into a place of endless possibilities. But that doesn’t account for the level of detail and texture on From the Coral to the Grey. Tracks like ‘Satin’ and ‘Goose’ play with the introspective, stone-faced linear branch of modern house explored by acts like Rival Consoles and Bicep, with extra focus on a widescreen stereo experience. The tiny fragments of percussion
of ‘After Show’ feel like they could be plucked out of the air. He is a master of restraint, confident enough in the strength of his sound to develop a music phrase over the course of many minutes. Redding had first released an album and a couple of EPs under the name Emseatee. “Some incredibly kind labels taught me so much, not only about my own writing but about how the underground music scene works,” he says. One of those labels was run by Eddie Niguel of Integrity Records, who got in touch with Redding after just a couple of tracks had been released. Redding is thankful for the knowledge he’s gained, but felt now was time to go out on his own. “The reason I stopped that moniker is because I wanted to self-release my own music, at my own pace. I have complete control over all aspects of my creative output, and it’s been a hugely rewarding experience.” When From the Coral to the Grey was being written, Redding still felt at a distance to the music communities he was influenced by. “I didn’t feel any connection to the listeners,” he says. “I couldn’t see who was listening.” That changed when his music was discovered by YouTube music reviewer NotRealMusic, whose gushing praise for the album introduced it to his small but passionate international audience. Since then, the record has been given a physical release by previous <1000 Club alumni Speak and Spell Records, another hyper-online hyper-passionate community. The recognition from these platforms came at the right time for Redding, whose self-doubt meant that From the Coral to the Grey nearly never saw the light of day. “I started to doubt whether it would get heard,” Redding says. “So I sent the album out to a few labels I had contact with through my previous moniker. In one instance, I got some pretty negative feedback. To cut a long story short, the project files ended up in the trash. I only had the pre-mastered mixdowns. “I made life a lot more difficult for myself in the mastering phase, that’s for sure. In a strange way, that way of working has now been implemented into my workflow. A new ability to move forward more decisively.” In my time as a music writer, I’ve become aware that some larger publications and labels won’t ever hear music if it doesn’t have a professional PR company attached to it. It’s somewhat understandable when you’ve got hundreds of records in your inbox. Underground communities like NotRealMusic are doing that legwork, and in a time when clubs and art collectives aren’t running, those making a home base for underground music should be honoured. It’s what keeps acts like Give Me Monaco creating when the people on the other side of the screen don’t always seem real. Now, Give Me Monaco is working on album two, which is expected to release before the end of the year. “That’s if I don’t delete it when I finish.”
words by skye butchard. illustration by kate prior
DJANGO DJANGO GLOWING IN THE DARK
SONS OF RAPHAEL FULL-THROATED MESSIANIC HOMAGE
MAJOR LAZER MUSIC IS THE WEAPON (RELOADED)
LOGIC1000 YOU’VE GOT THE WHOLE NIGHT TO GO
JOEBOY SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BEAUTY & MAGIC
METRONOMY THE ENGLISH RIVIERA (10TH ANNIVERSARY)
The Beginning: Sweet 16
The 16-year-old Jehnny Beth wanted to be David Bowie – if only she hadn’t been playing jazz
I grew up in a city called Poitiers, in the middle west of France. I lived with my parents and my older sister. My sister is also in high school, and she has a great bunch of friends, who I love spending time with too. They’re older than me but to me they were more interesting, and they accepted me as one of their own. I always enjoyed school, which sounds really boring, I know. Sorry. But in that year especially, one of my best friends was called Mathias. He was incredibly talented and clever and quick, but also very wild. And I remember we wouldn’t sleep all night, smoking marijuana, finishing our essays. I was working a lot, but with a friend who made it incredibly fun. It was cool to learn. I remember we had to do a presentation on homosexuality in ancient Greece, so we smoked a hell of a lot before going to class, because when we prepared for it we were incredibly high and made a whole explanation using cookies. We got the highest grade. It’s kind of pathetic and nerdy, but we had fun. I always felt lonely though. There were a lot of gangs but I had trouble fitting in. And I enjoyed it – I enjoyed feeling like a lonely wolf. The main thing that was taunting me at the time was my sexuality, because since the age of eight, without knowing it, I’d felt attracted to both sexes, and I didn’t really know what to do with it. It was a real issue for me, and I remember lesbians trying to date me and not knowing what to do with that. I was really doubtful about what was my identity, so that created a lot of anxiety for me – panic attacks and all the things you have to deal with when you’re sixteen. But there was music as well. I was
playing jazz – bass and piano and singing. My first band was a girl jazz band, which, again, sounds very boring… but it was fun. We played one show. It was very embarrassing because I wanted to be David Bowie but I was in a jazz band. I went on stage all dressed in white, with white wings. People said to me that I didn’t sing very well but they really liked the stage presence; I remember that was the feedback. It’s true – I was more concentrating on the moves than the singing. And then I was going to drama school, because my father was a theatre director, and a director of a company and drama school. Later I chose music, and I knew it would be a disappointment for my parents that I didn’t pursue acting, because when I was seventeen I was in a movie Through the Forest and suddenly had an agent in Paris, and started doing castings. At the time I was very unstable, and doing casting at that age is kind of the worst. For me, it was hard to take the ‘no’, and to be at the mercy of someone else’s desire and plan. Part of my decision to move to London after that was because I was done with learning. But my first trip to England was to Northampton, where Bauhaus are from, on a school trip. I was listening to a lot of Bauhaus, and I was so excited that I was going to where it all began, and when I saw the greyness, the rain, the bricks and the barbed wire, I was like: “Now I get it. Fucking hell.” Become a member of Loud And Quiet to receive an extended podcast version of this feature with Jehnny Beth, and more Sweet 16s with other artists.
as told to stuart stubbs
DIGITAL RELEASED 30th APRIL LP & CD RELEASED 18th JUNE SPECIAL EXCLUSIVE BUNDLE FORMATS AVAILABLE FROM DOMINOMUSIC.COM
In February, a track named ‘HEAVY METAL’ dropped with little to no warning, setting off a flurry of internet chatter: who are Paris Texas and why has no-one told us about them? The scramble to get to the bottom of the mystery was on. Clearly, they were a duo possessed of a creative wizardry and rule-free independence that is hard to come by and, based on this track, had an attitude to making underground hip-hop that is as comfortable drawing from the outer limits of experimental rock as it is from anywhere else. The reaction to ‘HEAVY METAL’ took even them by surprise. “It was way more [than we expected],” producer and rapper Louie Pastel says. “But I get it. It’s just so new and it’s been so dry for so long. We wanted to just hit them over the head with something, we’re ready. We fucking fucked the game up for a second.” “Just a little bit,” chimes in Felix, the other voice of Paris Texas, from the other side of the living room in the Los Angeles apartment they share. “This isn’t the last of what’s happening, this isn’t the only thing that we’re capable of. People get excited just off this one song, and it’s like, yeah that was fun, we like it, but alright we’re ready to go to the next thing. There are bigger fish to fry.” The next thing in question is their debut mixtape, Boy Anonymous (released next month), where weirdly paced verses and samples of ambient sound mesh with eerie, desolate guitar lines, cloudy atmospherics and clattering percussive beats. It could be tempting to invoke names like JPEGMAFIA, clipping. or Shabazz Palaces when discussing their sound, but any attempt to define them by what has gone before is misguided from the outset. — Early obsessions — Louie and Felix met in high school in 2013 – two musical obsessives on different paths: Felix, a South Central kid, was an underground hip-hop head while Compton native Louie, after a brief Eiffel 65 phase, was hooked on Alternative Press and outsider guitar music. They bonded early on over the Florida cloud rapper Robb Banks and within the year they were already making music together. “We just had really good chemistry, it was crazy,” says Louie. “We were just putting each other onto different shit. He’d find something and I’d become obsessed with it and I’d find something and he became obsessed with it. Anytime we’d meet someone else, we’d just laugh because it was like, ‘oh, they don’t get it, they don’t understand.’ We were aligned.” Although the idea of their breakthrough single dropping out of the clear night sky fully-formed is enticing, it is, of course, also impossible. There are remnants of their earlier musical experiments out there in the ether, they insist, including three different projects involving Felix that are all under variants of the same name (“they’ll find it, it won’t take long,” he quips),
Paris Texas Get wild: the experimental rap duo who seem to have come out of nowhere, by Max Pilley. Photography by Brian Guido
and while they were all doubtless necessary steps on the road that led to Paris Texas, they both concede that they were little more than incomplete ideas by young minds that were yet to find a clear direction. “The sound is more focused than it was before,” says Felix. “Over a certain time we got comfortable with recording. Now, we’re more invested.” They also point to the development of their own musical tastes as being a factor in the progression of their writing. “Right now there are so many tight artists and we are one of them,” says Louie. “But Yves Tumor for sure, I’m so fucking mind-blown by him.” Felix’s face lights up. “Oh yeah, Yves! People that make you put your hand on your chin and say, ‘What is happening?!’ It’s never discouraging, it’s just like, ‘Huh, ok, this is humbling.’” — Keep watching — Throughout our interview, they chop in and out of each other’s sentences, throwing in inside jokes and completing thoughts that the other has started. It is easy to see how collaborating came naturally to them, although they claim that their creative process is “very chaotic”. They paint a picture of Louie sat at his laptop creating beats while Felix is sat ten feet away playing video games, waiting for the chance to let rip on the
finished product. “Whatever he’s making, I’ll be willing to try everything, because we have the same idea of where we want to go with this,” says Felix. “The stuff that I try is different enough to not be categorised or predictable, so I’ll usually just try anything and get wild.” “Luckily, I’m blessed, because I’m not really that good of a producer, honestly,” replies Louie. When challenged on such a preposterous statement, he offers a measure of clarity. “I’m more of a composer, because I also write the song. There’s a lot of trial and error. Early on, when we tried to work with other producers, it was hard because everybody’s already used to making a certain type of song. It was like, ‘Do you sound like Mac DeMarco? Is this like a trap beat? Is it a Drake song? Is it a King Krule song?’ And if it was, it’d be like, ‘Oh, we can make this in a second’, but they were like, ‘Well, this is just like a jumbled mess, we don’t know what to do’ and I’m like ‘Ok, well I don’t know what to tell you, because this is what we’re doing’.” It is precisely that joyously cavalier attitude that leaps out of every track on Boy Anonymous; the sort of original statement that needs hungry and curious new minds to bring it to life. The same expression can be found on the ‘HEAVY METAL’ video, the concept of which – the duo is abducted in violent, bloody fashion by masked marauders – came from Louie’s mind and was brought to life by director Illimiteworld. “Visuals are probably the most important part,” says Louie. “It’s not always storytelling, it’s the aesthetic. Like, go watch a movie if you want a story that badly. It sucks that a lot of time, especially with rap, instead of being creative with their videos, they do the simple thing and they use a woman’s body or money and it’s very flashy, but it’s a copout. If you get a girl with a fat ass then everyone will watch, but am I watching because the artist is really blowing my mind? The artists that I’ve been a fan of over the years, they’ve done more than that.” It should come as no surprise that an artist that goes by the name Paris Texas would have a keen visual eye, although Felix sheepishly admits that he’s never actually watched the masterful 1984 Wim Wenders existential road movie of the same name. Louie is the film buff of the two, but even for him, the name is designed to invoke the mystery and intrigue of a disembodied movie poster rather than the specifics of the film itself, to the extent that he originally wanted to go further and call the project Paris Texas (1984), before concluding that that was “dumb”. Paris Texas it is then, and it’s a name to get used to. They are resisting the urge to rush release the rest of their recorded material in the wake of the hype for ‘HEAVY METAL’, but they are already onto putting together the next set of tracks, the wind firmly in their sails. “Keep watching, it’s gonna get wild,” Felix says as we conclude our talk. I thought it already was.
THE BEST NEW MUSIC
NOGA EREZ KIDS City Slang
LOST GIRLS V/A - JORDAN RAKEI: MENNESKEKOLLEKTIVET LATE NIGHT TALES
TEENAGE FANCLUB ENDLESS ARCADE
Late Night Tales
FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & L.S.O. PROMISES Luaka Bop
‘Endless Arcade’ is Teenage Fanclub’s Tenth studio album and is quintessential TFC: melodies are equal parts heart“Like Kendrick Lamar, Erez knows warming and heart-aching; guitars chime and distort; that her voice can be powerful; keyboard lines mesh and spiral; not just in a political sense but in harmony-coated choruses burst a literal musical one” out like sun on a stormy day. 8/10 Loud & Quiet Outspoken pop anthems from Tel Aviv’s leading producer/ singer/rapper
“An album of our times. Restless and fast-paced, ‘Kids’ nurtures critical reflection without compromising humour and a good time” 8/10 Clash “Clever, nuanced and often packed with wit” 4/5 The Skinny
Even if we weren’t living through extraordinarily troubling times, there is nothing quite like a Teenage Fanclub album to assuage the mind, body and soul, and to reaffirm that all is not lost in this world.
Norwegian duo Lost Girls, artist and writer Jenny Hval and multi-instrumentalist Håvard Volden, release their first album on Smalltown Supersound, after collaborating for more than ten years.
Late Night Tales celebrate their 20th anniversary with the release of multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer Jordan Rakei’s majestic compilation.
The 28-year-old modern soul icon effortlessly stamps his own The music flickers; between club jazz and hip-hop driven sound beats and improvised guitar all over this gorgeous array of textures; between spoken word handpicked tracks. A beautifully and melodic vocal textures; layered blend that is mirrored between abstract and harmonic in the music he’s made, it synth lines. Volden’s guitar and comes as no surprise that such Hval’s voice come across as a supremely gifted songwriter equals, wandering, wondering, should deliver a mix that is all meandering. Sharing the space. about the song.
Five years in the making, “Promises” is the new album by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra. “An epic, intergenerational meeting results in one of the greatest modern jazz albums.” Resident Advisor “Promises is astonishing” 10/10 Loud & Quiet “Stunningly beautiful”- The Wire “A 46-min marvel” - AAAA Mojo “An ever-unfolding spiritual journey” - 4/5 The Arts Desk “Astonishing… perfect… a classic … magnificent!” - Gilles Peterson
SOPHIA KENNEDY MONSTERS
ALAN VEGA MUTATOR
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE THE CORAL ENTERTAINMENT: DEATH CORAL ISLAND Saddle Creek
Run On Records
Ex-bouncer Sophia Kennedy’s ‘Monsters’ sounds like a soundtrack to a disintegrating world, combining the glamour and morbid charm of a 60’s showtune while embracing the deconstructed modernism of club music.
Gilles Peterson has partnered with Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick to reinvigorate the loose, protean energy of the early80s Brit-funk scene. Long-time friends and collaborators, STR4TA sees them mine new musical possibilities out of that shared formative era.
The first in a series of unreleased and rare Alan Vega (Suicide) material from the NYC musician’s vault, originally recorded in the mid-‘90s.
On April 9th, SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE will release their fourth album and Saddle Creek debut, ‘ENTERTAINMENT: DEATH’.
Almost 19 years after the release of their celebrated, self-titled, Mercury Music Prize-nominated debut in 2002, kick-starting a decade of classic singles, including Dreaming Of You, Pass It On, Don’t Think You’re The First and In The Morning, The Coral have moved into 2021 as in thrall to the self-endowed gift of creative freedom as they were on day one.
‘Monsters’ is full of plot twists and abstract melodic turns, moments of prettiness dashed with paranoia
Sacred Bones Records
STR4TA ‘Aspects’ is released via Brownswood Recordings.
Available on Limited Indie’s only Dark Red Coloured vinyl
The album signals new chapters for the band on multiple fronts, being the first to feature their new three-piece lineup, as well as the first to be entirely selfrecorded and produced.
“Glorious psych-pop” The Guardian “That’s music!” Iggy Pop
AAAA Record Collector
Support Your Local Independent Retailer www.republicofmusic.com
Lael Neale Leaving Los Angeles: a parting gift of folk and hauntology, by Zara Hedderman. Photography by Guy Blakeslee “I really love the peace dove. I always seem to go back to it. And I like the lightning bolt, too.” So says Lael Neale when asked to choose her favourite emoji; a question prompted by a peek at her Twitter profile, which reveals her inclination to preface press items she’d shared surrounding her latest record with either a rose or shooting star. Sitting in the serene interior of a woodpaneled garden shed (a makeshift studio and office where she’s working on new material) located on her family farm in Virginia, surrounded by golden afternoon light, the idea of the outside world, let alone social media, seems so far away from the songwriter at this time. Furthermore, it’s impossible to imagine Neale casually scrolling through rectangle-shaped frames flooded with brightly coloured icons – an endless array of exaggerated facial expressions and various food items – whose purpose is to provide shortcuts in communication, given the poetic nature of her lyricism. This inferred disconnect is forged after spending time with her beautifully intimate and introspective second album, Acquainted With Night. A gorgeously stark collection of lilting folk-tinged compositions, which have garnered comparisons to Lana Del Rey and Sibylle Baier due to Neale’s timbre and turn of phrase, an overwhelming sense of solitude informs this sedate record. When asked how comfortable she is in her own company, Neale explains how music was integral in helping her find a way to interact with people. “I used to be really shy,” she says. “I think part of the reason why I started making music was to
find a platform that I could speak from freely. You know, everything you want to say is premeditated; you carefully formulate the thing you want to say to someone, but is too difficult to do in a particular moment. That comes from me enjoying solitude and finding the space to explore my thoughts and ideas without feeling pressure from other people or anything. I guess that can be true for artists in general. The companionship becomes the word, or the page or the instrument.” That companionship has drastically evolved since her 2015 debut, I’ll Be Your Man. A polished pop-folk record, fans of that introduction could never have anticipated the seismic sonic shift heard across its successor. The six-year period between records was formative for Neale. In between signing to Sub Pop, a natural home for her latest output, she developed creative autonomy with her arrangements and delved fearlessly into various existential issues – romantic and esoteric – in her lyrics. “When I made my first record, I was mostly deferring to the producer, Marlon Rabenreither,” she tells me. “He’s amazing and I trusted in his vision and let him steer the project because he knew more about music than I did. However, I wanted to feel like I was the orchestrator for the next group of songs I made. I kept going around to other people, trying to get them to help me, but I had to keep reminding myself, ‘No, I have to do this alone. Guy Blakeslee, who produced Acquainted With Night, got involved with the project, helping me with certain aspects of the recording. His role was mostly providing the materials I needed
and showing me how to go about what I wanted to achieve as well as facilitating a safe space to record. That period coincided with me feeling more confidence and strength in my songwriting. I was always kind of self-conscious of not having a proper versechorus layout for a song. I think it took those six years [between records] to do some unprogramming in some insecurity I had around everything and come into my own voice.” — Escape to the country — Written and recorded in 2019 while still living in Los Angeles and working in a cafe, Neale’s lyrics eerily foreshadowed some unexpected changes in her life, like her relocation to Virginia in April 2020. On ‘Every Star Shivers In The Dark’, amidst a steady drum sample, she intones, “I’m torn between the town and country / I’m going to get real old and watch a garden grow.” Work on said garden has since begun. “That’s something I wanted to do my whole life but never had enough land or space in the city to do it,” she smiles enthusiastically. “I’ve actually been really intimidated by it! It’s a really beautiful thing that’s been happening this year – I think a lot of people started to think about it, too. Just having your hands in the dirt is such a powerful thing, you feel like you’re connected.” Horticultural concerns aside, space from city life made Neale acutely aware of the impact her surroundings have on her songwriting. “Now that I’m out in the country where it’s quieter, I want to make louder music. I’m realising there’s a balance I’m always trying to strike with the environment I’m in and the music I want to make. In Los Angeles, everything is so loud and over-stimulating, which led me to make a record that was quiet and internal.” Within those quiet spaces, Neale presents habitual imagery and activities; trips to the supermarket and folding bed sheets. Lyrically, her leading light for Acquainted With Night was unity. “I had a real sense of wanting to bring people together,” she describes. “That’s definitely woven throughout the songs and I feel like ‘Let Me Live By The Side of the Road’ is a centre-piece for that thought. The core premise of the album is upliftment coupled with providing solace and a reprieve from
chaos and divisiveness. Of course, that’s only heightened in the past year so I almost feel like these songs held a premonition of what was to come, in some way.” — Instrumental changes — Often echoing the lo-fi hauntology inherent in the works of Clinic and Broadcast, Neale’s ethereal cadence is complimented with the warm celestial tones of an omnichord that fortuitously found its way to her. The newly acquired instrument and her introduction to recording with a four-track was the catalyst to a complete overhaul and re-evaluation in her approach to songwriting. The transition from writing on guitar to omnichord was seamless for Neale. “That was the surprising part of it,” she recalls with some residual bemusement from that initial exploration of the instrument. “Rarely can you just pick up a new instrument and not familiarise yourself with it before writing music on it. But this was so simple; it immediately lent itself to the types of songs I’d wanted to write. I think that’s what makes these particular songs so special; they’re pure. They came out the way they are. Because I’d written with a guitar for so long, I was always thinking about chord structures. Whereas with the omnichord it was like making patterns. While I played I’d see shapes and patterns which was a really interesting thing for me because I wasn’t associating the arrangements with notes or chords. Instead, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m making a square with this song, and a triangle with that one!’” The scattering of sepia-tinged tonal motifs across Acquainted With Night’s 40-minute duration, be it the faint fuzzing of the tape detected on ‘White Wings’ or the shadow of Southern Gothic cast over the language of ‘How Far Is It to the Grave’, brings about a sense of timelessness. Much like her current location in that honey-toned shed, it’s neither rooted to the past or present. And as with planting seeds and patiently waiting for them to blossom, Neale has unearthed the perfect formula to grow her sound. “I’m definitely going to continue using the cassette recording for the next record. Just like the omnichord, I feel like I’ve finally found my ingredients.”
Delilah Holliday I’m not going to change for you: from riot grrrl to R&B, by Jemima Skala. Photography by Timothy Cochrane
Delilah Holliday has grown up. She burst into the music industry in 2012 with Skinny Girl Diet, a band she formed with her sister Ursula and cousin Amelia Cutler. Filled with glorious riot grrrl anger, the trio were out to prove themselves. Going on hiatus a couple of years ago left Delilah space and time to figure her musical identity out for herself; the beginning of that journey is Collective Consciousness – an EP that slinks like Etta James’ Catwoman, moving easily through R&B, soul, dub and trip-hop. “I’m definitely not as angsty as I was,” Delilah reflects. “I don’t feel like I need to scream to get a message out. I feel the way our generation is going, there’s more and more dialogues about really important political things going on right now in society that maybe Skinny Girl Diet started but doesn’t necessarily need to finish.” Despite a distinct transition in genres, Delilah doesn’t feel like the core intent behind her music has changed at all. “I think with Skinny Girl Diet, we were such an enigma. We loved fashion and everything that punk women weren’t supposed to be into. All of that music lives in its own world – it’s very queer and gives the message: I’m not going to change for you. I personally haven’t seen a big difference in my musical ethos because that was the honest way I needed to express myself at the time, but I guess sonically, it is very different. I don’t necessarily always want to be screaming, I want to sing sometimes. It’s definitely something I do want to go back to and I’m a very big fan of punk music. I love all of it, and I’m just having so much fun expressing myself in every way I need to right now.” As part of forging her own solo career, Delilah has taught herself production. It’s something she started learning while at school, but as one of two girls in a class full of boys, she soon dropped out of the course. “It was just really stressful,” she remembers. “It felt like you were invisible. I got back into it for therapeutic reasons, because it’s just so fun to make a beat from scratch. With Skinny Girl Diet, I didn’t handle production because I didn’t think I could, but now I’ve had this space I would love to go into a studio and record a punk record or a dance record. This time has really given me confidence in my own skillset because I’ve just been by myself making stuff.” This self-confidence is on full show on Collective Consciousness. Opener and lead single ‘Goddess Energy’ is a
punchy, forceful track on which Delilah proclaims in its chorus, “Goddess energy, we don’t give a fuck / Goddess energy, we make our own luck.” The closely recorded vocals and syncopated beats give off a simultaneous confidence and intimacy, drawing the two together, so that to know Delilah Holliday is to recognise her as inherently strong. Of the song, she says: “I wanted to write a song about tapping into the divine feminine that lives in all of us – no matter what gender you are – not caring about what people think about you and connecting to mother nature. With the pandemic and everything being closed, I think it’s allowed us to go back into nature and explore, which is something I took for granted before. It’s about setting that time aside for yourself and prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing, not letting toxic people get into your head and just knowing that you’re a bad bitch, basically!” I ask how this has seeped into her approach to music. “I channel it in my own music by remembering why I started in the first place,” she says. “I ask myself, are you doing it for fame or are you doing it to help others? Don’t just chase the bag or clout.” It’s a sense of self that has been hard fought for and hard won. “I’ve always got imposter syndrome, like, this is never good enough, I need to do better,” she admits. “That’s quite a natural thing for women my age to have. I think a lot of people around me wish I was more confident in myself, and I’m definitely working on having more confidence in my music. Sometimes I look up at the sky and I’m just like, ‘Wow, I’m really an insignificant person!’ That helps, to be honest. It’s having that focus and being like, ok, music makes me happy and that’s the most important thing. It’s not about anything else.” — Connected consciousness — It’s been said before in more interesting ways, but the music industry is big on capitalism, and it encourages competition and oversaturation of talent in order to reap a profit. But behind all that talent are real people struggling, as Delilah is, with the emotional effects of working in this industry. “I think the music industry is definitely oversaturated,” she ponders, “But it’s a positive thing because that means it’s becoming more accessible to people that might not have had the equipment to
“All of that music lives in its own world – it’s very queer and gives the message: I’m not going to change for you”
make music before. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m really happy that it’s becoming oversaturated, but it could get out of hand.” In an attempt to allay those worries, Delilah stays focused on forging organic connections to create the music that she genuinely cares about. This has been her rationale behind some of the big-name collaborations that have made up her back catalogue so far. ‘Goddess Energy’ was completed while Delilah was staying with Neneh Cherry in Sweden over lockdown, and the whole Collective Consciousness project was partly produced by Neneh’s partner Cameron McVey. She’s known Neneh and Cameron since the Skinny Girl Diet days: “I just really respect them as a family unit in general; it’s pretty much everything I hope to have in my life, and it’s so awesome to have somebody like that allow you to come into their space, mentor you and help you with your own music. I hope to do that to younger artists in the future. It’s really inspiring.” Earlier in her career, she created the collaborative album B.E.D.  with Baxter Dury and Étienne De Crécy – another organic connection that came about through a friend. “People can hear in the music whether it’s an authentic connection or not,” she explains to me, “And I think collaborations should happen naturally. It’s very important for female-identifying
people to keep cultivating and forging these communities together. There needs to be more unity. I go about it on a general vibe; if we have the same interests or personality or we complement each other, that will make the best music chemistry-wise.” This authentic connection is at the heart of her own solo material, but with this new project, it has become more about connecting genuinely with herself. “I’ve put more focus into the lyrics and trying to communicate a message that I think is really important.” She pauses and looks concerned. “It’s my birth name. I don’t really want to sing songs about meaningless things, it’s your name. I think it’s easier to be more experimental in that respect if your name isn’t attached to your real self or if you use a stage name. I want to write songs to make people feel less alone.” That’s her main goal with Collective Consciousness. Sparked by an intensified spirituality caused by lockdown and more time alone, Delilah rooted down into herself to reach outwards. “I hope this time has allowed people to realise that all of these pressures in society aren’t worth it, and we should have empathy for each other. It should have taught us all a lesson, I think.” Though she describes herself three times in our conversation as a pessimistic person, Delilah comes across as quietly confident in the coming of better days. “What’s important to me now is spirituality and faith that it’s all going to get better. I do try and make an effort to be positive and see the positives in everything. It’s more difficult to see the positives than the negatives, but that effort has given me some energy to write music.” At several points in our conversation, she reaches beyond the artist/journalist set roles to spark a connection with warmth and kindness – we share solidarity in our reactions to the news about the murder of Sarah Everard; we gush about a publication that we have both worked with; we swap nostalgic longings for warm days sat in a field with a beer. It’s her interest in finding this connection that shines through her and her music; in spite of the pressure on new artists to constantly innovate and rush things through, Delilah Holliday is taking her time. Moving entirely at her own pace, she bares part of herself and encourages you to do the same.
Kam-Bu Conservation and hip-hop: a rising rapper focuses on green incentives, by Gemma Samways. Photography by Jody Evans
In a sentence not a million miles away from one of Alan Partridge’s rejected pitches, I’m contemplating the merits of regenerative agriculture with one of Britain’s most exciting new rappers. “It’s the future,” Kam-Bu explains matter-of-factly, speaking from his father’s house near Richmond. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always wondered what my purpose here was. Ok, I want to do music, but I also want to plant trees, I want to grow veg, and I want to look after the world.” If there’s something a bit surreal about a young MC extolling the benefits of growing your own microgreens, Kam appears totally unaware of it. At the age of 24, the Nottinghamborn, south-west London-raised rapper exudes all the conviction and composure of an artist at least a decade his senior. A thoughtful, pragmatic presence, when he quietly describes his forthcoming EP – reportedly due in May – as “better than most people’s albums”, it comes across as a credible appraisal rather
than empty braggadocio. It helps, of course, that the claim is supported by both of the record’s lead singles, which are two of 2021’s standout tracks. Take ‘Are You On?’: released in mid-January, and boasting pitch-black production by Leon Vynehall, its eerie blend of jazz and UK drill proves a startling vehicle for Kam’s cooly confident verses. “Now they look stressed, I don’t have to flex,” he taunts over free-flowing beats and swirling atmospherics, warning listeners, “I speak with my chest.” The sense of menace is further accentuated by the The Reids’ monochrome visuals, which find Kam looming over the camera, sporadically illuminated by strobes. February’s follow-up, ‘Black On Black’, is arguably even stronger. Featuring beats by long-time collaborator and close friend Pablo Pullen, plus dramatic string and brass embellishments by Vynehall, it’s every bit as foreboding as its predecessor, and sees Kam setting his agenda as a lyricist with a rallying cry reversing racial slurs and dismantling lazy stereotypes. In Kam’s hands, the term “black on black” becomes an expression of strength and unity. “Fuck a beef on a postcode,” he spits at one point. “You don’t own the land, that’s a waste of space / Come as one, let me stick it to the man.” Later, he declares, “I only wanna know business / Legit shit, man with dividends,” advocating for financial literacy amongst his peers. Though social mobility and the circulation of wealth within the black community might not necessarily sound the sexiest subject matter for a song, Kam makes it sound every bit as vital as it is vitally important. “It’s crucial,” he insists. “There’s other communities out there where currency and wealth is being passed between their hands a certain amount of times, and when you look at the black community or other ethnic minority groups it’s not the same. And creating that economy for yourself is so important because, unfortunately, there aren’t going to be any handouts or reparations. So it’s about how we can, as a people, start to move forward.” — Get up and dance, and drink a couple — As well as paying tribute to his Jamaican grandfather and the rest of the Windrush generation, ‘Black On Black’ finds Kam channelling the unrest he felt when his family first relocated from their base in Brixton. The youngest of three children, he describes the move to a predominantly white, middle-class enclave of south-west London as a “huge culture shift.” Today he hopes his former classmates hear the song, if only to learn “how the prejudice and discrimination was affecting me.” With the benefit of hindsight he thinks “they can probably realise that now, whereas before they might have thought, ‘Oh he’s got a chip on his shoulder,’ or some shit.” Music was a constant presence throughout his childhood, and many of his formative tastes were shaped by his parents. His father is a percussionist with a love of roots reggae, and so introduced Kam to the work of Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Sizzla, Capleton and Fantan Mojahm, as well as giving him his first taste of hip hop via Dr Dre and Kanye West. Meanwhile, his mother gave
him a grounding in soul and R&B, playing records by Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Minnie Riperton, Luther Vandross, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Kam remembers making music from a very young age, recording rough sketches on his Fisher Price tape player. By his early teens he’d progressed to spitting bars over YouTube instrumentals, and was recording the results at his local youth club in Chiswick. But it was meeting Pullen at school that proved the catalyst for Kam to take his craft to the next level. “He was the year below me and we were always sharing music. I’d see him on the way to his lessons, or at lunchtime, and he’d be like, ‘Yo, have you heard this?’ And then he was like, ‘Rah, I really wanna make beats, you know.’ So he bought his first MPC, downloaded the cracked software Fruity Loops and started making beats. From there I basically just started going to Pablo’s house every day. “We were really both starting from the ground up, like, ‘How do I push myself writing lyrically and melodically?’ And then with him [it was like], ‘How can I push this barrier? How can I make the drums tight? How can I make this sample better?’ And we’ve basically just been doing that ever since, so that’s, like, 12 years now.” Inspired by a mutual love of MF DOOM and Madlib, many of their early songs were centred around low-slung jazz loops, but as the pair continued to upload their collaborations to SoundCloud their musical range grew. So too did their circle of regular collaborators, which now includes Louis Culture and P-rallel, plus Lord Apex, who co-starred on Kam’s powerful debut single ‘Different’, which dropped last May. But the biggest shift in Kam’s sound came while he was studying Music Production at uni in Brighton. Writing his dissertation on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly – specifically the idea of bringing consciousness to the UK sound in the same way that Kendrick had with the diaspora in America – Kam wrote ‘Black On Black’. “What you’re hearing in that instrumental is a British exploration of To Pimp A Butterfly. And then there’s the element of repetition from Fela Kuti; you know how he’s always repeating words and statements throughout his songs? So that’s where ‘Black on Black’ came from. It had this menacing feel to it – a griminess and a grittiness and a dystopian atmosphere – which was where I saw the British sound coming into it.” Despite the influence of Kendrick, Kam flinches at the suggestion that his own output could be defined as conscious rap. “I wouldn’t say it’s conscious, I would just say it’s humility.” He shrugs. “On the hook for ‘Different’ I say, ‘I’m a conscious yout but I’m ignorant.’ It’s just about being honest. And I think it’s important to use your stage and your voice to say something, but at the same time I like to make music that makes people feel like they want to get up and dance, and drink a couple.” — Are You On? — The truth is, Kam would rather lead by example than preach from the sidelines, which takes us back to his interest in
“Ok, I want to do music, but I also want to plant trees, I want to grow veg, and I want to look after the world” conservation and sustainability. To celebrate the release of ‘Are You On?’ he produced a limited run of t-shirts, with the proceeds from purchases going towards planting Mangrove trees in Madagascar. He intends to always “provide some sort of green incentive” for his fans, in the way he conducts his operations. He’s a regular volunteer at the Green Gym, a conservation initiative that aims to connect the community with their local green spaces through gardening. “Growing up I thought there were certain things that would bring me happiness like money and clothes,” he explains of his motivation, “and then I acquired them and it still didn’t make me happy. But growing a plant or flower, watering and nurturing it... There’s a different kind of peace you get from that. “So when I started volunteering, and discovered that some of the people that come along to the groups are a bit more neurodiverse, that was even more of a boost. Because now I’m helping the community in an environmental way and in a
social way. And that’s where the real change will happen: when we’re involved with our communities and other people. That’s when people can be inspired to think differently and act differently. If you’re just posting up a story on your Instagram it’s not going to have the same effect as actually being out there and doing the work.” When I point out that he seems unique amongst his peers in the industry in this commitment to sustainability, he’s remarkably non-judgemental. “Most people just want to have designer clothes and flashy watches and stuff like that, which is cool – each to their own. I’m never gonna shoot that down. But I definitely do feel different from a lot of people, and that’s fine.” And when pressed for his long-term goals, he replies without hesitation. “I think, if you can do something your own way, authentically, then no-one can ever take that away from you, you know? So staying true to myself while I’m doing my art is the important thing for me. That’s real success.”
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Horsegirl Reanimate the past: no wave lives on in Chicago, by Isabel Crabtree
“I think we kind of really bonded over the fact that, like Sonic Youth, there’s all these bands and scenes that kind of don’t exist anymore, and we’re all really into those. It was something that we kind of wanted to be able to experience even though we couldn’t,” says Nora Cheng, one-third of Chicago’s Horsegirl, via video-chat. The other two band members, Penelope Lowenstein and Gigi Reece, concur, bright-eyed albeit serious faces nodding along. Horsegirl’s inception goes beyond a meeting of minds; it was a meeting of musical soulmates. “Another part of it was just figuring out that we all have the same music taste and developing our music taste together,” Lowenstein adds, citing Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl In A Band, My Bloody Valentine, the Belle and Sebastian documentary and The Year Punk Broke as fodder for their friendship/obsession/inspiration. The longing for an era gone by is a familiar feeling to many music obsessives, but often good comes from the bittersweet feelings. In Horsegirl’s case, chasing the noisiness of no wave and shoegaze led three high school musicians to each other – and to live shows around Chicago where they confirmed their dedication. “I think in Chicago there’s such a supportive [scene] of not just musicians but also artists,” Reece says. “Especially when a lot of the meaningful events we’ve gone to have been teen-run, teen-sponsored events where we can play music, but then there’s also art everywhere. So it’s really a community of artists supporting artists, which we admired when we were underclassmen and now we’re juniors and seniors and we are hoping to create music that people feel they can support and be in a community with.” So, the three teenagers set out playing live sets and experimenting with collective songwriting, including the two tracks for Horsegirl’s debut AA single (via the Sonic Cathedral label): the imagery-driven ‘Ballroom Dance Scene’ and the addictively head-boppable ‘Sea Life Sandwich Boy’. Both songs betray a talent and propensity for experimentation not found often, and which at first will make listeners double-take – are they really in high school? “Our songwriting process in general is we really work best when it’s just the three of us in a room being like, let’s write a song, and then we’ll do it,” Reece says. “And we just feed off of each other, and we’ll have a few inspirations thrown out – just, like, what we’re sort of going for – and then we’ll work towards that and it works well and we all understand each other very
well.” Reece speaks with the confidence of a settled musician but the hope of a young one, something that becomes even clearer when they express their gratitude for the opportunity to watch films, listen to music and then feed off the inspiration and create something of their own. “Recording [‘Sea Life Sandwich Boy’] was kind of the first time we dove into recording in this new way of Nora and I sat down and layering feedback over and over and trying to make an arrangement for a recording of the song,” Lowenstein elaborates, “which was kind of different from our live set, which was kind of a new thing for us, just because recording takes a lot of tools and we were getting better at it.” “‘Ballroom Dance Scene’ – that’s about stuffing away your past or something,” says Cheng. “It’s kind of like all these characters are united under this. The idea is that these are all people that you could know in your life, and kind of just align that with each one. There’s that line ‘Marianne who’s older now will stuff her soul in seven plastic bins’ – that’s like growing up in the suburbs perhaps, maybe. Which was not… we’re not from the suburbs.” According to Reece, they just love thinking about the suburbs. But, it’s clear that the energy and community in Chicago is as much key to their music as their love for Kim Gordon, or their wish that they could’ve seen Yo La Tengo in their prime. “We come from a very live setting of playing music – like, in a community of people who play live together in a music program that was very focused on playing live, so I think because of that we know how to play together very well when jamming,” Lowenstein says. “Playing improvisationally together is important to that process.” — It’s gonna bang — Experimentation is truly the mother of invention, proven by Horsegirl’s repertoire, written together with all three members involved. Maybe someone has an idea. “It could be this vibe, and then it ends up when we all play together it could take a completely different form from the original idea, but it’s very much so built when we’re all together,” says Cheng. However, the band had to adapt during lockdown. Live shows abruptly, indefinitely cut off, endless hours spent inside led to a frenzy of songwriting. “I think it’s been a focusing time for the band,” Lowenstein says. “We were playing shows every
weekend and it was hard to find time to write new stuff, and we really have been unable to stop writing songs since the pandemic started, which has been really wonderful.” Now, with some quarantine measures lifted, the band are able to see each other, and in fact call into our video interview from the same screen. But, they won’t be together forever. Reece and Cheng are seniors, and are both set to head off to college in New York this fall. Lowenstein, one year younger, will be in Chicago. But no need to worry – they have a plan. “That was always our goal – to make an album before we go off to college,” Reese says. “’Cause it’s like, this is our high school band and now it’s hopefully gonna be more our life band. But making an album before Nora and I go to college, it’s sealing our high school years.” They’re planning on getting it done sometime this summer. “It’s going to happen and it’s going to be recorded before they go to college,” says Lowenstein. “And it’s gonna bang, I promise,” says Reece.
“You have our guarantee for all three of those things,” Cheng adds. “We should advertise like that,” Reece says, and the three erupt into laughter. That’s the best thing about Horsegirl – they don’t hold themselves in such high esteem that they’ve sacrificed a sense of humor. Just look to their name for confirmation. “I thought of Horsegirl because of the girls who like horses, like with the really long hair,” Lowenstein says as she explains the thought behind their name. She thought of it in middle school, while dreaming of being in a high school band. “And they neigh and whatever. It’s a little bit of a play of like… it’s a joke. It started as a joke online and we don’t take ourselves seriously,” says Reece. “We are serious about our music and we love writing music and we love listening to music, but it’s also fun to joke about it and joke around and have a good time.” “To be honest, I kind of thought it was temporary,” Cheng says. This time, we all crack up.
Alfa Mist I win: an unconventional route to modern jazz greatness, by Mike Vinti. Photography by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Growing up in Newham, Alfa Mist used to play a card game called ‘London Blackjack’. A shedding-game with more in common with Uno than its more famous namesake, Alfa would play it at home with his brothers and sister, at school – where it was a point of playground pride – and across the capital with his cousins. The premise of the game was simple enough. Each player starts with seven cards, and the first to shed them all claims victory, with various power cards hindering the process – an eight, for example, means that the next player has to miss a go; you can’t end your turn on a Queen. However, there was always one rule that got in Alfa’s way – bring backs. It’s a rule that’s stuck in the jazz pianist and hip-hop producer’s mind; so much so he’s named his new album after it. “Whoever gets rid of their cards first and wins has to wait for one more round because they could be brought back into the game if someone has the right card,” Alfa explains, a hint of the frustration he’s felt thanks to that rule creeping into his otherwise calm, almost stoic demeanour. “Basically, once you feel like you’ve won you have to wait a round to see if they can bring you back.”
In Alfa’s hands, bring backs has become more than a rule in a childhood card game; it’s a shorthand for the various challenges he’s faced in life – from growing up the child of a Ugandan immigrant in one of London’s poorest boroughs, to trying to make it as a jazz musician without any formal training – and the uncertain footing it’s left him in early adulthood. “That concept is interesting to me because I feel like that when people tell you you’re successful and you’ve done well... because of my upbringing, I don’t...” He cuts himself off. “The complacency thing doesn’t exist for me,” he rephrases. “It’s almost like you snap back. Like, ‘Nope, I haven’t won yet.’ I’m just here doing my thing, and I could be brought back at any minute.” — The winding path — In a quirk of fate, Alfa came up with the concept for Bring Backs parallel to the spread of Covid-19, totally unaware that his feelings of uncertainty, frustrated repetition and suspicion of anything that promised hope were going to become that much more universal. “Lockdown has taught us, you’re not really
safe, are you? Who knows what’s gonna happen,” he reflects. “I didn’t think of that at the time. At first, I thought it was a child-of-an-immigrant thing, where it’s like ‘This what life does to us.’ Like, you’ve seen poverty growing up, so no one can tell you what you have now can’t slip out of your hands. But, last year, everything slipped out of everyone’s hands, so it applies to even more people. It’s one of those unfortunate – but fortunate for me – coincides.” Perhaps adding to his underlying sense of precarity is the fact that his musical journey has been a less traditional one than many of his peers in what has come to be known as the New London Jazz scene. Whereas the likes of Nubya Garcia and the members of Ezra Collective cut their teeth at extra-curricular programmes like Tomorrow’s Warriors before studying at conservatoires, Alfa took a more winding path. “I listened to a lot of jazz growing up, [but] it’s like I was listening from outside the house, looking through the window,” he explains. “To be let into the camp or whatever, there’s some boxes you have to tick… some things you have to master. I never really embedded myself into the school of thought that comes with it.” Having originally set his sights on a career as a football player – he was briefly signed to Torquay’s Under 16s team – he got his musical start making beats in his bedroom. Young Alfa was equally inspired by the grime scene that surrounded him in Newham and American hip-hop producers like 9th Wonder, J Dilla and Madlib – the latter of whom in particular strengthened his interest in jazz with his 2003 album Shades of Blue, a record of beats pieced together from legendary jazz label Blue Note’s archives. One day, when he was 17, Alfa decided it wasn’t enough to simply know how to source and deploy a good jazz loop; he had to be able to play them himself. A BTECH student at a college where music lessons were only free for those studying A-Levels, Alfa was forced to teach himself; no small feat when attempting to tackle the theory-heavy world of jazz. Similarly, his first taste of success wasn’t on stage at Ronnie Scott’s but rather via YouTube. In 2017, his self-released second album Antiphon was ushered into the recommended videos of millions by the video streaming giant’s ever-mysterious algorithm. “It’s crazy how that happened. I was just watching it. It wasn’t even on my channel. It was a bootleg. It came onto my homepage as well,” he laughs slightly exasperatedly, though he clarifies he’s spoken to the original uploader and they’re “all good” now. — Bring Backs — On his new album, Alfa explores further why he feels in a “perpetual state of bring backs.” As on previous records – Antiphon was based around a free-flowing conversation about “relationships and perception” with his brothers and its followup Structuralism, an equally broad conversation about “selfreflection” with his sister – he found his inspiration at home, focusing on his mother’s journey from Uganda to the UK and the struggles it entailed, as well as his own journey as the son of
an immigrant. “My journey is that I have to progress what my mother has done. She had to work every job under the sun when she got here – whether it’s on the train tracks or cleaning jobs or whatever. So I have to progress because we haven’t got generations of wealth like a lot of people born here,” he explains. To explore those journeys, Alfa uses a number of musical tools. As on his previous offerings, his light-fingered keys take centre stage, leading a band of close collaborators – including Kaya Thomas-Dyke, who featured on both Antiphon and Structuralism – through groove-heavy, distinctly Londonsounding jams. Opening track ‘Teki’ is a head-nodder with plenty of steely guitar, while ‘Coasting’ shimmers with layers of horns and shuffling percussion. Alfa even enlisted a cellist for a number of tracks to further enrich his warm boom-bop. However, more than on any of his other projects, its the vocal elements of Bring Backs that drive the album. Kaya Thomas-Dyke swaps bass for vocal duties on the sublime ‘People’ – a shaggy, sparkling track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Solange record. Meanwhile, Alfa himself comes through with a pair of rap verses on ‘Mind The Gap’ and ‘Organic Rust’ – joined on the former by North London MC Lex Amor. Yet, the main voice we hear on Bring Backs belongs to neither Alfa nor Kaya but rather to the poet Hilary Thomas. Throughout the record, Thomas recites a piece, written explicitly for the album, that explores her own mother’s immigrant story – in her case, from Jamaica rather than Uganda. Detailing how her mother “kept my cup full of tea, while hers half, plenty empty,” Thomas takes care to honour the challenges faced by those seeking a better life in the UK, but also strives to offer hope. She hails “Generation after generation making new tracks,” and as her poem concludes, it becomes less a lament of the hardships immigrant mothers – particularly those in the Black diaspora – have had to endure and more a call of solidarity and triumph, promising that “change is inevitable”. Though true to the album’s cyclical themes, Alfa chops it up so that the end of the poem as it is written appears at the very beginning of the album. Likewise, while Alfa may be cautious about the future, he’s not guarded or cynical about it. Bring Backs is his highestprofile release to date as well his first for a record label – Anti-. It also arrives on the heels of his contribution to Blue Note Re:imagined, a compilation that saw some of the UK’s finest talents take on tracks from the label’s catalogue; a stamp if ever there was one that Alfa Mist is a Real Jazz Musician now. As we wrap up, he strikes a defiant but optimistic tone, hoping the path he’s charted through a notoriously fickle industry – and an even more notoriously elitist sub-section of it – offers those with similar upbringings to his some hope. “I believe people should have options. I didn’t have many options when I was younger. There were like four: football, rap, be good at school, or the roads,” he summarises bluntly. But, he says, “the way I’ve done things here means you didn’t have to start playing when you were six, and you didn’t have to get into that conservatoire by age whatever [to become a successful musician]. I see it as putting another option on the table.”
Out Now CASSANDRA JENKINS ‘An Overview On Phenomenal Nature’ Ba Da Bing! LP/ LP Ltd /CD
Her observations capture the humanity and nature around her, as well as thought patterns, memories, and attempts to be present while dealing with pain and loss. With a singular voice, Jenkins siphons these ideas into the ambient folk of her new album.
CARWYN ELLIS & RIO 18 ‘Mas’ Banana & Louie LP/CD
“A joyful set of Welsh language songs flavoured with cumbia, samba, bossa nova and tropicalismo" - SHINDIG ****
BLACK TWIG PICKERS ‘Friends Peace’ VHF LP
Following a series of records with Thrill Jockey (including the sensational Seasonal Hire with Steve Gunn), the BlackTwig Pickers return to the VHF mothership to continue their charming and original take on old time and Appalachian inspired string band sounds.
Dutchess Records LP/CD
RYLEY WALKER ‘Course in Fable’
Husky Pants Records LP/CD
BELL ORCHESTRE ‘House Music’
The discovery and musical re-imagining of Mirabel Lomer – an artist’s unheard world which is emerging from the shadows into the light. Mirry is one of those rare projects where the story seems so absolutely magical, that it’s almost impossible to imagine such beauty being lost in the shadows for so long.
Ryley Walker currently resides in New York City. But his latest LP is a Chicago record in spirit. The masterful Course In Fable, the songwriter’s fifth solo effort. “Chicagoan takes smart step sideways.” - UNCUT 9/10 ‘Album of the Month’
An immersive ecosystem of an album, and the first full-length work released by the acclaimed Montreal-based outfit in over a decade. 8/10 “Arcade Fire – featuring miniorchestra back after 10 years” - UNCUT
JOHN DWYER, TED BYRNES, GREG COATES, TOM DOLAS, BRAD CAULKINS ‘Endless Garbage’
Erased Tapes CD/LP
SARAH LOUISE ‘Earth Bow’
GRAVE FLOWERS BAND ‘Strength of Spring’
“Blooms and blossoms of electronics drift across elemental folk songs” – 8/10 UNCUT (RIYL: Robert Fripp, Manuel Göttsching, Arthur Russell, Bitchin Bajas)
With a darkish, distorted sound, Grave Flowers Bongo Band blends the scuzzy psychedelia of the late 60s with the uncooked energy of the scene that birthed the primary punks, then washing it within the sun-kissed leather-based sheen of contemporary L.A.
WARISH ‘Next To Pay’
EVERYDAY DUST ‘Black Water’
The band’s mix of early AmRep skronk, dark horror rock and budget doom antipathy is taken to a whole new level on this 13-song invective. “Tony Hawk’s Son’s Band Warish Totally Rules” - KERRANG
“Black Water” is a deeply immersive electronic album of sonar explorations which celebrate the ongoing search for the creature at large in Loch Ness. For this album, Steve Reich and Terry Riley style minimalism echo deep within the realms of ED’s secret subterranean electronic soundworlds.
Music from Josef Weinberger libraires ‘67-‘85 “From late 60’s suave to early 80’s electro there is a soundtrack for every imagined mood here… it is insane amounts of fun” - Electronic Sound.
Castle Face LP/CD
OSEES frontman puts together a pandemic isolation free improv workshop and mixes and edits it down. For fans of Albert Ayler, ECM records, Gong, improvisation, sustainability and consumption ever.
Riding Easy LP Ltd / LP /CD
Earth Bow CD/LP
Castles In Space 10”
Castle Face LP/CD
Buried Treasure LP
Black Midi — Cavalcade (rough trade) Black Midi’s second album will no doubt come as a surprise to many. For starters, at the time of writing, it is yet to be publicly announced, despite its imminent release date. After a welldocumented ‘meteoric rise’, which saw the young London-based band go from Brit School graduates to Brixton Windmill regulars to Mercury Prize nominees in just two years, and with guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin announcing in January this year that he was taking some time away from music due to mental health issues, it would be fair to assume that the group had spent this past year of lockdown enjoying some well-earned time off. In fact, they seem to have done quite the opposite. Elements of Cavalcade materialised pre-pandemic, as the band were extensively touring their debut record, Schlagenheim, but it was over lockdown, as they had to abandon their improvisational approach to songwriting for a more considered, deliberate process, sending tracks back and forth to one another, that the album began to take shape. A subsequent spell in rural County Dublin’s Hellfire Studios last summer with Lankum sound engineer John ‘Spud’ Murphy, originally planned as a time to record demos, resulted in much of what is now the band’s second album. In many ways, Cavalcade is a natural follow-up to Schlagenheim, and it announces itself as such with opener ‘John L’; a frenzied math-rock offering plucked straight from the Black Midi playbook, with frontman Geordie Greep snarling something between a sermon and a spoken word poem while he and bassist Cameron Picton endeavour to keep up with Morgan Simpson, their indefatigable
and unrelenting drummer. A shrieking violin courtesy of fellow Windmill regular (and L&Q Album of the Year winner) Jerskin Fendrix adds to the track’s sense of pandemonium. What comes next is altogether more interesting. As ‘John L’ comes crashing to an end and ‘Marlene Dietrich’ begins, the drums subside and a gentle, bossanovaesque guitar enters, as Greep begins to sing a sultry ode to the track’s namesake. Despite, or perhaps because of, his vocal contortion, and ambiguous accent – he is from Walthamstow, and yet his pronunciation changes from Russian to midwestern and everything in between – Greep is a powerful storyteller, reminiscent of a musical theatre performer in his delivery. The track’s lyrics are equally theatrical in nature: “Under soft lights / With her taped-back face / Our soft-spoken queen / Takes her place on the stage” Greep croons, like a cabaret compere, or a panto narrator, introducing the protagonist and ushering back in Simpson’s drums, this time muted and rhythmic. This is unlike anything Black Midi have done before, and quite unlike anything expected of them – as far as one can have any expectations of a band who consistently defy them. It sets the tone for an album that is as incongruous as it is concise. Nothing feels superfluous here, and yet how they managed that is something of a miracle given how many styles and references they have crammed in – one YouTube commenter describes Black Midi as the musical equivalent of the “name one thing in this photo” meme. What’s more miraculous is their ability to put their own spin on whatever genre they try on – regardless of whether it’s slowcore americana (‘Diamond Stuff ’) or full blown rock opera (‘Dethroned’), it’s undeniably Black Midi. It would be easy to attribute this to Greep’s singular vocals, but even on the two tracks on Cavalcade sung by Picton, their sound is instantly recognisable. If any one member could claim to carry the group, it would be Simpson. Anyone who has seen Black Midi live can attest that Simpson is one of the most hardworking, and highly skilled, rock drummers around. A Black Midi show usually involves a large
amount of improvisation, a practice they honed during their time at the Brit School. Making improv enjoyable to watch is a fine art, and yet Black Midi achieve this, largely down to Simpson’s ability to throw a complete curveball into the proceedings, which the band, to their credit, always seem to take in their stride. Although they claim that improvisation played less of a role in this album’s writing process, it’s clear that their sound is heavily informed by years of playing in that way, intuiting each other’s next move and not being afraid to end a song in a completely different place to where it started. Ultimately, you get the sense that no one member of Black Midi is at the reins, that only the music matters. The band have been called pretentious and aloof, largely down to their minimal social media presence, nonexistent stage patter and Greep’s elusiveness in interviews, but when it comes to the music it’s evident that any egos have been pushed to one side. When Kwasniewski-Kelvin stepped back in early 2020, the now-trio recruited saxophonist and fellow Brit alumnus Kaidi Akinnibi, as well as keys player Seth Evans (a session musician who also plays with HMLTD), to join them in live shows. Both musicians have ended up playing on Cavalcade, and their contributions add an extra dimension to the band’s already complex sound. On lead single ‘Chondromalacia Patela’ in particular, a track named after the formal term for runner’s knee and purportedly about convalescence, Evans’ chaotic piano flourishes and Akinnibi’s bursts of sax add to the overriding sense of restlessness. ‘Slow’ – the first track sung by Picton – follows; a fervent, pulsating track that seems unremarkable at first and then unravels, becoming more and more theatrical as an organ enters the fold and Picton’s soft voice builds to an almost operatic chant. What he’s actually saying is vague, as is often the case with Black Midi, whether down to a stylistic choice or a dearth of lyrical skill. But if you’re looking for wordsmanship then you have come to the wrong place. What Black Midi lack in lyricism they make up for in their emotive sonic
Albums storytelling, something that Cavalcade proves explicitly. Picton’s second track, ‘Diamond Stuff ’, named after a novel by Isabel Waidner, is particularly evocative. Supposedly set in a peat bog-turneddiamond mine, the song features a range of instruments including a cello, a grand piano, a bouzouki, a Marxophone, a flute, and a lap steel, and yet produces a feeling of immense darkness, with delicately plucked strings mimicking the glimmering of the diamonds before building into an ethereal climax. It’s here that the influence of ‘Spud’ Murphy seems most obvious, the track’s stark beauty reminiscent of Lankum’s own sound. Greep returns to the forefront on the whirring, hypnotic ‘Dethroned’, which although not an album standout will likely become a highlight when the band are able to play it live again. Unlike Schlagenheim, which was already somewhat familiar to their fans when it came out, made up of the tracks they’d been playing live for months, its successor offers an almost entirely new bunch of material. Where Cavalcade’s theatricality and wistfulness makes for a more engaging listen on record, it remains to be seen whether any of its tracks will be as captivating live as ‘bmbmbm’ or ‘ducter’. ‘Dethroned’ and the following track ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’ are strong contenders, with plenty of moshpit-ready breakdowns. Even the latter though, with its galloping bassline and incessant drums, isn’t short on theatrics. Album closer ‘Ascending Forth’, sees Greep in full Scott Walker mode, his melodramatic vocal following the folky guitar to an orchestral finish. The title and lyrics refer to an ascending fourth, a type of musical interval – a nod to the band’s academic approach to composition. By changing ‘fourth’ to ‘forth’, they nod to another type of ascension too, and I am reminded of the fact that both Greep and Simpson grew up playing in church bands, an influence which seems even more prevalent on Cavalcade, with moments, on this final track and ‘Diamond Stuff ’ especially, of pure, spiritual reverence, reminiscent of Alice Coltrane or traditional gospel. It’s a brave and telling end to a
masterful album – one which unsurprisingly surprises at every turn. Cavalcade proves Black Midi are incapable of resting on their laurels, and as ‘Ascending Forth’ draws to a triumphant close, we’re left wondering what on earth they will accomplish next. 9/10 Jessica Wrigglesworth
Alan Vega — Mutator (sacred bones) At the time of his death five years ago, tributes to Alan Vega tended to zoom in on his short but hugely influential time in Suicide. This belied a recording artist who – unlike many of his 1970s New York contemporaries – had a work ethic that only accelerated with age, releasing some two dozen solo or collaboration albums. It’s this glut of productivity that allowed Mutator to get lost down the sofa all those years ago. Recorded in nocturnal flits between 1996 and 1998, the haunted, mercurythin rockabilly that typified his ’80s work having receded, this material was often made to accompany visual art, and less interested in picking through America’s pop detritus, focusing instead on mood and nightmare stillness. It remains a horrific vision of Americana, painted in dark shades with throbbing electronic soundscapes. “You destroy generations,” spits Vega over the insistently murky ‘Nike Soldier’, “you take life.” Apportioning mortality is a concern throughout Mutator – the excellent ‘Muscle’ sees a celestial synthesised choir framing in stained glass Vega’s warnings of cops and girls going missing, his pungent, gutter poetry remaining relevant. Indeed, Vega in full preacher man mode here sounds for all the world like Nick Cave’s recent, more electronic iteration. The industrial punk-funk of
‘Fist’, meanwhile, ties Mutator with Suicide’s sonic DNA, its beats suggesting an interest in New York’s hip hop developments at the time. This is incredibly strong material, and seemingly only the start – Sacred Bones promise further unreleased work to come. On Mutator, Vega’s jet-black sensibility thrills from beyond the grave 8/10 Fergal Kinney
BABii — MiiRROR (gloo) This second LP from Margate-based future pop artist BABii is an ambitious undertaking straight out of the gate – the ten tracks are accompanied by a book she’s written and an alternative reality game, as well as an album-specific audio-visual show she’s constructed out of the back of a van. The sense that BABii is an artist unswerving in her vision is reinforced about two minutes in, when there’s a drastic landscape change in opening track ‘DRiiFT’. What had sounded like more of the kind of brooding electropop that had come to define her first record, 2019’s HiiDE, suddenly kicks up a notch into something altogether more dramatic, with swells of synth that recall SOPHIE at her most thrilling. What follows is an electronic album entirely in BABii’s own image, but that brings to mind, in its willingness to take risks, SOPHIE’s own Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides as well as one of last year’s most sorely underrated experimental pop records, Eartheater’s Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin. There is real genre fluidity and a sense that BABii is taking her cues from all kinds of different places: ‘WASTE’ melds low-key, woozy synths with beats and vocals that feel as if they’re referencing early-’00s R&B, whilst ‘TRACKS’ is a nice reminder that
Albums it’s possible to do something that feels genuinely minimalist with a trap beat. ‘SHADOW’ brings Kelly Lee Owens to mind in the manner in which it pulls off the neat trick of laying a dreamy vocal over a percussive background that nods to techno, without the two different aesthetics clashing. It’s ‘VOiiD’, though, that feels like MiiRROR in microcosm; a sprawling, nine-minute epic thick with atmosphere that establishes a foreboding mood in the opening moments and then subtly shifts shape as it winds on, like a mood piece all of its own. How successful the broader MiiRROR project is at communicating BABii’s vision remains to be seen, but on the record, at least, there is compelling evidence that we have a genuinely inventive new voice in pop. 8/10 Joe Goggins
Dawn Richard — Second Line: An Electro Revival (merge) It would be fair to say that when Dawn Richard was first making waves with the reality show girl group Danity Kane and then as part of Diddy Dirty Money, a solo career at the vanguard of contemporary electronic music didn’t look likely. Choosing the path less trodden, she has been self-releasing her own records for nearly a decade, quietly amassing a reputation for tasteful, trend-aware compositions that sit comfortably at the intersection between deviant club music and slinky R&B. This album’s stated aim is to pay tribute to the Black female pioneers of electronic music, and although the concept never truly comes into clear focus, Richard offers detectable flavours of footwork, bounce, trap and drill. Singles like ‘Boomerang’ and ‘Bussifame’ find
Richard at the top of her game. She’s not challenging the listener à la Jlin or early FKA twigs, doing the kind of thing that can take years to make sense of, but instead is firmly in the pocket of today, with the alacrity and fleet-footedness to skip between the key components of today’s musical landscape with gymnastic poise. There is a vaguely-defined story woven throughout Second Line, revolving around Richard’s alter ego, King Creole, but despite the record’s considerable runtime it lacks narrative progression. It is also front-loaded with its best material in a way that is somewhat outdated and quite unhelpful to any sense of holistic purpose to the album’s message. But in more easily digestible amounts, Second Line contains evidence aplenty that Dawn Richard understands her world better than most. 6/10 Max Pilley
Maxwell Sterling — Turn of Phrase (ad 93) Where do you start with Turn of Phrase? Composed by producer and double bassist Maxwell Sterling, it incorporates aspects of techno, avant-garde and baroque, but really sounds like a protracted interpretation of Mesopotamian cuneiform on a stone tablet; jagged, alien, perfectly preserved, but still only legible to niche scholars. Through labyrinthine arps, pinsharp percussion and precious moments of sublime beauty, it feels like Sterling is saying… something; something about slippages in memory, or history running along a Möbius strip, or something about “our own tumultuous time, man.” The LP’s seven-minute opus ‘Tenderness’, which features skilfully contrapuntal spoken delivery from Leslie Winer
(“queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics”), slips into multiple pocket dimensions of bizarro club music. Turn of Phrase seems to think quite a lot of itself (which isn’t unfounded), which occasionally comes across with the same smugness of a monument demanding your attention. What’s more, it could be dismissed for reading too closely from Vessel and Holly Herndon’s hymn sheet, and it’s all too easy to floor the listener with bare-fisted noise. But keep it close to hand; like an ancient manuscript, its finer details may reveal themselves. 6/10 Dafydd Jenkins
FACS — Present Tense (trouble in mind) There’s an alternate universe in which Chicago industrialists FACS can fill arenas. Yes, their music is deep, dense and awkward, but their experimentalism is worn lightly, even when their sonics are heavily laden with noise and dissonance. Much of it is no more abrasive than, say, Radiohead’s more inquisitive moments, and a good deal less po-faced. Its seriousness is genuine, but undergirded by a subtle sense of mischief and slyness, not to mention the sheer cathartic grunt of their iron-clad rhythm section. Present Tense more or less picks up from where last year’s Void Moments left off: mechanistic grooves drag subterranean bass along beneath sulphurous clouds of guitar and feedback, haunted by intermittent, foreboding vocals from Brian Case. ‘Strawberry Cough’ is perhaps the most accessible moment on the record, bionic dub percussion and a surprisingly catchy chorus evoking a chrome-plated Fugazi. And like D.C.’s finest, FACS manage to hit the elusive sweet spot
Albums between genuine innovation and lean, fat-free economy – there are tons of ideas here, but they’re woven into the intricacies of each track, rather than confined to extended wig-outs or shoehorned determinedly into too-tight spaces. Album closer ‘Mirrored’ is a case in point. The horn-locking guitar arrangement interlaces with a half-speed jungle beat from the octopus-like Noah Leger, between and beneath which Alianna Kalaba’s dextrous bass traces a twisting outline that just about holds everything together. The constituent parts are so complex and jagged that they’d border on math-rock were they not cloaked in such doomy, metallic atmospherics – again, the restless invention and technicallydemanding nature of the arrangement is massively downplayed by its cumulative power. That really is much harder than it looks, and a very good thing indeed. 8/10 Luke Cartledge
DijahSB — Head Above The Waters (dijahsb/awal) After their joyous and relatable breakthrough, 2020 the Album, Toronto rapper DijahSB is poised for greatness this year. Head Above the Waters is an even sharper collection of tracks built on sunburnt tape loops and a laidback jam band feel. Dijah’s delivery is slick, relaxed and always finding the snuggest pocket of the beat to live in. ‘Throw That Back’ has the saturated swing of a great Kaytranada track. Dijah makes the sound their own with nimble rhymes and a carefree tone. The grooves only get stronger on ‘Overtime’, with its crunchy drums and slap bass, with extra bite to match Dijah’s tougher lyrics about the struggle they’ve had to get here. They sound just as
comfortable at a slower tempo on the tail end of the record, where Dijah is backed by producer Harrison’s jazz-flecked electric keys. Terrell Morris then stands out on a beautifully melodic and slinky feature on ‘New Harrison’, although Dijah’s personality gets slightly lost in generic bars and a Kanye interpolation. When their voice is so distinct, it feels a shame to lose it in references to other names, and that voice is at its most powerful on ‘Way Too Many Ways’, a cathartic look at depression and moving past it. With its consistent sound and short length, Head Above the Waters still feels like a taste of what could be to come from DijahSB, an artist with the heart and talent to become a true star. 7/10 Skye Butchard
Myd — Born a Loser (ed banger/ because) From the moment you lay eyes on the sleeve of Myd’s debut album, Born a Loser, it’s clear that the Burberry trunkdonning producer doesn’t take himself too seriously. Better known offstage as Quentin Lepoutre, the multi-instrumentalist was born and raised in the north of France, and discovered his affinity for synths and dance music at age 14, later going on to cut his teeth with the electronic quartet Club Cheval. Now among the Ed Banger roster, Lepoutre is blissfully indulging in a looser, flirtier sound. Across 14 tracks, Myd soaks our ears in a dreamy cocktail of breezy indie guitar licks, playful nu-disco beats and hazy vocal samples, mirroring his quirky, laid-back personality, stylistically akin to the likes of Metronomy and LA Priest. ‘Together We Stand’ and ‘The Sun’ sound like funky anthems for future festival DJ sets, while the Mac DeMarco collab
‘Moving Men’ is an addictive and beautifully textured head-bopper that leaves you wanting more from the unlikely duo. Nostalgic, mellow and eccentric, Born a Loser introduces Myd as a lovable oddball, never short on charisma or eccentric flair, and ultimately encouraging us all to let loose and embrace our inner weirdo. 7/10 Woody Delaney
CHAI — WINK (sub pop) In the years since CHAI’s second album PUNK, the cute aesthetic known as Kawaii in Japan – and fetishisation thereof – has gone from being an uncomfortably growing subculture to providing the cogs of the commercial mainstream across continents. While J- and K-pop superstar idol groups and so-termed cute-metal fusion bands like Babymetal and Ladybaby have tugged an interesting sonic sphere from pop’s occasional paralysis, it’s sickly sweet. The wide-eyed, hapless and submissive crumble they’ve built their cheesecake on has got to be eaten, think CHAI. With their Sub Pop label debut, the Nagoya-by-Tokyo four-piece go evangelical. From their mostly Japanese-language disco-punk beginnings, WINK brings in external producers for the first time in Mndsgn and YMCK, and offers more than the occasional phrase for English ears. They even enlist Chicago-based rapper Ric Wilson for ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’, a song about their bassist Yuuki growing to love her moles. His verse isn’t forced, but “Your moles are what make you whole, right from your back to your nose” is the textbook example of writing to a brief, even for such a disciple of feel-good hip-hop. The mission of CHAI and their “neo-Kawaii” is for people to embrace themselves. Imagining moles as choco-
Albums late chips, you know, it’s still pretty cute, but it’s not yet been packaged with hearts for your local ice cream vendor. Looking beyond the cake factorysheen and unreservedly hook-heavy, Caroline Rose-like pop (‘Donut Mind If I Do’, ‘Vitamin C’), CHAI’s politics are the heavy focus of WINK. ‘ACTION’ is the mental chronology of imagination to activism, a house-pop mantra inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement with an easy spelt-out refrain, while ‘END’ sounds like Beshken freestyling over a garage punk cover of Run-DMC’s ‘It’s Like That’. Amid the frequent sonic chaos and bubblegum pop, the mellow moments of the album stand out as real highlights for a band associated with explosive joy. From the gentle late night prog-funk and Balearic waves of ‘IN PINK’ and sloweddown yippy acid-house of ‘Nobody Knows We Are Fun’, to the closing track diving into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nostalgia of eating salted rice balls, CHAI delicately explore dance music’s more meditative terrains. It’s hard to think of many albums that sound compatible with Calvin Harris and Bikini Kill within minutes. WINK is endearing, but it’s not Kawaii; it’s all analogue R&B and garage punk with a rap verse. It’s a bold move forward in their movement, which candidly champions people on their own terms. 8/10 Tristan Gatward
Girl In Red — If I Could Make It Go Quiet (awal) In 2012, Lena Dunham stated through the words of her autofictional character in Girls that she thought she “might be the voice of my generation, or, at least, a voice of a generation”. Of course, she wasn’t. Now, almost ten years
on, Gen-Zers could really have found their forthright spokesperson: Norway’s Marie Ulven. Having been writing and releasing music as Girl In Red since she was 16, Ulven first made herself known with the FINNEAS-produced single ‘Serotonin’, a blunt anthem about mental health and treatment, with rapped bars over loud guitars. Classic guitar rock is a major influence on her debut album, building the perfect background for unapologetic lyrics the like of ‘Hornylovesickmess’ – yes, girls do talk about sex and feel horny too – or ‘Did You Come’. Ulver’s songwriting is so fresh that she gets away with being overly referential – even when the sound of ’90s indie-rock breaks through her tracks (as it happens in ‘You Stupid Bitch’ and ‘Rue’), or she drops the Bon Iver-ish, heard-it-all-before opening of ‘.’. Closing with ‘It Would Feel Like This’, an instrumental outro completing the sentence of the record’s title, If I Could Make It Go Quiet is the first step towards a great future for a songwriter unafraid to make pop-rock music in a post-human era. 8/10 Guia Cortassa
Pan Daijing — Jade 翡翠故事 (pan) “Solitude is like an immense lake you’re swimming through,” says Pan Daijing. “Sometimes you dip your head in and sometimes you lift it up.” As a potential guide through the Guiyang/ Berlin sound artist’s third album Jade 翡翠故事, it isn’t immediately helpful. Daijing’s arrangements are frequently claustrophobic, writhing and knotting like plant roots growing in too small a pot. While differences in Jade 翡翠故 事 and 2017’s Lack 惊蛰 are subtle, it’s
certainly harder to read the industrial techno strains this time around. Propulsive rhythms have withered and fallen away to reveal startling skeletons of noise, freely improvised on synths and drum machines on the likes of ‘Tilt 四月’ and ‘Dust 五月’. But the operatic tone of her singing voice has become heightened, accompanied by a creaking cello on ‘Dictee 三月’ and sounding like a haunting cantata melody. Each song title is subtitled with simplified Chinese symbols, each ending in ‘月’, which can refer to months of the year. A telling exception is ‘Ran 乱’, which can refer to ‘randomness’ or ‘chaos’. There’s a journalistic quality to this album, as if a personal anecdote is being told through layers of misdirection and reinterpretation, either to save face or to express something for which there are no words. That is the primal fear of ‘Let 七 月’, a piece which recalls the solo dip of a thalassophobe (someone who fears the ocean, according to Google) in a vast body of water; nothing but you, the horizon and whatever mysteries tread the depths below. Drones tense as subaquatic bass lurks just beneath the surface, as Daijing delivers her clearest spoken word vocal to date. “Do not go too far away,” Daijing cautions. 8/10 Dafydd Jenkins
Patrick Paige II — If We Fail Are We Still Cool? (fat possum) Patrick Paige II had sturdy foundations before embarking on a solo career. As the bassist for The Internet, he was the sturdy foundation – a dependable backbone for the flashier members of the group like Syd and Steve Lacy to rely on. But playing a supporting character filled him with selfdoubt about going solo. This uncertainty coloured his 2018 debut Letters of Irrel-
Albums evance with a heavy pensive quality, his understated rapping submerged in gauzy bass notes. As it turns out, he more than had the skill to play the lead, and his follow-up record giddily takes the reins. If We Fail Are We Still Cool? still explores Paige’s emotional state, but the songs are wide-open and inviting. These are hookier, punchier songs that combine melody and penmanship with skill. There are even convincing flex tracks like ‘Big Plays’ and ‘Westside Player Shit’ that are concerned with nothing but revelling in Paige’s success, and he’s got the charisma to own it. ‘So They Say’ and ‘Who Am I’ bring a level-headed dose of reality, but Paige’s front-and-centre approach to singing and production gives these tracks a welcome agility. Speaking of agile, on ‘Freestyle’, Paige goes toe-to-toe with Saba’s speedy and quietly confrontational verses. It sounds like he could do just about anything. If We Fail is a long record, at 17 tracks. You get the feeling that Paige was having too much of a good time to stop recording. That energy makes it a breezy, engaging listen, even if some moments go by without popping out memorably. At its best, it sees him fully transformed into a bandleader. 7/10 Skye Butchard
KMRU — Logue (injazero) There’s an almost intimating depth to the sprawling, intricate music of KMRU. On the surface, it nods towards giants of ambient and drone like William Basinski and Tim Hecker, all seismic pads and glacial pacing. On further inspection, though, there’s something else going on here, woven between the processed field recordings that evoke the likes of
Manchester’s Space Afrika or Stuart Hyatt’s Field Works project; something a little more dynamic and tactile than the occasionally monolithic impenetrability of many established ambient artists. KMRU’s background may be instructive. He’s originally from Nairobi, though he’s lived in Berlin, and his grandfather was the musician and activist Joseph Kamaru, whose blend of jazz, gospel, Benga and Kikuyu folk brought him considerable fame across East Africa in the 1960s and ’70s. Kamaru’s highly political music placed him in a turbulent, sometimes dangerous position in the Kenya of that period, as the struggles and tensions of the newly postcolonial country led to conflict. His grandson’s music doesn’t deal with this complicated history head-on, nor should it have to. It is, however, important to bear it in mind when trying to understand this shifting, amorphous work, whose beauty reveals itself gradually. There’s real complexity here, in the product of an artist whose life and familial experiences have given him a highly distinctive approach and insight. Time invested in Logue will be rewarded in rich, unexpected ways. 7/10 Luke Cartledge
Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime (matador) It’s not every day you stumble upon an album rooted in contemporary Saharan music with flourishes of the late Eddie Van Halen’s distinct guitarnoodling. The excellent sixth LP from revered Tuareg guitarist and songwriter Mdou Moctar – the moniker of Mahamadou Souleymane – harmoniously marries these contrasting tonal sensibilities, presenting an irresistible and enveloping body of work.
Underpinned by universal themes such as love (‘Tala Tannam’), self-worth (‘Chismiten’) and national pride, the beating heart of Mdou Moctar’s music is community. “I love my homeland because it’s filled with people so dear to me,” goes a line from the densely textured ‘Asdikte Akal’. Reared in rural Niger, an early exposure to the work of Abdallah Ag Oumbadagou, a pioneer of the Tuareg style, inspired Moctar to build a guitar of his own and write music. Over time, he gained notoriety from a combination of constant performing, widespread distribution of his music via mobile phone data cards and recurring stints as a wedding performer. With this, there’s an innate DIY and communal spirit permeating his arrangements. From the album artwork to the loose production style that captures the raw sparkle of the instrumentation, there’s an undeniable timelessness to Afrique Victime. Sonically, the impact of these vast arrangements is immediate. Sprinkled with unrelenting spiked electric guitar solos, thumping percussion, gorgeous harmonies and field recordings, it’s impossible to resist the magic created by this accomplished band. These kaleidoscopic compositions, both tender and tenacious in tone, are inspiring and rejuvenating. 8/10 Zara Hedderman
Glüme — The Internet (italians do it better) Just when you started to think the whole coldwave-meets-disco thing was getting boring, trust LA to deliver something that is truly off the wall. Glüme’s backstory is as theatrical as it is mysterious. Describing herself as a ‘Walmart Marilyn Monroe’, her bio simply states that she’s a child star turned singer
Albums whose struggles with a heart condition called Prinzmetal angina has given her an outsider’s view on the world. Looking like a ’30s screen icon, yet displaying a curiously doll-like demeanour, she’s one of those artists who has jumped into the uncanny valley with both feet. Her debut album similarly riffs on a Blade Runner-esque sense of retro-futurism. Produced by Italians Do It Better head honcho Johnny Jewel, The Internet is a strange blend of Hollywood glamour and dark Italio-disco that flies by like a neon-tinted fever dream. Highlights along the way include ‘Arthur Miller’ (an old-school ’40s club number delivered with Björk-like precision) and sultry banger ‘Don’t @ Me’. My one criticism is that over its 35-minute run time, The Internet tends to sound a little too much like other IDIB artists, like Glass Candy and Chromatics, but that might be because it tries to cover so much sonic real estate. Still, if you like your dance served cold and your pop to be more human than human, then definitely consider checking this one out. 6/10 Dominic Haley
Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee (dead oceans) “For me, a third record should feel bombastic.” That’s what Michelle Zauner aka Japanese Breakfast set out to achieve with her latest release. Unapologetically big and dazzlingly bright, Jubilee is an invigorating depiction of Zauner’s journey to finding true happiness in a testing and unforgiving world. She is no stranger to sorrow, and her new album comes alongside the release of her memoir Crying in H-Mart, based on her viral 2018 New Yorker essay of the same name, which explores her
Korean American identity and coming to terms with her mother’s death. But unlike 2014’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Jubilee is not an exploration of grief and loss. It’s a celebration of joy, life, colour; of embracing feeling and living jubilantly. The four years since her last release saw Zauner enrol in music theory and piano lessons to expand her skills as a songwriter. Jubilee exudes new levels of confidence and purposefulness, with bright, joyful arrangements that serve to augment her unique vocals. She pulls out all the stops with lead single ‘Be Sweet’, a jagged earworm rich with ’80s influence and shredding basslines, written alongside Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing. Other highlights include ‘Savage Good Boy’, a pounding and aloof track co-produced with Alex G, and slow-burning ballad ‘Tactics’, which sees Zauner return to the sweet melancholy that characterised Soft Sounds. A veteran of capturing the pain of illness and death with her music, Zauner teaches us how to resist despair and find joy amidst tragedy – a lesson needed now more than ever. 9/10 Katie Cutforth
and homophobia ultimately come down to a fear of change, a fear that traditions, definitions and distributions of power are being altered or reimagined. In Changephobia, Rostam insists that recognising these fears in ourselves and rising above them lays bare endless opportunities for both personal and societal growth. Written and produced by Rostam over the last three years, the album marks not only a thematic transformation for the Vampire Weekend founding member, but a distinct musical one too. From its opening track, ‘These Kids We Knew’, it’s a record quite clearly shaped by ’50s bebop and ’90s neo-psych. A 12-string guitar and resounding percussion carry Rostam’s hazy vocals through new single ‘4Runner’, while the title track melts like butter, a persistent backing beat overlayed with subtle keys and the summertime saxophone slick of dreams. No two of Changephobia’s songs sound alike. Yet they are tied together by a melodic thread that inspires a change of pace that encourages us to pause and take stock of our lives and beliefs and relationships. It is in this that the album’s true strength lies. 7/10 Rosie Ramsden
Rostam — Changephobia (MATSOR PROJECTS) When Rostam Batmanglij met a stranger on a park bench some years ago and, despite himself, began to open up to the man about recent changes in his life, he didn’t know that the conversation would inspire the creation of his second album, Changephobia. But that’s precisely what it did. “Change is good,” the stranger said. “Go with it.” It was this understated pearl of wisdom that encouraged Rostam to consider how transphobia, biphobia
Field Music — Flat White Moon (memphis industries) After nearly twenty years in service, the North East’s long-life art-rock duo Field Music have stubbornly maintained a policy to steer clear from the crowd. It seems to work, too. A distinctive outlier from the plethora of ’00s indie guitar bands, their music is not so much an artifact as an unscathed survivor, altogether separate from their many extinct counterparts. The implementation of orchestral political nuances during 2018’s Open
Albums Here and, more recently, their conceptual post-World War I history lesson in last year’s Making A New World, Field Music can be easily singled out for their tireless ambition. Their new album, Flat White Moon, exercises less grandeur and revives a more playful approach that offsets darkness and grief with unusually open arms. The album’s upbeat attitude is infectious as it routinely knocks back personal upheavals with disproportionately happy-go-lucky stoicism. Guiltstricken feelings of absence in the face of lost loved ones are stifled out on ‘Out Of The Frame’. They manage to wrap up suffocating loneliness with twee accents of early Beatles pop appeal on ‘You Last Heard From a Linda’. Immediately gratifying, Field Music seem to revel in hardship, but in a way that never dilutes or obscures. 7/10 Ollie Rankine
Iceage — Seek Shelter (mexican summer) Let’s resist the urge to make jokes about the weather. We’re behaving ourselves here. But let the record show that Iceage have been described as an ‘oncoming storm’, their new album is called Seek Shelter, and it features a track titled ‘Drink Rain’. Right? Moving on. Seek Shelter is drawn from Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s journals, and explores romance and salvation, pain and poetry and deities. Lyrically, Rønnenfelt gets to the heart of the matter with a clarity that becomes a theme; given that this time the band worked with Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 to produce, it wouldn’t be surprising to find more psychedelia than usual on Seek Shelter, but they’ve gone the other way. The band have instead leaned into
classic song structure, meaning the album is often strikingly reminiscent of decades past. There are flickers of Be Here Now-era Oasis, thankfully minus the cokey excess – ‘Dear Saint Cecilia’ brings to mind ‘It’s Getting Better (Man!!)’ by way of The Saints. Meanwhile, ‘Drink Rain’ has the swagger of a jazz standard, its intro a close cousin of the classic ‘All of Me’, while album highlight ‘Vendetta’ is cyclical and bluesy, building a dark portrait of violence, capitalism, drugs and grudges. With each new album, Iceage suggest that they are pushing their boundaries farther than before. Is Seek Shelter their most technically innovative record? No. But is there reinvention here? Of a sort. The boundaries of genre don’t really matter if the record holds up, and it does. Iceage may be seeking shelter, but they aren’t locking down. 8/10 Liam Konemann
Gruff Rhys — Seeking New Gods (rough trade) Tired of writing about himself, the songs on Gruff Rhys’ seventh solo album were all inspired by events relating to North Korean volcano Mount Paektu. Recorded with the same band that featured on 2018’s Babelsberg, it was put together as they toured America. On their drive, it evolved into more of a West Coast road album, with the volcano becoming a metaphor for Rhys himself and the times we’re living through. There are vague references to “the constant rumble” and “looking for truth and wisdom” but it isn’t an overtly political album. Allusive rather than specific, it comfortably sits within his solo and Super Furry Animals back catalogue. ‘Loan Your Loneliness’ and ‘Can’t Carry On’, in particular, are as concise and pop-orientated as
he’s ever been, with their stomping psych influences and soft-rock harmonies. As the album progresses over the course of nine tracks it starts to become more freeform and experimental. ‘The Keep’ is peppered with free-jazz brass; ‘Hiking In Lightning’ is loose garage rock with a Velvet Underground-inspired piano line; ‘Everlasting Joy’ unravels through a sprawling yet concise psych jam. The record never erupts into something truly unexpected, but it offers comfort in its golden melodies. 7/10 Susan Darlington
KUČKA — Wrestling (luckyme) Much has been made about the geographic mobility that has come to define this selfproduced debut LP by LA-based electropop songwriter KUČKA – she grew up between the north of England and Australia, before relocating to Los Angeles as an adult – but the more obvious influences shaping her on Wrestling are musical ones: the spirit of past collaborator SOPHIE is palpable throughout, as is the shape-shifting approach to electronica of Flume. Across twelve tracks, she slaloms through a variety of electropop lanes – the downtempo, contemplative ‘Drowning’ is crying out to be sampled on a hip hop record, whilst the fluttering, increasingly distorted synth line that winds it way through ‘Afterparty’, as well as a meandering spoken-word vocal towards the close, provide clear evidence of a willingness to experiment with the electropop blueprint. Elsewhere, the quietly colourful chaos of ‘Joyride’ feels like a nod to hyperpop, whilst ‘Your World’ takes the opposite tack, shooting for stadium-sized anthemics. There are a lot of ideas being thrown at the wall here and not everything
Albums sticks (the hybrid of trap-driven hip hop and synthpop that ‘Eternity’ attempts is a case in point) but it’s not often that debut LPs emerge feeling as fully-realised as this. The myriad different directions in which KUČKA heads across the course of Wrestling add up to what feels like a carefully-crafted sonic aesthetic. A beguiling start. 7/10 Joe Goggins
Loraine James — Reflection (hyperdub) On Reflection, Loraine James lightly sands down the abrasive edges of her debut for an altogether softer finish. It’s an inward-facing record that builds a warming shelter up around itself. This isn’t to say its mood is static, or its approach one-note – both James’ penchant for angular rhythms and the album’s flirtations with harsher genres such as UK drill thankfully keep things interesting – but more a recognition of the cohesive ecosystem of the album. The developments can be traced across numerous self-released projects since the release of For You and I in 2019, but here they come together as a slightly more refined project. There’s an overarching sense of the present evoked across the record; a present in stasis, for reasons we are all too familiar with now. Be it her recurring murmured vocals, the warmly rounded low-end or the ethereal synth work, the overall tonal palette of the record speaks to the more human aspects of isolation; a tired yearning and perhaps an in-built desire to use what little control we have to find some form of comfort and peace within the situation. Though there is certainly an auteurist approach here, other voices feature across over half of the tracklisting,
and the various denizens of the project bring welcome variation to proceedings. The glinting melodics and tuned bass kicks of ‘Black Ting’ are well-matched with frequent collaborator Le3 bLACK’s sharp bars. It’s a crystalline take on UK drill that’s unmistakably coloured with James’ sonic eccentricities, the highlight of which is the playfully cut vocal samples that stud the latter half of the track. Elsewhere, Xzavier Stone appears on the opening track ‘Built to Last’; a seductively twisted R&B jam, their vocals lightly mangled as the slinky bass pushes through the mix bullishly. The closing track, ‘We’re Building Something New’, featuring Iceboy Violet, ends the album on a distinctly poignant note, a unique voice musing on the Black British experience, highlighting the need for major improvements in Black history education, and dedicating the track to the victims of police violence. It’s a thought-provoking and intriguingly open-ended finale to the record that cuts out abruptly. As the last track on a decidedly introspective record, it stands as a potent reminder on the inescapable conjoining of the personal and the political. James’ own spoken and sung vocal takes appear throughout Reflection with varying degrees of success – a less focal performer than many of the guests, the low-key nature of her vocals can at times veer towards the unremarkable. Despite this, when viewing the record as a whole, these vocal additions play a large part in developing the tone of the project. Highlight ‘Simple Things’ is perhaps the most effective example, melding James’ murmured voice with agitated percussive experimentation to make for an engaging contrast of low and high energy. Conversely, the title track begins initially as a less energetic affair, with James passively ruminating on the social exile of lockdown life, but despite the gorgeous glass-like chimes and tranquil atmospherics, the track meanders slightly before eventually building to a buzzing, percussive conclusion. Arguably, the production is what shines brightest throughout. Many of the most intriguing tracks highlight James’
deft hand at rhythmic contortion, and the frustrated, jagged drum programming and indecisive fluorescent synth stabs of ‘Let’s Go’ say as much as any of the vocal musings across the record. The conclusion of the title track evokes a more lasting emotional response than the relatively on-the-nose vocals, a potentially dating element, a bio-product clear across much of the last year’s music. This isn’t some grand narrative opus, more an effective snapshot, a collection of tracks that coexist beneath a shared mood. While guilty of occasionally fading toward the background, the record rewards repeat listens. Its cohesiveness becomes unmistakably clear, and the subtle nuances of the production reminds us yet again that James is one of the more inventive producers in the UK right now. This extends to her fluid approach to genre – an unrestrained adaptability that may not always pay off but certainly leads to endlessly intriguing results, which is undeniably a trait shared across all of the most important electronic musicians. Perhaps that’s why the mixture of warm reassurance, quiet inventiveness and assured defiance on display here ultimately results in a charming and timely listen. 7/10 Oskar Jeff
Son Lux — Tomorrows III (city slang) Tomorrows III is the latest instalment in the Tomorrows project from New York-based soundscape artists Son Lux. It’s a fairly ambitious project: consisting of three volumes recorded over the course of a year, according to the press blurb, it brings, “an active, intentional approach to shaping sound,” summing up “the anxiety and urgency that define our present moment.”
Albums It’s certainly been an anxietyinducing 12 months, and Tomorrows III doesn’t shy away from that. The album opens on ‘Unbind’, which combines soaring, cinematic strings with skittering beats and a loopy prog-rock guitar line. It would be the perfect, overblown theme song to a slightly silly sci-fi film – but presented without visual accompaniment, it’s needlessly bombastic. Other experiments are more successful – ‘A Different Kind of Love’, for example, is engagingly weird. The track is a tight 3 minutes 15, meaning that none of its clashing sonic elements hang around long enough to get boring. Elsewhere, some moments are genuinely lovely. ‘Plans We Make’ (feat. Kadhja Bonet) is spare, sensual R&B, reminiscent of recent offerings from FKA Twigs and Kelela, and ‘Vacancy’ (feat. Kiah Victoria) combines honeyed vocals with a background hum of arpeggios and thrumming bass, with blasts of processed strings bringing the song to an affecting conclusion. But there are too many tracks that slip by without trace, or overstay their welcome. Tomorrows III isn’t short on ideas, but the listener is left with the feeling that this would better make a soundtrack to something scary or dramatic. Without aliens or explosions, it’s just a bit disappointing. 5/10 Katherine Rodgers
Sons of Kemet — Black to the Future (impulse) “My revolution rides a black horse, and it is stunning!” exclaims guest poet Joshua Idehen barely 2 minutes into Black to the Future. “We are rolling your monuments down the street like tobacco, tossing your effigies into the river,” he
continues, indignantly, over tumbling drum fills and squalls of sax, and the effect is a combined sense of unease, resistance, desperation and celebration of Black protest, both righteous and insistent. It sets the tone for the rest of Sons of Kemet’s fourth album, which swings between exultant skank and soulful melancholia (and occasionally mixtures of both) while incorporating in its first half an array of bilious guest rappers and poets into the now trademark Kemet sound: rasping reeds above earth-rattling sub-bass tuba, and a double-percussion pincer movement tight like a rottweiler’s jaws. However, while the guests are sporadically compelling – in particular Kojey Radical’s urgent growl on ‘Hustle’ – the record works best when the instrumentalists are left to their own devices on side two. ‘In Remembrance of Those Fallen’ is agitated and fidgety, the band seemingly in constant dialogue with themselves, but also yearning and outward-looking, and ‘Let the Circle Be Unbroken’ offers engulfing and expansive texture that’s no less narrative or rabble-rousing than the earlier vocal-led pieces. It makes for not just music that’s impossible to sit still to, but also a series of provocative expressions whose spectrum of silky clarinet to hard-blown sax are genuinely evocative of life in 2021 – the music of thoughtful, angry, empowering, frustrated and cathartic dissent. 8/10 Sam Walton
Tony Allen — There Is No End (blue note) Tony Allen’s legacy is first and foremost as one of the pioneers of afrobeat, his polyrhythmic drumming the heartbeat of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70. An effortlessly novel fusion of jazz, highlife
and funk, his performances behind the drums on those afrobeat records are eternal and influential, but what people often overlook is that after he left Kuti’s band and Africa in 1979, Allen never rested on his laurels. His fingerprints are all over modern music. So it is fitting that on the anniversary of his passing last year, the hip hop-inflected There is No End arrives, collating his final collaborations with the next generation of rappers. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard his drumming paired with rap, but this is the first example of a whole hip hop album with Allen’s drums as the exoskeleton. The genesis of There is No End came after Allen spent hours playing along with his own drum compositions to songs in the rap canon with producer Vincent Taeger. It features rappers from across the world, his singular playing paired with innovative voices like Danny Brown, Sampa the Great and Skepta. Twelve songs see Allen’s drumming at the very centre while different personalities orbit. On ‘Stumbling Down’ with Sampa the Great, his playing is terse and entwined with jarring synth-bass stabs, whilst his performance is far looser with instrumental noodling channelling West Coast heat on the album high of ‘Rich Black’, which features the brilliant Koreatown Oddity. On this extremely fitting elegy Allen’s drumming explores new realms with the same lively vigour that he showed fifty years ago. 8/10 Cal Cashin
Leon Vynehall — Rare, Forever (ninja tune) Having made his name with his pulsating vision of deep house on 2014’s Music For The Uninvited, British DJ Leon Vynehall has found himself forging a
Albums sound brimming with ornate orchestral sounds, literary intrigue, and semblances of narrative that has been increasingly stretching deep house to breaking point. With his insatiable thirst for idiosyncratic expression, it is clear Vynehall was always on a collision course with the genre, and that’s exactly what we get on Rare, Forever. More so than previous releases, the album sounds fractured and demented, with ricocheting beats seeping through like psychotic whispers during opener ‘Ecce! Ego!’, and the visitations of dub in ‘Snakeskin ∞ Has-been’ eerily unsettling. Despite the pervasive delirium, Vynehall still finds apertures where he can anchor his sound around glistening arrangements, with the Bon Iver-like coda to ‘Alichea Vella Amor’ and the bridge of ‘Mothra’ both transcendent. The album reaches its apotheosis in ‘An Exhale’, a deep, exhaustive spaghetti junction of intercepting synths and snares, weaving in and out of one another, before swallowing each other whole in a most marvelous union, echoing the image of Ouroboros on the album cover. It perfectly embodies this sublime soul-searching and all-consuming record that is recommended listening for deep house fans and non-fans alike. 8/10 Robert Davidson
Ya Tseen — Indian Yard (sub pop) Nicholas Galanin might be the ultimate multi-hyphenate. His work straddles sculpture, video, installation, photography, jewelry and music; he’s studied silversmithing, and learned from master carvers. Influenced by everything from conceptual art and pop culture to Indigenous philosophy and protest, born in
Sitka, Alaska, he draws on his Tlingit and Unangax (Aleut) ancestry to create a sound born from the perspective of an Indigenous man. The result is a fusion of melody, distortion and calls for Indigenous sovereignty that veers from psych-pop to dark autotune menace. Tracks such as ‘Knives’ and ‘At Tugáni’ feel like Animal Collective; ‘Synthetic Gods’ hits with steel and grit thanks to Stas THEE Boss; ‘Gently to the Sun’ twists electronica and the performative intensity of spoken word into something stirring and stern; and ‘Back in that Time’ claps with a brooding boom bap as fellow Alaskan Qacung sings in rhythmic Yupik. Contrast ‘Close the Distance’ that shifts from that dreamy autotune sound into a big, bright pop hook, the generous helping of soul on ‘Get Yourself Together’ and the snaking, winding ‘A Feeling Undefined’ – it’s little surprise that Indian Yard is every bit as multi-layered and multi-faceted a listen as Galanin’s artistic take on the world promised. 7/10 Reef Younis
Masayoshi Fujita — Bird Ambience (erased tapes) You wouldn’t really expect the strike of a marimba to be unnerving, though any instrument in the hands of the prolific Japanese multipercussionist Masayoshi Fujita has the potential to be ingeniously warped. The composer has made his name as a master of gently layered, acoustic vibraphone compositions, yet central to his latest release is a distorted, synth-accompanied marimba. Bird Ambience sees Masayoshi Fujita boldly terminate the neat separation he’s held between his various sonic
projects. In these new compositions, Masayoshi merges his acoustic percussion, electronic dub side hustle (El Fog) and his experimental improvisation work with the likes of Jan Jelinek. What emerges is a record fused with a disconcerting tension. The opening track, ‘Bird Ambience’, begins with warm, slow-motion marimba phases. But the soothing, woody repeat is steadily underscored by clipped drum beats and a sustained low-level drone. ‘Gaia’ is Fujita’s most striking piece: jarring, atonal marimba notes are weaved with subtle operatic vocal samples from fellow Erased Tapes artist Hatis Noit, as intense distortion takes hold. There’s a solid commitment on Bird Ambience to holding space, both for the intensity of dissonance and for a sustained tranquillity. This sometimes can feel deeply uncomfortable, but by the final two compositions, when the tension has delicately unravelled, you feel like you’re floating. It’s a hugely accomplished record. 8/10 Cat Gough
St Vincent — Daddy’s Home (loma vista) Few contemporary artists are capable of creating An Event like St Vincent. A good deal of this has to do with her constant, multi-level transformations – sonically, visually, thematically, each time Annie Clark re-emerges with new music, she’s not so much totally unrecognisable, as an uncanny-valley inversion of her previous self (or selves), each iteration always bearing traces of what went before without entirely reproducing a predecessor. Trailed by a clever, referential marketing campaign and presented alongside a characteristically radical overhaul of her personal and creative
Albums aesthetic, Daddy’s Home feels like a real moment for Clark; not only is it an incredibly successful metamorphosis, the album goes some way to resolving many of the tensions at the heart of her music, without doing her the disservice of showing her hand entirely. If 2017’s Masseduction was Clark’s Blue Velvet, a carnal, unsettling, strangely unknowable psychosexual thriller, Daddy’s Home is her Twin Peaks – a superficially warmer and more welcoming statement whose darkness is veiled by luxuriant, tactile arrangements. Lead single ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’ is a case in point: at first, its Prince groove and chorus nod to Bowie’s ‘Fame’ hog the limelight, perfectly-crafted pop components sashaying in and out of focus. It’s only on repeat listens that you notice the rhythmic whimpers and desperate gasps that line the fringes of the track’s ersatz funk. Even for St Vincent, the artistic vision of Daddy’s Home is incredibly well-realised. Perhaps that has something to do with the personal nature of its subject matter – it’s probably easier to realise a vision that’s already being played out in front of you. Clark’s father spent most of the last decade in prison, and was released in 2019, which not only explains the title of the record, but much of its emotional content. This results in a more human version of Clark than the PVC-clad dominatrix of Masseduction or the perfectly-poised replicant of 2014’s self-titled album; her vocal delivery, lyricism and even guitar playing have a newly organic timbre that at least seems less affected. Tracks like ‘Down and Out Downtown’ and ‘…At The Holiday Party’ breeze along atop the kind of ’70s Gil Scott-Heron instrumentation that sounds effortless, but is so rarely accomplished with this level of panache or attention to detail, testament to both Clark’s nearpeerless level of technical skill and her (somewhat) newfound lightness of touch. Exactly how truly ‘confessional’ or otherwise the record is, one can only speculate. But that’s beside the point really; since she dropped the selfdescribed ‘asexual Pollyanna’ shtick of
her first couple of records, Clark appears to have been on a quest to locate something darker, stranger, more cathartic, deep within herself, however discomfiting that search might prove. Daddy’s Home at least begins to answer the question this process has been raising increasingly insistently over the last couple of records: what happens to St Vincent once she’s finished plumbing the Freudian depths, comes back through the looking-glass and reintroduces herself to whatever it is reality has become since she left? In aesthetic terms, Daddy’s Home might not quite be the boldest or most arresting artistic statement we’ve seen from St Vincent, but considering she’s among the most consistently innovative and compelling artists of her generation, that’s hardly a failure. It is, however, easily her most coherent and candid yet; whoever she becomes next, this Annie Clark has achieved something special. 8/10 Luke Cartledge
Paris Texas — BOY ANONYMOUS (paris texas) Usually when rising artists are hotly tipped and mysterious, associated with them is a scarcity of information that is somewhat artificial. This time, though, it feels more authentic: LA newbies Paris Texas have caused something of a stir whilst offering relatively little in the way of particulars. From some simple sleuthery, what can be gleaned is Louie Pastel and Felix are the names of the clandestine duo, and other than several unembellished Soundcloud profiles and abandoned Bandcamp pages, the trail runs cold there. What is clearer is that they share a moniker with a 1984 arthouse Western movie soundtracked by Ry Cooder; together with the fact that
their name sounds like the B-side to Black Country, New Road’s ‘Athens, France’ you could be forgiven for assuming the sound of Paris Texas might be a little ostentatious. You’d be wrong. On BOY ANONYMOUS, a debut mixtape that comes with painfully little context, they deliver a defiant, punkadjacent sound and aesthetic that is patently exciting. Sitting somewhere on the aural spectrum between Tyler the Creator and JPEGMAFIA, they distribute Brockhampton-flavoured hooks with a Clipping-like sonic immediacy, packaged with an Odd Future ethos that culminates into a refreshing take on hip hop. First single ‘HEAVY METAL’ fashions a distinct buzz, as it chugs along with a prescriptive and deliberate guitar riff. Their melodic rhymes form around persistent and repetitive guitar work (is nu-metal back?!) and jump between hardhitting and sarcastic. They’re clearly a creative partnership unafraid of pushing boundaries and making statements; on the single’s uncompromising accompanying video, they’re dragged behind a car through a sun-soaked California neighbourhood, kidnapped and tortured by guitar-toting masked figures. ‘SITUATIONS’ sees them shift through the gears, offering a glossy beat with future-facing production and sounding not unlike Young Fathers, thus achieving a more expressive ambience. Bouncy arpeggiating synth loops sit aside falsetto vocals and programmed basslines to create an off-kilter contemporary hip hop sound as they tell stories of growing up in South Central LA. It comes just after ‘BETTER DAYS’, their most strippedback and traditionally West Coast-sounding cut, which allows them to riff on their dreams of success. Even from an isolated debut mixtape, the uncompromising vision of Paris Texas is clear. Their sound comes with the accessibility and charm of a bedroom recording project but arrives packaged with the scope and ability of something with much larger potential. It’s frenzied, but streamlined; with a wellaimed follow-up, the sky’s the limit. 7/10 Tom Critten
Live record sounds in a way, a blend of classic chanson française and the colder techno style Davidson initially became known for. It’s clear how at ease she is in her new guise as a rock frontwoman, so much so that it’s hard to believe she spent much of her career behind decks. She is at her most compelling where the two worlds meet – on the disco-tinged ‘Worst Comes To Worst’ or spacy penultimate track ‘Lead Sister’, which sees the lighting shift to red and Davidson become ever more theatrical, howling into the microphone and smashing a mirror for no apparent reason. But even in their quieter moments, like sultry show closer ‘My Love’ – complete with glittering disco balls – she and her band prove they are a compelling live act. Jessica Wrigglesworth Marie Davidson Renegade Breakdown Live 11 March 2021
Last year, Quebecoise electro maven Marie Davidson surprised many when she released Renegade Breakdown. The record saw her move away from minimal dance music in favour of an introspective, indie rock sound, aided by L’Oeil Nu, aka Pierre Guerineau (her partner both in life and in side-project Essaie Pas) and Asaël Robitaille on guitars and synths. This livestream, their first performance as a band (joined by Pierre-Luc Clément on drums), is directed by independent filmmaker Denis Côté – although he never directs the band themselves, instead imagining them as subjects of a scientific experiment of some kind, playing in a vast space to an audience wearing lab coats and surgical masks. It’s an inventive way of conceptualising the clinical aspects necessary for a COVID-safe performance. Compared to the now-ratherexpected ‘gig in an empty venue’ or ‘gig in a living room’ livestream formats, it’s a relief to watch something which isn’t trying to replicate an actual show, and thus lacks any of the melancholy or disappointment that can come along with that. Despite this, by adopting a more stylised approach to filming, using multiple hand-
held cameras, as well as a circular dolly track around the band, Côté manages to create a visceral ‘live’ experience. There are moments of spontaneity peppered throughout the performance, where the camera wanders, following an audience member through the space, or a couple making out, or a stage-invading dog. Or where Davidson turns away from the microphone to whisper in a friend’s ear and is suddenly inaudible. Or when the band pause, pouring themselves glasses of wine (or in Davidson’s case vodka neat, swilled from the bottle). Going to a gig – if my distant memories serve me correctly – isn’t always about watching the band. Your eyes, and mind, wander, drawn to your attractive fellow audience members, or that one person dancing extra hard, or the roadie gathering cables in the corner. Whether deliberate or not, Côté’s tangential wanderings recreate this experience brilliantly. It is hard to keep your eyes off Davidson for long though. “You want a weapon of mass destruction? I’ll give you a demonstration,” she deadpans in the show’s opening moments, before the band launches into album title track ‘Renegade Breakdown’, her steely gaze holding the camera throughout. Dressed in a black catsuit and knee high black leather boots, she looks how I imagine Françoise Hardy would look if she had spent a year clubbing in Berlin – which is also how the
Liz Phair Hey Lou, Hey Liz 3 March 2021
As the stream opens on Liz Phair, coyly reclining in a black and white catsuit under the glare of hot neon pink lights, it’s clear that we are entering Phair’s world. It’s not an unusual position for her to take. From the moment she burst onto the indie world with 1993’s exorcising Exile in Guyville, she has drawn pleasure in highlighting the awkward, saying the unsayable, and presenting the world as she sees it. In the hour-long streaming event, the mood is fun and loose. Filmed mostly in black and white, Phair and her band perform hits from Guyville and beyond, and all the while she grins with delight like she can’t believe she gets to do this. Opener ‘Never Said’ has the same lifeaffirming stomp as it ever had, while the cod-reggae song ‘Whipsmart’ shows how well Phair’s voice has aged, retaining the nonchalant monotone that defines her sound. Between each track, she is interviewed with long-time collaborator Brad Wood by journalist Kim Taylor-Bennett,
Live giving the viewer an insight into the breakdown of each song. Little hints towards the quirks and absurdities in Phair’s personality are shown in the dozens of balloons around her as she plays, and the random cuts in between songs of her reading a magazine on a couch or dancing in front of a bright white light. Elsewhere she plays second fiddle in a slapstick, kooky routine with a puppet of Andy Warhol. Her love for puppets can also be seen in the video for latest single ‘Hey Lou’, performed tonight with glee. Songs from her later career, like ‘And He Slayed Her’ from 2010’s Funstyle, are brought out too. As hinted in that song’s earworm chorus “Ding-dong, the witch is dead… Hanged himself on rock ‘n’ roll”, when it comes to rock and roll swagger, Liz Phair is still the queen. Stephanie Phillips
Bicep Saatchi Gallery, London 26 February 2021
There’s something intentional about sitting down to attend a virtual show. It shouldn’t feel strange – we’ve watched and listened to live platforms like Boiler Room for years and seen endless recordings of gigs on YouTube – but it feels different when it’s specifically in your calendar.
Back in September 2020, Bicep put on a show that was as much of an audiovisual experience as it was a live set. Here, the duo repeat the format with chameleonic visuals from Black Box Echo providing the visual hook and, once again, the sound quality is incredible. The screen flickers, and we’re in a cavernous white room, Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar standing over their respective banks of blinking tech as ‘Lido’ gradually eases out. ‘Siena’ reverberates in, ‘X’ clangs into futuristic life with that big bass boom and ominous synth rise, ‘Atlas’ ripples through with its spiritual, spatial energy. A little shift in tempo gives the techno overdrive of ‘Meli’ a momentum that throws ‘Opal’ into a speedy, marching stomp that’s both on the verge of an acid-induced higher state or a bonkers Theremin death. Mosaics become hands become magic eyes become hallucinogenic apparitions. ‘Cazenove’ seamlessly develops into ‘Saku’ in a set refined and retooled, kicked up and cooled down, techno and two-step told to get a move on. ‘Sundial’ arrives in its pulsing glory and then… silence. The screen goes black and flickers again before the unmistakable first notes of ‘Glue’ cut through. Even in that communal absence, it still feels poignant. ‘Apricots’ plays out before ‘Aura’ unites living rooms in the set’s true moment of release. When you’re blessed with as many natural finales as Bicep, there’s always a perfect closer. Reef Younis
William Doyle Crouch End Studios, London 19 March 2021
A record so eccentrically titled as William Doyle’s Great Spans of Muddy Time – a phrase borrowed from Monty Don on Gardeners’ World – lends itself to visual enormities: a dreamlike oil painting adorns the record’s sleeve, showing exotic geese and common birds gathered around a watering hole as we listen through lengths of vast, unfurrowed land that kneels before the walking boots of the very English art pop explorer Doyle. Mapping these inquisitively old-fashioned, analog sonic studies onto a simple livestream could have easily pulled the magic cloth away from a record that successfully reaches for its songwriting peers in Berlin-era Bowie, Wyatt, Eno, Newell and Hitchcock, but instead it serves to anchor the album in an ever more fruitful isolation. The few radio-ready song-songs on Great Spans open Doyle’s set, but they’re far from perfect replicas of album tracks. ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’ is tugged from its pottering technicolour harmonies with a gnarly guitar line; Doyle’s voice cracks and wavers over the higher notes of ‘Nothing at All’ that soar across the album; ‘SemiBionic’ morphs into something of a new wave grunge anthem. Standing still among softly neonlit ferns and dead flowers, the production and set design is transportive. As Doyle dives into the record’s more abstract instrumental compositions, hunched over synths and electronics in deep concentration, any sense of over-indulgence is lost in the pure cinematic nature of it all: a largely wooden room in Crouch End becomes an open-air headline set. A feedback-ridden outro builds into the mournful highs of ‘Carousel’ from his final collection as East India Youth more than half a decade ago; it’s worth revisiting in light of Great Spans, and no less a spectacle now, seeing these worlds of sound come out of one guitar. Tristan Gatward
Film and Books
I Am a Cliché (dir. celeste bell, paul sng) I Am a Cliché is not a typical rock documentary for your Friday night in followed by two hours of Punk at the BBC, as enjoyable as many of those films and evenings are. It is, in other words, not a cliché, which is of course the point, just as it was when Poly Styrene – the daughter of a Somali-born docker at the centre of a male-dominated, White music culture – first yelled the slogan in 1978 as the singer/leader/poet of X-Ray Spex. Just how typical were her band, who added a saxophonist simply to avoid sounding like everyone else? And their singer (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) whose wail had never been heard before, who wore a fixed brace on her teeth into her twenties, who split her band up at the height of their success? “She wasn’t ideological,” goes one line about her. “She was an observer rather than a critic.” Much of what makes I Am a Cliché so special comes from her daughter, Celeste Bell, who co-wrote the film with author Zoë Howe, following on from their Poly Styrene book together, Dayglo. Bell also co-directs and stars as a key component in telling the story of her mother’s life, which ended in 2011 after her battle with breast cancer. It’s a sensitive tale to tell, extending far beyond the split of X-Ray Spex in 1979, the sense of foreboding there from the very opening line, where Bell says: “My mother was a punk rock icon. People often ask me if she was a good mum. It’s hard to know what to say.” Neither actor nor over-rehearsed talking head, Bell’s grief is startlingly real without the need for melodrama. Accompanying her are Styrene’s peers and those she’s influenced (crucially in sound alone – after all, would there be anything more cliché than a host of whacka-mole clips of Ana Da Silva, Neneh Cherry and John Robb et al. talking from a variety
of pubs and recording studios?), and the next best thing to Styrene herself: her many diary entries and poems uncannyily read by actor Ruth Negga. With these three tools expertly deployed, I Am a Cliché not only celebrates Poly Styrene the artist, but furthermore pays tribute to Marianne Joan Elliott-Said’s spirit, sensitive as it was, contextualising her mental health, which was misunderstood (and misdiagnosed) at the time. A beautiful documentary. Abi Crawford
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance — Hanif Abdurraqib (penguin random house) Most days I think that no one Most days I think that no one alive writes about music as well as Hanif Abdurraqib. Plenty of people can explain why a certain artist or album is interesting or important, and some people do this exceptionally well. But no one captures how music feels as well as Abdurraqib. A poet and a critic, he is also a conjurer. He summons sound and time and place, and he summons you to a moment where a song reaches the height of its power, whether that moment is at the Grammys or a dorm room. His new book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance is an impactful, empathetic work, and perhaps the author’s best to date. Abdurraqib is prolific. This book is his sixth in as many years, and his first for Random House, the literary equivalent of signing to a major label. You may have enjoyed his New York Times bestseller Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on the Tribe Called Quest or his collection of music essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Whether he’s writing about New York in the ’90s or a sweaty midwestern emo
show, his work in those books is viscerally transportive. But Abdurraqib is primarily a poet – his most recent collection, A Fortune for Your Disaster, came out two years ago – and his poetic sensibilities always shine in his prose. As the title advertises, A Little Devil in America is about Black performance, in music and beyond. Abdurraqib writes about icons like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Josephine Baker, and more obscure but no less exciting acts, like LA punk band Fuck U Pay Us, 19th century dancer Master Juba, and magician Ella Armstrong. In every instance, he calls attention to the joy and skill in their art while delving into the painful realities of being Black in America, which requires Black Americans to perform on stage and in life. At nearly every turn, Abdurraqib contextualizes great moments in Black performance with reflections on his own experience. Indeed, A Little Devil in America is arguably a memoir. To explain the beauty of Soul Train, he shares the sweaty joys of a high school dance. To understand the brilliance and contradictions of The Dimplomats’ post-911 classic Diplomatic Immunity you must also understand the deep discomfort of hearing the author’s white college classmates rap every word while complaining about having to visit a grocery store in a Black neighbourhood. This move to the personal is what makes Abdurraqib’s music writing so powerful. Some critics make a case. To explain Michael Jackson they will give you the biography of his father and note the state of the record industry and the global economy in the ’80s. These are important, sure, and A Little Devil in America certainly has a comprehensive bedrock of musical history. Abdurraqib knows his shit. But he can teach as much about Michael Jackson in talking about how people grieved for him, pouring into a bar in Ohio to dance all night. This writer never shies away from the intimacy of music, the love and pain it channels and inspires, often at a very young age. That these are the things truly worthy of praise. Colin Groundwater
E C S T A T I C
R E T U R N
Following two previous albums fuelled by the grief of losing her mother, JAPANESE BREAKFAST’s new record searches for undeniable joy and finds it in Michelle Zauner’s determination to once again embrace feelings, by Katie Beswick. Photography by David Cortes
There is a scene in Michelle Zauner’s forthcoming memoir, Crying in H Mart, where she describes an encounter at a karaoke bar in Vietnam. Reeling with grief, having recently nursed her mum through terminal cancer, unmoored from what had formerly constituted reality, Zauner finds herself alone in the bar following an argument with her father. They are on vacation together, their already fractious relationship now fraying utterly without the rod of her mother’s love to shore it up. Taking refuge in the karaoke bar, she meets a young Vietnamese woman whose rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ gives way to a brief yet profound connection that results, obliquely, in Zauner’s peaceful reconciliation with her father. In this scene, as throughout the memoir, Zauner plays with the intricacies of interrelationships and their ripples outward. The book reveals the gossamer strands that tie us to one another, their fine and fragile nature, and how sensory experiences in food, art and music help us express, experience and share joy as we cling on despite the frailty. It is grief, love and the possibilities of connection in the midst of fragility that I’m thinking about when Zauner and I meet. They are on my mind both for obvious global crisis reasons, and for reasons to do with the personal effects of the crisis, which has seen me mostly alone at home without any sustained human contact for the past several months.
“All the songs on the record are about the ways that people can fight to experience joy, or what we need to do to sustain or preserve joy”
“I think relationships with other people are what make being alive pretty interesting,” Zauner says, when I ask if attention to themes of human connection in her memoir, and in her forthcoming Japanese Breakfast album Jubilee, were intentional, or just what I’ve fabricated as significant given my own circumstances. “I’m interested in the way human beings interact with one another – it’s what I spend most of my time thinking about. I think it’s the most nuanced and complicated part of life. I think the writing that I enjoy is sort of taking a magnifying glass to a small moment and exploring what that means in a relationship or how it impacts a relationship in some way. It’s such a raw question.” Issues of connection and love are perhaps particularly raw, given not only the pandemic, but that Zauner has been working through grief in her life, writing and music since the loss of her mother in 2014. Her first two albums under the Japanese Breakfast project (2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet) dwelled in grief and its aftermath. The attempt to reignite joy that drives her third album, which drops later this month, marks a shift in her attention. Yet, to call the album joyful does not do justice to its complexity. This is a search for joy rather than its expression. She does not pretend that joy is a straightforward emotion, “I think that joy is… I don’t know,” Zauner tells me, “…it’s an inexplicable feeling in some ways. It feels like a maximalist feeling. Just ecstatic contentment. It’s the orgasm of human experience. It’s what everyone is chasing in their lives, to have this peak moment of feeling. And it’s what we as human beings strive for and try to create all the time, when we travel, when we date, when we eat maybe…” — In Hell — Joy as the orgasm of human experience makes me think of how the French call orgasms ‘little deaths’, the darkness and oblivion mixed in with the pleasure. Of the impossibility of real pleasure without the underside of its opposite. My favourite track on Zauner’s Jubilee, ‘In Hell’ works with joy’s dark complexities. The opening line, (“With my luck you’ll be dead within the year / I’ve come to expect it / There’s nothing left to fear, at least there’s that”), evokes the freedom and the unsettling lightness that come with having experienced the worst, and born it through to the other side. I listen to it over and over again as I prepare for our interview, wondering how we will feel when all this is done, and we can be together again. If that is even possible. How this time of darkness might intensify the pleasure of its relief; how we didn’t know it was vital and sustaining to sit in a pub garden and smoke a cigarette with a friend on a sunny afternoon until that was no longer something that would always be available. “I think that to have an album about joy has been maybe confusing for some people,” Zauner says. “Because, obviously, I am not going to present an album that is ten tracks of zip-adee-doo-dah. So, for me, the album and all the songs on the record are about the ways that people can fight to experience joy, or what we need to do to sustain or preserve joy. And I think every song on the album does that in a way.”
Even ‘In Hell’? “To be fair, I think ‘In Hell’ is probably the saddest song that I’ve ever written, and it still has grief in it. Which, you know, I can’t ever eliminate from my life. But in some ways I think that I can look at that song and I can look at those moments, and I can still experience joy in my life, even though I’ve hit rock bottom. I think it’s a testament to human nature’s desire to survive, and what I’ve learned from just so much loss and tragedy in my life. It did change me very much, you know? I feel like I live my life more fully now that I recognise how near death feels to me.” She sighs. “That song is comparing snowing my mother over with hydrocodone and putting my dog down. Seeing how easy it is to kill something. And one thing that was so hard is that when someone’s sick, you watch in movies and someone just closes their eyes and they’re gone, and that’s just not how it happens. It’s often weeks of a comatose state, and it’s very much at your hands to make sure they don’t experience pain through that process. It’s days and days of suspended mourning. And then when I put my dog down it’s literally a shot. But that first line, I feel like the worst thing in so many ways has already happened to me, and yet I’ve still moved forward. And yet I’ve still been able to experience joy, and I feel like I can experience more joy. I work harder, I feel things more, because I watched someone die and I have a genetic disposition to probably have the same illness. And I feel like I need to really take advantage of my time and say what I need to say and experience the things I want to experience. And I think for a lot of people the pandemic has done that for them as well. A lot of friends I’ve watched kind of reckon with this moment of ‘What do I want to do right now?’, ‘I thought this job was my life and now that I can’t do it, what is there?’ or, ‘I see it in a new perspective, I wanna change.’ I have a lot of friends who moved, or went to the country or broke up with their partner – because this kind of crisis makes you confront what’s really important.” — Congratulations, you’re fired — After Zauner lost her mother, she reckoned with what was important in her own life. At twenty-five, having played in bands for almost ten years, she began to think that, if she hadn’t made music a sustaining career yet, that wasn’t going to happen. She needed to settle down and find a job that might finance her life with her husband, and take her somewhere new. Choosing what she presumed was a sensible and maybe even glamorous path, she found a job in New York, moving there from Oregon to work in advertising. It paid decent wages, and Zauner carried on working on creative projects in her spare time. But the corporate environment did not make her happy. “You watch the people eat their lunches at their desks. And it is like… I mean, I’m so grateful for that experience in a way because it made me realise: I can never go back to this. Anything that I do is better than this. And I’d always been curious about it, because if you haven’t done it, it seems glamourous in a weird way. Like sometimes I go to corporate offices and they have mineral water, and they have a gym membership that comes with their benefits or whatever. And
that kind of thing is really enticing if you haven’t worked in that world. And then once you’ve worked in that world you’re like, ‘Ok, getting free Equinox gym membership in exchange from what they want from you is actually not worth it.’ “And nine months into the job I started getting press for Psychopomp. I had signed to a small label called Yellow K just to release it. I had told them, ‘I’m not gonna tour. I have this job now. I’ve tried touring. That doesn’t work out – I just wanna press five hundred records and slowly sell them over the course of ten years.’ And they were like, ‘Great we’re gonna hire a PR person, we’re gonna hire a publicist.’ I thought, ‘That’s your loss, you’re never gonna make that money back, but whatever.’ And then I went into my year-end evaluation with my job, and I thought I was gonna get a raise – and then they told me that I wasn’t doing a very good job. And so we took our Christmas break, and they accidentally offered me more severance pay than they were supposed to. So I went on my Christmas break and I thought about it. Psychopomp started getting press, we got invited to play South by Southwest. Things were starting to come along in this way and my job had told me I could take this severance. I’d also won an essay contest for five thousand dollars. So I was like, ‘Ok, I have this back up money, I can see how it goes.’ And so, I quit my job when I got back from Christmas vacation. I went to South By. I got offered a record deal and all that stuff kind of came together, and that was the moment that I was, like, ‘Ok. This is my job now.’”
— An only child in America — Zauner does not come from a family of people who made money from their creative endeavours. Given that social and political inequities make choosing creative paths increasingly difficult, I wonder how she had the bravery to continue creating – especially in the face of pressure to work harder in her advertising role. At one point she tells me how, although her corporate job was nominally nine to five, leaving at seven so she could spend time on creative projects became frowned upon, since everyone else in the office stayed past 9pm to prove their commitment and productivity. It takes a certain kind of personality, maybe, to drive on with your heart’s desire when everything in the culture you are living tells you to do the opposite? She laughs. “I mean, you have to be sort of an egomaniac to become an artist. I think I had the privilege of growing up as an only child in America and I just felt special. I think that that gave me the self-confidence to feel like I had something to say, and I had to force people to listen to me. It was something I felt at a very young age. I was an extremely sensitive person, in every way. Sensitive to other people, sensitive to my own emotions and just easily moved by things.” That sensitivity and propensity towards feeling special is odd, Zauner says, given that neither of her parents were particularly drawn to artistic endeavours, and that her mother tried actively to dissuade her from becoming an artist. “I think I talk
about this a lot in my book actually. I don’t know if it’s something a lot of people will pick up on, but I was very fascinated – actually I think a lot of artists might be – in like, where do I get this from? Because my father is very much not a creative person and my mother was a homemaker and really was concerned with me gravitating towards this path of an artist, which only made me gravitate to it more. And sometimes I wonder if she didn’t grow up in the culture that she did [Zauner’s mother was Korean], and the socio-economic status that she did, if she would have been more interested in the creative arts, because I think she was a middle child of three, she grew up in a culture where stuff like that’s not really encouraged, her parents didn’t have the sort of money to get her piano lessons at a young age. She didn’t have the things that I grew up with. And I wonder sometimes if she did if she might have been a more creative person, because I think things that we don’t necessarily associate with art but are creative, she was into – she liked fashion and she liked putting together outfits and she liked arranging the home. And these are the things that we write off as homemaker things, but they are creative things. I think that the way that you can love someone and look after people can also be creative.” — Feeling good — We’re back at love and connection again. These recurring themes in her work have taken on new energy in Jubliee, made possible by moving away from the “insular processes” that came out of creating her first two albums through grief. For Soft Sounds, she says, the process was almost completely isolated, with only close friend and producer Chris Hendricks trusted to work alongside her. Coming out of her grief, she began to long for a more connected creative experience. “[Jubilee] was one of more collaborative albums I’ve worked on,” she says. In fact, even before she had started work on the album proper, she felt the itch to work with musicians and artists outside her close circle. Reaching out to management, she wondered whether she might like writing for other people, “And so my publishing company set me up on like, blind dates with some gross producers and it was really unsatisfying, and I hated it so much. Similar to a corporate job, I was like, ‘Oh I could like writing for a pop star,’ and you know, it just wasn’t for me.” Her publishing company didn’t give up as easily as her former corporate employers, though. “[They] do this thing where they lie to two people. So they paired me up with Jack Tatum from Wild Nothing, and they told Jack, ‘Oh, Michelle’s working on a new record’ – which was not true – ‘and she really wants you to write songs for it.’ And he was like, ‘Ok great I can help her’. And then to me they were like, ‘Oh Jack’s writing a new Wild Nothing album, and he really wants you to help write songs for his record’ – which he wasn’t. So, I was like, ‘Ok great, I’ll help him. Right.’ So, when we got there it was like, we were both: ‘Ok we’re writing songs for your new record,’ and then, ‘No I’m not working on a new record.’”
“You know, sometimes I’m very relieved that I don’t have the same kind of feelings I had when I was a teenager and just felt everything so much – like, comically so much”
“You have to be sort of an egomaniac to become an artist. I think I had the privilege of growing up as an only child in America and I just felt special”
Clearly, the publishing company knew what they were doing, or maybe it was luck, because the Tatum collaboration resulted in ‘Be Sweet’, Jubilee’s poppy lead single. “I really loved that collaboration, and I was like, ‘I think I want this actually.’ And that was a long time ago, before I was even working on any record really, and so I had this back-pocket single that I was sitting on for a really long time.” Collaborations with Alex G, Molly Germer and others followed, lending an outward quality to the album that marks an evolution from Zauner’s past releases. Jubilee speaks to the ways connection and being with others facilitate our access to those deeper sensations – the ones that we are robbed of through the pain of grief. “For me the record is very much about joy, but it’s also about feeling, since my last record was about, like, finding a way to avoid feeling because grief is such an intense feeling, and sorrow is an intense feeling that you don’t want to really revel in. I think a lot of Soft Sounds is about how I needed to disassociate from feeling, and now that I’ve healed in a lot of ways and went through that and time has passed I feel very ready to embrace feeling. “And I also think as you get older your feelings naturally soften, and I think that I am the type of person that likes to feel. I am a very extreme person. You know, sometimes I’m very relieved that I don’t have the same kind of feelings I had when I was a teenager and just felt everything so much – like, comically so much. Like someone you crushed on for a week was just devastating if they didn’t reciprocate those feelings, like at that time it was just the world. And I think so much of art is those kind of feelings. As you get older you don’t have those feelings as much, and you start yearning for them in some ways or you have to recreate them in some way. So, I think part of the record is trying to chase after, or recreate, that pure of heart, total feeling. Like the song ‘Kokomo’, I wrote about eighteenyear-olds in love, what that feels like. And for ‘Paprika’ it was really kind of trying to remind myself how fantastic my job is. And how beautiful and incredible it is to get to linger in tones and words. That is my job you know? And sometimes when the days are long, and you know you’re just so wrapped up in busy, petty stuff, you forget how lucky you are to be in the world.”
Keep the car running How Fat Possum Records went from an obscure blues label in 1991 to publishing a bestselling novel by an ex-military bank robber 30 years later, by Daniel Dylan Wray
It was a balmy April day with scattered clouds in the sky as people went about their Saturday morning business in Lyndhurst, a small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. As it was getting closer to lunchtime and people started to head out to diners, cafes and restaurants, a young man walked into a bank wearing sunglasses and a hoodie. The pregnant bank teller didn’t notice him initially as she was busy serving another customer. Walking towards the teller window he shoved aside the customer, quickly flashing the gun he was carrying. “You know what this is,” he said plainly, as she handed him over $7,000, which he then stuffed into a white plastic bag and swiftly walked out. Driving away from the bank, he changed clothes and hats behind the wheel, as a carrier bag full of cash sat on the passenger seat next to his gun. A wail of sirens blared out and so he sped up. Weaving in and out of lanes with his foot pressed hard on the gas, soon the sirens subsided to a quiet whir, before they disappeared altogether. There was a momentary moment of
peace. Then the car hit traffic. The sirens became louder again, intensifying, getting closer. Panicked, he began to drive through the traffic, bumping and scratching cars in the process, before swerving into oncoming traffic. The police continued to make ground as multiple car sirens joined into a shrill chorus. They followed the car as it hurtled through a Burger King parking lot before crashing off into an embankment. Before he knew it, the 25-year-old Iraq veteran – and recipient of seven medals and commendations – was surrounded by screaming police with their guns drawn. This was Nico Walker’s [pictured above] 11th bank robbery in four months – but it was to be his final one, as he was soon sentenced to 11 years in the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky. Walker wasn’t your archetypal person to sign up to the army as a “grunt”. He came from a stable middle class family and when studying at college, aged 19, he decided suddenly to drop out and enlist. He was colour blind and so became a medic who
went on over 250 combat missions in Iraq. Many of these would be responding to improvised explosive devices, which may result in working on badly injured bodies from the bomb blasts. Or in many cases, simply zipping up his friends into body bags who were dead upon arrival. When returning in 2006, he struggled to adjust to civilian life. He couldn’t sleep due to anxiety and when he did images of death and horror would play on an endless loop. He tried booze to numb it and help him sleep but the nightmares persisted. So he tried oxycontin. His mental health, undiagnosed PTSD and anxiety disorders continued to worsen. Intravenous use of oxycontin turned into heroin use and soon enough he was robbing banks to feed his addiction. Walker’s story has recently been adapted and dramatised for the film Cherry, starring Tom Holland and directed by industry titans the Russo Brothers. The film is based on his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, which he wrote on a typewriter while he was in prison. However, one aspect to this story that tends to get glossed over in the film world, or in broader media coverage, is the unique musical link. Days after Walker’s book came out, he was offered $1m for the rights to adapt it, although this book may never have come together at all if it wasn’t for the input of the man behind Fat Possum records: Matthew Johnson [pictured overpage]. It’s also a record label that celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year, and one that is no stranger to working with unique characters with jagged backstories. — A place for underdogs — Fat Possum started in 1991 and initially specialised in discovering blues players from the North Mississippi region, many of whom had never recorded before. Acts such as R. L. Burnside [bottom right], Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford [bottom left] and Cedell Davis were all revered locally and stars of the juke joints around the area, but many had never played beyond these rambunctious makeshift venues, or had any desire to. The acts had not just lived lives worthy of singing the blues – many of them had the kind of experiences that were the very blueprint for the genre. Growing up in 1940s Chicago, Burnside lost his father, two brothers and two uncles all within 12 months. All were murdered. Years later Burnside himself was convicted of murdering a man over a craps game. Ford too was sentenced to a chain gang as a young man for murder. Davis experienced severe polio as a child, resulting in very little hand function, but he managed to utilise a butter knife to create a distinct and singular style of playing. All of which he did from a wheelchair for the majority of his life, because during a police raid at a club he was playing in 1957, he was almost trampled to death in the ensuing stampede, with both his legs broken in the process. Is it fair to say, then, that label founder Johnson is attracted to rough-around-the-edges underdog characters. “Yeah, I think we all are,” he says. “They are definitely more interesting because they’re not overexposed.” Fat Possum has changed somewhat since its early days. “It’s not a blues label anymore,” says Johnson, who has released work by Iggy Pop, Dinosaur Jr, Townes Van Zandt, The Black
Keys and Al Green. “There used to be a gazillion older guys and they’re all gone now. It’s not the same. Those were the last people who grew up in the ’50s. We had this one guy, Charles Caldwell, he was like the last blues guy I messed with. He was great, really charismatic and everything, but as soon as we signed him he got pancreatic cancer, obviously brought on by a lot of drinking. I got tired of it. Everyone was ragged out from 60 years of really hard partying and on their last legs. It was soon the case that everyone who was really inspiring was gone. Signing The Black Keys set us on our course to become what we are today.” Johnson notes that communication with artists has become a little easier than it was back in the early days. “Not only was this pre-internet but a lot of these people didn’t even have phones,” he says. “It would sometimes take a day to get in contact with someone. R. L. used to hang out at a pool hall, so we’d leave messages for him there. It was a hell of a lot of driving around.” The artists weren’t always the most straightforward to work with either, with many being suspicious of motives. “Everyone was, like, ‘Well, I guess you got these guys to trust you…’ I was, like, ‘Hell no!’ You can’t undo a lifetime’s experience of getting fucked over by white people in one deal. R. L. and those guys couldn’t understand why somebody wouldn’t rip somebody off if they could. They certainly would. They assumed I was fucking them over, and honestly, in a way I think it’s probably not a bad way to approach the record industry.” Johnson also co-runs Tyrant books, and after reading a BuzzFeed profile on Walker back in 2013, he got in touch. “I was a history major and I’ve always been fascinated by bank robberies,” he says. “There’s always been a spike in robberies after wars in America. Once these kids go and see all this horror in the Civil War they weren’t content to go work in a general store or hang out on the farm for the rest of their lives. Some guy is now totally qualified for somebody throwing grenades at him for the rest of his life – how do you come back from that? When I read that BuzzFeed piece and he was picking up the fucking pieces of his buddy and his gloves were melting touching his burning skin, it was like, how fucking harrowing. Bank robbery compared to that place is like going to the fucking dry cleaners. Who the hell in their right mind wouldn’t become addicted to heroin after that?” “He approached me very cautiously,” Walker recalls, now released and living in Oxford, Mississippi with his new wife, the poet Rachel Rabbit White. “He wrote a letter and I didn’t know who he was or any of the things he’d done. I just thought I was getting a letter from a guy. He mentioned he had a record label and I presumed if he’s taking the time to talk to me it would be a pretty small little mom-and-pop operation. I’m not a snob so if somebody gives me the time of day, I’ve enough respect to write them back.” It soon transpired that the BuzzFeed article was in the process of being turned into a screenplay by the journalist who wrote it. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t give a shit what you do but if you don’t fucking get ahead of this story other people are going to tell it for you,’” recalls Johnson. “You’re going to live in the shadow of it and you’ll be that fucking guy at the bar trying to tell a story nobody believes. Get in front of this or you’re going to just be a fucking casualty of it.”
“The first thing he sent was so fucking bad. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what have I encouraged?’”
“It’s embarrassing but I used to mess with poems,” Walker tells me. “I didn’t have anything in prison so the only thing I could do for Christmas was make a piece of artwork, a poem. There were a couple poems I sent and Matthew saw something in one. He said I should write a book and I really didn’t want to but he’s a pretty persuasive guy. He made a good point that I had nothing else to do so I might as well give it a crack.” However, it was not the most auspicious of starts. “The first thing he sent was so fucking bad,” laughs Johnson. “I was
like, ‘Oh my god, what have I encouraged?’ I was yelling at him: ‘Goddamnit, write it like you would say it!’ He had only read books from the 1800s – he had never read any modern fiction – so it was like this Victorian shit. It was just horrible. But then he finally learned how to write in the voice he talked in.” Walker echoes this trajectory. “When I started, I sucked,” he says. “I think I had one more chance left and I sent him something and, for whatever reason, he saw something in it that made him breathe a sigh of relief and that maybe this whole thing wasn’t a terrible mistake.” Johnson: “I called him and I was like, ‘All right, everything you sent me for the last three or four years is fucking horrible, but this is good. Go from here.’ And then he wrote the entire thing in like a fucking weekend.” — Cherry — The book was a success, charting highly on the New York Times bestseller list and earning rave reviews that positioned it as the great novel of the opioid epidemic. The day after Walker was released from custody lockdown started. “Which was kind of ironic,” he says. “But you make do. I’m used to dealing with bullshit so this is kind of par for the course.” Walker has been at best apathetic about the film, choosing to distance himself from it – including refusing a role of executive producer – and at the time of publishing he has not even seen it. “It wasn’t me in the book so I’m not sure it will get much more accurate in the film,” he says. “It’s a weird feeling. It is literally like the equivalent of just being replaced by a more charismatic, more attractive, vastly more popular version of yourself.” I ask him if the prison, book, film, interview cycle going over his life repeatedly has allowed for deep reflection? “I’ve done a lot of fucked up shit,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of stuff I regret. I certainly regret joining the fucking military. It’s just about the most bullshit thing in the world. I went with good intentions, I just wanted to help people. Then when I went to prison it was a bit of a shock when you first get there, but you can only be shocked for so long. You accept things pretty quickly and you adjust.” There have been some positives to jail, Walker feels. “The good thing about prison is that I’d be fucking dead if I hadn’t gone there,” he says. “I really don’t have a shadow of a doubt in my mind that I would not be alive right now.” It was also the place where he started studying and becoming obsessed with language, while reading much more. “Before prison I wouldn’t read books or anything like that,” he says. “I just used to shoot dope and sit in front of one of the eight channels I had to choose from until four o’clock in the morning. It’s pretty fucking lame. I’m still an asshole but I was a real asshole back then. If I hadn’t gone to prison – well, I’d be dead – but up until the time that I died, I’d have been this horrible fucking asshole. I think the most embarrassing thing about going to prison was that for somebody like me who had advantages, I was 25 years old and I didn’t know a fucking thing. I realised I was completely fucking ignorant. So it was like: I may as well try and learn some shit. That’s how I did it, I was just so fucking embarrassed by how goddamn ignorant I was.”
So, is Walker and the story of his life being turned into a film by the biggest film directors in the world bizarrely part of a lineage linked to obscure bluesmen from decades ago? “I think we’re both people who get frustrated with pretension,” Walker says of Johnson and what he sees in him. “It’s underrepresented in literature and it’s like the way he approached music, bringing people in who were not very glitzy. They weren’t glamorous, you couldn’t use them to sell clothes, and they had that sort of almost proletarian attitude that is very challenging. I guess he likes that kinda shit.” And for Johnson, does he see a link between the work and character of his old blues renegades and his contemporary literary one? “God knows what happens when you die,” he says, “but if there’s a card game or decent bar up there I would assume that Nico and R. L. and some of the other people would be getting along real well.”
Falmouth’s DIY rave scene is reshaping Cornwall’s musical heritage, thanks to Hockeysmith and the members of her eel collective, by Tristan Gatward. Photography by Jenna Foxton
The holed stone at Mên-an-tol stands thirty miles north of Falmouth, guarded by ailment-curing fairies, piskies and clairvoyant spirits. Passing a naked child through the stone three times and dragging them through the grass eastwards on the Penwith moors will cure scrofula or rickets; women who pass through the hole seven times backwards at full moon hoping to fall pregnant will have their wishes answered; men suffering from rheumatism or spinal problems who skulk through the hole nine times against the sun will leave standing tall. An hour’s journey to the opposite shore forgets the county’s megalithic folklore by way of the rugged coastline, messianic ocean tides and yawning estuaries, the views interrupted occasionally by broken railway tracks along the cliff edge from Cornwall’s once-thriving copper and tin trade, now sunning markedly less-lucrative china clay in open carriages. Times are changing; today, the holed stone at Mên-an-tol is being used as a rubbing post for cattle. At land’s end, Cornwall’s musical tapestry has always cultivated a creative pariah – a feng shui, perhaps, harmonizing boredom with nothing at all, rewarding those at home in their own heads. Sea shanties that kept fishermen working to a rhythm gave way to the acid house scene of the late 1980s, Rephlex Records and a Redruth boy called Richard D. James, followed by swathes of guitar bands at the town’s Green Room. Now, in the neighbouring Falmouth, a fervent subculture of DIY electronic music is breaking through again in the eel collective, founded by Annie Hockeysmith [pictured top right] and Łukasz Kucharski. It’s music, they say, inspired by the dark and natural ambiences of north-facing caves that are maws to the treacherous sea, and raves in the woods where the air hums with the electricity of distorted kick drums and subterranean bass. On the meadows up from Grebe and Falmouth Bay, Annie Hockeysmith’s home, a 1980s-style American Winnebago bus stands next to a barn in a caravan park, on a gentle decline to the sea. “We don’t know how it got here,” she grins, in a bright red sunhat, adjusting her Webcam to show a sand-filled kitchen, a bed that comes down from the ceiling and a cabin-like living area, made strange only by the existence of an elevated steering wheel coming out of a wall where a television would be. “It’s too big to move,” she says. “The farmer here would have to get the tractor out and we don’t want to do that again.” — Hockeysmith — Hockeysmith began as a project long before Annie and her sister Georgie moved to Falmouth, back when the pair lived together in Brighton and wrote the darkwave sleeper hit ‘But Blood’ in
2012. “We just put it up online and then we had this gig, and loads of booking agents were showing up, people were writing about us and we were just like, ‘it’s happening!’ But we only had this one song and didn’t know who we were yet.” In the following year, everything and nothing happened at once. Indie heavyweights 4AD and Double Denim got in touch with offers of management, they were being booked for festivals and getting big press attention, but the external forces sat uneasily with them and they didn’t release music for another year. “It just didn’t feel right to me and Georgie,” says Annie. “I don’t know how I feel about it now, looking back, because I think… wow, to get that kind of attention is really special. But we didn’t go with it, we thought we were being pushed in a direction, being made to look really hipster. We shot the video for ‘But Blood’ on the farm and it just felt uncomfortable, like we’d lost our underground edge.” It wasn’t until they were booked to play Distortion in Copenhagen that the sisters recalibrated and found inspiration again. “There just wasn’t anything like that in Cornwall at all,” Annie says. “There was no electronic music, it was just indie bands and we felt so uninspired. But in Copenhagen we saw these amazing punk bands and techno artists. That was the first time we saw collectives working together, and it was so artful and had nothing to do with the industry side that we were getting caught up in.” Desperate to live there, the band relocated, but the physical and mental distance between Hockeysmith and their team was expanding. “Things sort of fell apart a bit,” Annie laughs. “One of my biggest heroes is Patti Smith and she talks about it in Just Kids – you’ve got to protect the name and the quality. Even when other people get involved, you know in your heart if it isn’t you. I’m proud that we’ve always been in control of what we sound like. When we showed our team the new music they didn’t think it was right; they wanted to produce us in a certain way and that was the end of it.” After a few years in Copenhagen, the band split up, citing illness and stress. Georgie decided to pursue a psychology degree and a career in neuroscience, and Annie moved back to the bus in Cornwall to finish the Tears At My Age EP as a solo artist. From the self-described “Kylie-on-acid” banger ‘Lonely Loving Me’ to the shoegaze and slowcore-indebted title track, the Tears At My Age EP’s paean to Cornwall was as cowed but irrevocable as Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album. “I wasn’t even sure whether I could carry on with the Hockeysmith name,” she says, “but I really liked gigging on my own, and then I decided to do the popular music course at Falmouth University, and eel was born.”
— Earth Eel Loop — The first “e” stands for earth, the second for “eel” and the “l” for “loop”. The underground tunnels mined by this collective to spread their music far and wide is the Falmouth University Share Drive. The first time I was sent their new compilation, men an tol, I was blocked access for entering the incorrect university email address. Its fourteen tracks write the strangest postcard from Cornwall, from Earthnut’s melancholic UK garage on ‘Tecca Don’ to the shimmering clack and welter of Hallion’s uncomfortably titled ‘Covid32’, and the ethereal ambience of Inka Upendo’s ‘Waterlevel’ that plays calmly by the drone-heavy reverb and vocal loops of MAYBELLEENE’s ‘Nyctalopia’. The three standing stones of Mên-an-tol are digitized on the artwork, now representing three stars in Centaurus under the shadow of a splattered Gameboy fairy; Lupus is shown as a ground squirrel. A highlight of the release is ‘Late Night Ventures’ by C O N T X T [pictured centre], the Falmouth-based project of George Townsend. It was written during the first lockdown when he returned to his family home in the Isle of Wight, surrounded by water and countryside just as in Falmouth, but with a completely opposing atmosphere – “a creative dead zone,” he says on the phone later. Clouding the outlines of rave and ambient, C O N T X T’s sampled live drums morph between deconstructed future garage and breakbeat. “It represents the madness I was feeling at a time,” he says, desperately trying to ground himself away from the Cornish scene. “I wanted it to be off-grid and not follow a conventional beat pattern; it sounds out of time when you play it next to something else, but in time with itself.” “I feel like we’re all kind of drawn to dance music,” says eel co-founder Łukasz, joining on Zoom from his current base in Tottenham, “but more so playing it live than DJing. I feel like there’s more people who want to do live dance music. A lot of events you find 90% of the lineup is DJs. That’s the difference I’ve felt from us compared to other collectives.” “When you come to an eel night everyone’s got their gear out and playing with electronics and working on the performance,” Annie agrees. “Terry Bliss has a microphone set up. Oh Mr. James comes down with all his modular synths. We’ll do some DJing afterwards, but being able to see the producer doing it all live brings a real edge to it.” The fondness with which C O N T X T speaks of the eel nights is rooted in the quality of the music, of course, but more generally about the atmosphere created among friends. “There weren’t many opportunities for electronic artists to get gigs in Cornwall, but eel gave us a space for us to work. And it was just the first time I found my people. No one’s there to sling drugs or hook up with people. There’s a real passion with the artists and those who attend.” “If I can’t classify what the genre of music is, I usually like it a lot,” says Łukasz, emphasising how important inclusivity is to eel. His own door into dance music as a converted metalhead was opened by a Polish synth-pop band called The Dump-
“There was this rumour that Aphex Twin was playing and before I knew it the whole barn was packed out”
lings. “Most of my favourite albums try different approaches and different styles. I really love musicians that will just try out loads of things and bring loads of elements into the music, and different emotions. I get quite bored easily,” he laughs. “It can’t be alienating. With a lot of experimental music, it’s great, but people need a point to grab onto that resonates. Being from Cornwall we have to try and get people into these events, you can’t afford to be too far up your own ass.” “When you look at the photos from our gigs everyone’s smiling and having a great time,” Annie says. “There’s something to grab onto. It’s catchy and crazy stuff, really danceable and makes for great parties. Everyone gets fed up with boring
DJs in this town, and a lot of people haven’t seen anything like this before.” — Anything goes — Occasional Hockeysmith guitarist and producer, Peasy [pictured right], is one of the few members of the collective who grew up in the county. His solo project Seamouse is named after a pretend creature – half rat, half seagull, an apex predator the size of an armadillo. “I used to water hanging baskets as a job,” he explains, “and it’d involve starting work at 4am. I was still partying a lot, going to work with little or no sleep. We’d just
talk about completely random shit in the back of the van and I decided to use it for music. “It feels like eel has actually got its shit together and is becoming something that can be recognized as a proper label that puts out quality music,” he says. “It’s also turning Cornwall into a scene where you’d want to go to experience live electronic music, not just mainstream dance or generic house. Every night we put on is a real range of stuff; it’s not just one genre. You know, sometimes you get drum’n’bass nights or jungle nights, but eel’s never done that. Anything goes.” Annie’s own taste naturally varies. She’s sampled York’s chillout-trance hit ‘On The Beach’ but listens closely to Fontaines D.C.’s lyrics. “I love ’90s rave music and IDM, but also the new Burial, Bladee, Claire Laffut. And then Sophie, A. G. Cook, Jimmy Edgar…” she reels off artists she’s been listening to, realising her own music has lately orbited a pop-heavy space. “I’m so much happier and more confident doing the pop thing now than when I was 22,” she says, talking about her most recent releases, ‘Down Love’ and ‘Hyper Kobra’. “I guess it’s just experience and knowledge and more time finding out who I am and what music I want to make. As time has gone by I just feel more in control of what I do and more open to express myself. When you’re starting out it’s all just intimidating, and if you’re not coming across as yourself it shows.” That authenticity is an important part of eel’s sustainability. The origin story can be traced back to a free party in the barn by Annie’s bus that has become its own piece of Cornish folklore within the DIY scene. “I like to call it my Super Sweet 16,” she laughs, telling me how she’d wanted to get to know the other musicians studying at Falmouth, and had reached out to Łukasz to see if he’d play and bring people down, having heard he was a cool DJ. A while earlier, she’d unknowingly befriended Aphex Twin and his wife, playing at a fish factory. “He heard us play ‘Let’s Bang’ for the first time and thought it was a cool tune, and then we just talked about his synth collection, Trego Mills, living in caravans… it was just a really nice natural chat. I didn’t really know much about him. “Anyway, it was a freakishly hot day in May,” Annie says, “and I asked Richard if he wanted to play a secret set at the barn. He thought it could be fun and brought his kids down. And then there was this rumour that he was playing and before I knew it the whole barn was packed out and full. We arrived in the tractor… it was the dream gig. Richard played at the end and you can imagine the reaction – people couldn’t believe it. And everyone was just hanging out on the hay bales and having a nice time. And then night came and Alan the farmer said, ‘right it’s midnight, now can we get this guy off ’ and he cut the power in Richard’s set and said he’d get the police round soon. “To be fair,” she adds, “we got so many complaints that the next time I tried to organize an eel night there… well, we haven’t been successful since. It was a one-off treat. There were so many people on the campsite helping out with lights and stuff saying stuff like ‘This music is shit’, ‘What’s all this noise?’, ‘You call this music?’”
— Only in Cornwall — But something about Cornwall has inspired all this esoteric noise. Maybe it’s the place, or maybe it’s the creativity its geological separation forces artists into. “There’s not much going on here,” says Peasy. “There’s no pressure to fit into certain criteria or to think this is the cool thing. There’s no pressure to create anything other than the pressure of actually creating it. There’s something to be said about living in the city, for sure, you’ve got that energy and there’s always something happening, but in my experience you can’t get away from it in the same way. Knowing that the woods are a ten-minute walk away and you don’t have to be around anyone… The solitude here is unlike anything.” “You are just so isolated here,” adds Łukasz, “it feels like you are at the end of the world, everyone’s in their own head and you can build up these ideas that maybe don’t appear in a bigger city where you’ve got 200 parties every weekend.” “I mean, that’s why we came down here,” says Annie, thinking back to the time she and her sister relocated. “It’s beautiful, we could get a caravan quite cheaply and have this creative lifestyle. We never went to London because we couldn’t afford it. We thought that to be an artist you have to live as cheaply as possible and have as much time to work on your creative stuff. We also found… I mean it was the same in the ’90s as it is now, but there are no venues here. To put on gigs we’ve had to put speakers in certain places, set up your own little DIY rave, and you’ve got these amazing outdoor locations with beautiful backdrops.” “Being in Cornwall makes it such a big adventure every time we do a show,” Łukasz smiles. “Half of our events seem to get cancelled due to massive storms. Nature’s the creature to avoid; having to get in equipment when the wind is strong enough to blow you over and it’s hard to even stand up. When we put on Iglooghost and BABii, all the flights here got cancelled, so they had to take a train instead and we thought they’d get caught in flooding. They made it, but Annie had to drive to Truro to get them, and then it took them 24 hours to get home the next day.” “Yeah,” she laughs, “they stayed on my bus.” Over hours of conversation, no one in eel is able to pinpoint the creative nucleus of Cornwall’s DIY rave scene. There’s no venue beyond the pop-up nights at the barn, no meeting ground beyond the University. It doesn’t matter where people create their sounds, what it sounds like or what inspiration it draws from. Annie’s new music has its roots in the French countryside; an acoustic album is on the cards, penned partially at a chateau in Burgundy where she was living as a family’s English teacher, while playing sessions with Borussia at the Ed Banger studios in Paris, 500 miles from Mên-an-tol. “There’s got to be some energy here,” says Annie, knowingly playing into the folklore of the place. “Cornwall’s amazing as a base but sometimes you feel the urge to go out exploring into cities. People come and go but Cornwall doesn’t really leave them.” It’s a phenomenon that makes eel perhaps the most isolated collective in the world – but coming back to the party is the only thing that matters.
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Final Third: In Conversation
“Hey what’s up J”, beams Kurt Vile as the face of J Mascis materialises on screen. It’s been nearly a year now since the two last spoke in person and both men are clearly thrilled to be reunited. Sweep It Into Space, the fifth new studio album by Dinosaur Jr to be released during the 13th year of their rebirth, was originally scheduled for mid-2020, but both the recording and its imminent presentation were thwarted by the pandemic. On the surface, this is an album for purists who revel in Dinosaur Jr’s post-hardcore fuzz tones, but delve a little deeper and a fully-functioning pop sound emerges, with impressive melodic depth. There are very few moments where you wouldn’t know you were listening to Dinosaur Jr. but the band move seamlessly from guitar howler to classic rock power ballad, taking in a huge variety of string sounds. Through the years they have crafted a signature sound, sometimes taking it in surprising directions, and joining J, Lou and Murph on the Sweep It Into Space journey was Kurt Vile, who travelled to Amherst’s Biquiteen Studio in the late Autumn of 2019 to take on a producer role for a first time. As I discover, things didn’t entirely go to plan.
KURT VILE: The last I saw J was more or less when the pandemic went down, which seems like ages ago. We heard it was coming, we knew it was coming. Basically we were at J’s house when there was talk of everything literally shutting down and you were saying you were not looking forward to things closing but I was still in denial. When I got home though, it was all happening and here we are a year later. IAN ROEBUCK: It sounds like you were braced for the worst, J, and you almost knew what to expect in the US? J MASCIS: Well I have a friend that works for the UN in Rome and she told me that everything will certainly shut down as it was already happening in Italy so you need to get your shit together, which I tried to do my best. KV: You were forced to finish the album yourself J weren’t you? You had to move mics around yourself by the end! JM: I know right, I had to play keyboards which was tough too. IR: You seem to know each other well. Do you remember the first time you met and what was the story there?
Final Third: In Conversation Kurt Vile was completely unqualified to produce Dinosaur Jr’s new album but they asked him to anyway. Talking to Ian Roebuck, he and J Mascis discuss why he got the job, what the job even is, and how it can turn you into a monster
KV: Playing shows mainly. I mean I knew J from his music since I was a teen but J invited me on tour back when I released Childish Prodigy  which was great. Also through John Agnello who’s produced tonnes of Dino and is a good friend of ours. Between shows, John and guesting here and there on each other’s studio projects we’ve got to know each other. JM: I don’t remember the first time but I remember very vividly seeing you play in Vermont. That was cool. KV: We also share a drummer, Kyle [Spence]. We have a lot of friends in common really, because Kyle was J’s tech and sometimes drummer for a long time. It’s a pretty crazy but incestuous world when you think about it. IR: You mentioned knowing Dinosaur Jr. music from when you were a teen Kurt but do you remember the very first time you listened to their music? KV: Well, the first song I ever heard was ‘Start Choppin’ on the radio as a single. I was pretty young and I definitely liked that song but I hadn’t heard the whole record at the time. Then ‘Feel the Pain’  came out and that was very impressionable
and undeniably catchy to my teenage brain – well, to anybody’s brain really, but I was susceptible because I was at the right age. Then we saw J on the Hand it Over tour at the Electric Factory in Philly, which was awesome. He’d be doing things as if the audience didn’t exist, all these really loud guitar solos and just walk off stage. I guess you had a really long cable right, J? And then he’d keep playing the solos and walk straight back in. In a good way, he was completely unapproachable. IR: Is he still unapproachable? KV: I would say yes, he is, but in a good way! In real life he’s approachable, although in some ways not so much. I don’t know, it’s weird as I know him now. IR: What was going through your mind then, heading into the studio to produce J’s record? Were you intimidated? KV: I actually was intimidated… well, maybe that’s not the right word. I was definitely nervous because I was asked to be involved in the production and I wanted him to know that I had been listening to the demos because I had been and they were so great. It was the first time for me as producer; it’s not like I have
Final Third: In Conversation done anything like that before. All these things were going on in my head. JM: Well nobody really knows what a producer does anyway. It’s a very nebulous job. KV: It was pretty cool because it ended up all I had to do was nothing, which was awesome! I just got to sit in the corner and get excited about what was happening in front of me. The pandemic put a twist on it as it didn’t end the way we all wanted – it would have ended differently if I had finished it off. I heard certain things in my head and I was excited to see how they would unfold. At the end of the day though, it didn’t matter because J is so particular, he wraps it up like he always does so it was just really cool to be there. It was inspiring to me and I got to play all his guitars and things like that. This is a real classic record – a classic Dino style but kind of in your face, it really cuts through, so I am glad to be part of it. IR: J, how would you describe Kurt as a producer and why did you decide to get him involved? JM: He was there to keep things moving. You know, keep Lou (Barlow) in line – headlocks, stuff like that. He has certain melodic ideas and I like hearing him play guitar on the songs as it’s stuff I would never play and it really helped fill out the sound and give a different dimension. IR: What was it like when the pandemic came and Kurt was no longer around? Was his presence missed or do you enjoy working on your own?
JM: I never thought about whether I liked it or not, I just thought I have to do this, the task at hand, you know? I had to set up the microphone and try and become an engineer, just finish things off as best as I could. I don’t like the pandemic at all so in that respect I didn’t like working on my own. KV: Yeah well dude, we can see the light now. You gonna get a shot? JM: I got a shot already, so that’s cool. KV: They’re going around, they’re going around. JM: I got my second one a week ago. KV: That’s great, I am right behind you. IR: When you hit the studio together, Kurt were you thinking about how to capture the unique Dinosaur Jr. sound? KV: Well if I was nervous about anything it was probably asking myself those questions. I wasn’t engineering though so I didn’t know exactly how they wanted me to be involved, but once I arrived, I just knew it was going to be cool. They have a very specific process – in the beginning I was saying, “Do you think that’s the take?”, because honestly, they all sounded close to me, but J was saying, “No, not yet.” Then he told me they like drilling it over and over and it takes them about a day to learn the song. J hears everything in his head and sometimes I couldn’t necessarily hear the drums – how they’re supposed to be – but it didn’t matter because I just realised I was there as a friend keeping the vibe upbeat. Keeping the conversation going with Lou and Murph, they both talk a lot and so do I. J talks a little less, you could say.
“I have tried to be a producer sometimes and I didn’t really like who I became. I would get really annoyed and want to play everything myself”
Final Third: In Conversation JM: He would just pick up guitars, we would try it out and see what was sounding cool. It was just throwing stuff against the wall to see if anything sticks. If Kurt had any ideas we were very open as a band to hearing them. KV: It has been pretty awesome as the experience has made me get my own home studio together and has forced me to learn Pro Tools so that’s the one thing this pandemic has been good for – everyone is figuring there shit out because they have to. IR: J, earlier you said nobody knows what a producer really does, so what makes a good producer in your experience? JM: I haven’t really worked with many. I worked with Buffin [Dale Griffin], the drummer from Mott the Hoople, who was pretty scary. He was not in the best mood and I was a big Mott the Hoople fan when I was a kid so I was kind of taken aback. I just remember saying to him, “Can you take some of the reverb off the drums?”, as he put an insane amount of reverb on the drums and we weren’t a very big reverb band, and he just yelled, “Jesus Christ it needs something!” I have tried to be a producer sometimes and I didn’t really like who I became. I would get really annoyed and want to play everything myself because they were playing out of tune and I was like, “Just give me the guitar!” So that’s why Kurt did a good job. We all realised that nobody knows what they’re doing, or what a producer should do, it’s just being there and helping out. I would also get really mean as a producer too, start abusing the bands, which is not cool. KV: I heard a funny story and I don’t know if it’s true – John Agnello said that when you produced Buffalo Tom apparently you turned up and said, “Well the first thing you need to do is get that out of here”, pointing at a Roland Jazz Chorus amp. JM: I wouldn’t even let them bring it into the studio. I said, “You can leave this in your car.” He protested saying, “That’s my sound, man,” and I just said, “Well, not anymore.” KV: Meanwhile, I really like that amp lately. JM: Maybe I didn’t give it a chance. IR: You guys must spend a lot of time talking about your gear. Who has the best guitar? KV: J’s got so many guitars so why would I play mine! I bought a few guitars from being at J’s. He had a Rickenbacker 12 string that I really liked, so I got myself one of those. It’s nearly as nice as yours J but it still needs work. It was all inspiring to me you know, I was living it, being in it. IR: You describe Thin Lizzy as the band of the album, why is that? JM: I was in a phase. There is usually something I am into during every album session. I had never really gone that deep on Thin Lizzy and I watched this Gary Moore video where he was playing and the Thin Lizzy guys were his backing band. There’s a few of them out there – they played together in front of the Sydney Opera House which is worth watching. You can’t hear much of it come out on the album apart from a few times I tried a couple of guitar harmony things. IR: Do the pair of you have similar tastes in music? KV: Well, he was playing Thin Lizzy when I was there. J is always playing records and I love that about him. He’s got a
good sound stereo and a wall of records and he is forever flipping some sweet wax. IR: Kurt, do you have a favourite track on Sweep it into Space? KV: I love ‘I Met The Stones’, that song really rips. I really like how the lyrics go, “I got excited, I got depressed”. JR: That’s my life in a nutshell. KV: I heard the back story though J, of how you did meet the Stones and this did really happen, you actually were excited and then depressed. I can totally relate myself as you meet somebody like Neil Young for a second, always just snapshots, and you’re just so excited and try to say something without being awkward and then the moment has passed. I have also been completely excited and then completely depressed – it’s so true. IR: Never meet your heroes. JM: But if you don’t meet your heroes then who else are you going to meet? Might as well. I know Charlie Watts’ roadie, so I have ended up seeing him around a few times, and on one occasion I got to hang out. It was really surreal because he started talking and I completely froze and then I was saying, ‘I really got to pull my shit together’ to myself, and eventually I did, which was a relief. I played drums as a kid and Charlie was one of my inspirations. He definitely wasn’t disappointing to meet, he was very cool. IR: Both of you must be very excited at the prospect of playing live again? KV: It’s hard to imagine. We never knew what was going to happen and I hope to return to the stage at the beginning of next year and turn in a new album in the fall, but if there are people out there playing music I am going to go and see them play as soon as possible, it’s going to be awesome. JM: We have a long tour planned, it’s just a matter of when we can actually play, but we have to remain positive. IR: Would you say you’re an optimist or a pessimist, J? JM: I did win most optimistic in my high-school year book. I know what you’re thinking… Some people thought it was maybe a joke but I took it seriously. I think I am optimistic because if I wasn’t then I wouldn’t be able to be a musician. If you’re not optimistic then you wouldn’t have any idea that you would survive playing music. IR: Would you work with each other again? KV: I would, sure! JM: Why, are you cooking something up Kurt?
Final Third: The Rates Each month we ask an artist to share three musicians they think have gone underappreciated and three new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate. Takiaya Reed of metal duo Divide and Dissolve discussed hers with Dafydd Jenkins
Divide and Dissolve “This feels like what needs to be happening, and that’s how I’ve always approached music. It's literally a feeling.” Takiaya Reed is talking about ‘the drone’, a style of playing music that seems almost instinctual or elemental to anyone who picks up an instrument. For her, it was a guitar, with which she has since mastered the art of the abyssal rumble. “Heavy” only begins to describe the music she makes with drummer Sylvie Nehill as Melbourne duo Divide and Dissolve, not least because of its largely unspoken subject matter. The feeling of their latest album, Gas Lit, is one of crushing protestation against systemic violence, played out in body-enveloping doom and sludge. But when guitarist Takiaya Reed was asked to put together a list of ‘underrated’ musicians for this feature, there’s a noted absence of anything by Sunn O)))
or Sleep – two reference points for the atavistic type of metal Divide and Dissolve appear to make. In fact, among the folk, industrial EBM and hip-hop, there’s no metal at all. I ask about this. “Oh my God, genre can feel so oppressive,” she says. “It’s there to separate simply because of like, literal bpms or something.” The idea of ‘false metal’ is so pervasive among the hardcore members of the subculture that even Weezer named an album after it. Correctly, Reed doesn’t give it the time of day. “It's funny, if I were billing myself for a show, I would play with every single one of these artists, and I think that would make a lot of sense. I personally don't want to impose any borders. At the end of the day, music is just energy that’s out there.” Reed
Final Third: The Rates speaks about music with an almost oracular, mystical intonation, but her arguments are grounded in a complex problematisation of history and colonialism, the effects of which overtake how we view reality, even down to something as purportedly apolitical as genre. “Who even invented these gatekeeping colonial constructs?” she asks. In the spirit of breaking boundaries, our conversation loops around on itself, touching on racism, fascism, ethnomusicology and, above all, the importance of celebrating music. We don’t talk for long before Reed launches straight into the first of her new artist choices.
TR: I don’t even know if she really is underrated, but I would say that. She definitely needs more attention because she’s doing so much amazing work out there. DJ: I wrote a bit of ad copy for BXTCH SLÄP [Infiniti’s debut album] for a record site. I was really bowled over by it! TR: Oh, yeah, it’s absolutely legendary, beyond 100%.
JASMINE INFINITI DAFYDD JENKINS: How did you approach putting together this list of artists? TAKIAYA REED: Basically, I was hanging out with my friends and we wondered, what’s up with these amazing artists in our friend group? She reminded me of this amazing artist, Jasmine Infiniti. She’s so incredible. I’ve seen her DJ before. She just nurtures and nourishes the scene that she’s a part of, and also all the people that happen to like her music. It’s transformative and incredible. DJ: That’s so cool, she’s someone on the scene who’s keen on getting people hip to it. She has a record label, right? TR: Yeah, her record label is called New World Dysorder. I feel like her stance is just “no boundaries” – no overall colonial borders or anything, because music is amazing. It can travel and influence people. I feel like she helps facilitate literal life. My friend Adonis and I were talking about how nice she is. I’ve only met her a few times, but every time I’ve seen her, I’m like, you were so nice, and literally changing the world. The frequency of it is manipulated by her existence in the most beautiful way. DJ: So she first came to mind when you were thinking of people who are perhaps generally underrated, or overlooked by the wider world?
DJ: For this feature, I think generally people pick artists who’ve had some kind of shaping force in music and art. It occurs to me that the first of the three older artists that you’ve chosen are really people who introduced something brand new and went on to inspire so many different musicians. But then, on the other hand, a lot of their style and approach has since become commodified and whitewashed by the music industry. That’s what came to mind when I saw that you’d listed ESG. TR: Yeah, totally. When I think about ESG, I think whoa, how are they not one of the biggest bands in the world? Because they certainly are one of the most sampled bands in the world. DJ: Yeah, for sure. How did you first come across ESG? Did you hear them sampled first? TR: My punk mom, Osa Atoe, told me about ESG and played their record to me ages ago. I instantly felt a connection because of having learned about their story documented in her zine Shotgun Seamstress. I’m just reflecting on that now. I obviously feel upset by such systemic invalidation and ignorance. It was hard to only choose three older artists because there’s so many people out there who go unappreciated – and then as far as ESG are concerned, they are an institution as well. I don’t know – it makes me want to continue talking about people’s music. It’s important for us to all support each other. I don’t want this to be a precedent where people have to get old and die before they become recognised. There’s obviously a systemic pattern around all of this. But I’m also so grateful for these musicians. Which is why I also chose Beverly Glenn-Copeland.
Final Third: The Rates
BEVERLY GLENN-COPELAND TR: It’s heartbreaking that he wasn’t recognised until years, if not decades, later. But I’m gonna move past my heartbreak and look forward. That’s the theme of the three newer and the three older artists. All of them are the same in that regard. DJ: I’m so glad that you picked Glenn-Copeland. I love that compilation album so much. I hadn’t realised that I’d heard ‘Ever New’ somewhere before, but properly listening to it at three in the morning brought me to tears. It’s incredible how he’s become more widely known lately. Where did you first come across his work? TR: My friend Tashi Dorji played us his music for the first time while we were on tour together. It felt like a blessing. GlennCopeland changed everything. The world as we know it was literally a different place when he decided to share his magnificence. He is amazing and deserves to be recognised. Literally a living legend. I’m so grateful. DJ: That’s an interesting choice of word, ‘grateful’. What do you mean by it? TR: I’m so grateful he is alive, and our elder. His music is incredible and weaves together stories that need to be shouted from the mountains. He has created an extremely significant body of work that must be memorialised. DJ: There’s so much music there too, especially for someone who went decades without releasing music. He touched on so many things, from folk to new age and ambient. Why do you think it took so long for him to get the recognition he deserved? TR: Due to systemic inequalities and tragedy.
DJ: Tell me about Elizabeth Cotten. I’m a big fan of finger-picked, ‘American Primitivist’ music but I’d never heard of her. TR: Another person who changed everything! DJ: I was looking at her Wikipedia page. She was born at the end of the 19th century, and then lived to be almost 100. Did you know that she wrote ‘Freight Train’ when she was 11 years-old? TR: I didn’t know she was 11, that’s incredible. I love that song ‘Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now’, and ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’. My Gosh, the capacity of her music to understand emotion… DJ: I think it’s the straightforwardness as well, right? TR: Yeah, it holds so much space. It’s immense. There needs to be a systemic shift around the field of ethnomusicology. Because white people discredit people like Cotten from a formal academic perspective. The contributions of these musicians! It’s an incredible violence, and it’s reinforced by academic institutions and the industry. Oh, you exist so these people can copy and take all the credit. That’s unacceptable. So we need to continue talking about it and opening up spaces for conversations. DJ: And particularly in Cotten’s case. I think there is a sort of commonly held idea that her style of finger-picked guitar was the invention of white Appalachians at the turn of the century. TR: [laughs] that’s such a scam. DJ: I know! Think how massive country music radio is in America, and how it’s predominantly viewed as music by white people for white people. TR: And obviously, Black people invented country and soul. And rock and roll. And house and techno and hip hop, and R&B. DJ: It’s basically global. All of the stuff that people around the world enjoy. I was gonna say, you play guitar in the same way as Cotten – and Hendrix, for that matter. Left-handed, upside down? TR: Yeah, I was handed a guitar and I just flipped it upside down and turned it around. I was like, okay, that feels better. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a left-handed
Final Third: The Rates guitar. I thought, oh, you can’t play it this other way? That’s very strange. So I figured it out. But this feels ergonomically correct. DJ: I remember learning the guitar as a kid. I’m right handed, and somebody handed me a left handed guitar. I thought simply, I should not play this. This is playing it wrong. Looking back now, it seems kind of silly. TR: It’s not silly, I understand how that can happen. I wanted this modification on my guitar just so it’s easier for me. One day I’ll get it where… you know that switch on a guitar? DJ: The tone switch thing? TR: Yeah, I’m always hitting that thing because of where it is. It’s not that big of a deal. But I’d flip it upside down. That’s the only thing I think is different in playing a guitar the way I do. I am glad that nobody ever told me not to play this way though. I just have to do it the way in which it feels good, and makes sense. And then someone saw me playing guitar and said, hey you play like Elizabeth Cotten, who I weirdly knew about already.
MCKINLEY DIXON TR: I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know McKinley Dixon. Being around him as a friend, I am constantly taken over by how brilliant he is. His music is profound. The flow, the energy, the gracefulness around it. He moves like the ocean. It’s incredible. DJ: He’s also done a lot of stuff. I feel kind of ashamed that I haven’t heard of him, really. TR: I’m glad you have now. DJ: Did you guys play any music together? Did you come up in the same scene? I wouldn’t have thought a rap artist and a metal band would work [see: Limp Bizkit]. TR: We played a show before. That was really cool. I would say that McKinley and Divided and Dissolve work within the same theme, if you can call it that. It seems perfectly reasonable, and hopefully something happens in the future where we go on tour together. I just love being around McKinley. He has influenced us quite a bit — and he will continue to make a tremendous impact on the world. DJ: I saw that he has an album coming out soon, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her. TR: I know! I can’t wait for him to blow up.
TR: Zero Charisma is also one of my friends. Her music is profound too, and really had an impact on me. She’s also Black and Cherokee so I feel this kinship towards her. I’m just so grateful. DJ: I was curious about who Zero Charisma was because I couldn’t really find all that much information about them. There are two tracks on Bandcamp. TR: The ways in which she utilises her voice as an instrument, and many other instruments, is incredible. I would say she is another person who has a really positive and important impact on the scene. She’s an extremely community-minded person. And she does so many amazing things for so many people all the time. I’m filled with a deep appreciation and joy. DJ: I must say, it’s nice to be writing one of these things about people that the artist knows personally. It’s a useful way of going about the brief. TR: There’s just so many people out there doing so many incredible things for their community. How sick would it be to give this person a gigantic platform? You continue to spread their compassion and love towards more people. So yeah, she’s amazing. I can’t wait for her to blow up as well. DJ: I think also these pieces can provide some small counter-‘canon’ against the established greats of music. TR: Violences have been enacted with the study of music, but people have created healing with the study of music as well. So it just depends. It goes back to what I was saying about music being something that’s ‘out there’. Music has always led movements, be they hateful or loving. People feel a connection to music; that’s what people go to war with.
Final Third: A Guide
The Great Connector 12 reasons to love Alan Vega and Suicide, by Dominic Haley
Outside of Quietus writers and Henry Rollins, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone mention Alan Vega or Suicide as one of the alltime greats. At this point, the history of punk has been written and rewritten, but somehow Suicide have never really gotten their dues or been elevated to the level of the Ramones, New York Dolls or The Clash. The reason, I think, is that their impact tends to be subtler than most. The band’s signature sound, consisting of simple pop melodies played on a crappy drum machine and a beat-up organ, lacked Kraftwerk’s technical sophistication and precision. Yet, arguably it remains as equally powerful as a guiding light for dance music. Similarly, Vega’s lyrics, delivered via a mix of deadpan monotone and feral screaming, might not have Jim Morrison’s poetry, but they’ve proven to be just as long-lasting. The main thing that Vega taught us is that in music, an attitude counts almost as much as technical ability. Prolific right to the end, April will see Sacred Bones release Mutator, a lost album of Vega’s solo material. Recorded in the mid-’90s, the thing that jumps out at you is how relevant he still sounds. Even though he was approaching 60 when he recorded it, it still rings out with raw, dark energy, every bit as dangerous as when he used to terrorise New York club-goers with a bike chain. With half a century of music to wade through, understanding Vega’s legacy can be a pretty daunting task. This, then, is a twelve-step program to help you get your head around his back catalogue, starting with the Suicide days and attempting to distil his wildly varied solo career.
Final Third: A Guide 1
Suicide were the first-ever punk band No, seriously. Suicide’s beginnings stem from a legendary Stooges show at the New York State Pavilion that Vega attended in 1969. An art graduate who’d already fallen in with a socialistleaning pressure group, Vega was blown away. “The whole set lasted 20 minutes maybe,” he told the author Simon Reynolds for Pitchfork back in 2016. “Usually at rock shows, they put on some rock ’n’ roll between the bands’ sets, but right after the Stooges finished, whoever was in the sound booth put on one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. It was perfect.” Lester Bangs had coined the phrase ‘punk’ in the late ’60s as a way to single out the no-nonsense sound of Detroit bands like The Stooges and The MC5 from the bloated, out-of-touch rock world still lost in a hippy daydream. Seeing themselves as fellow travellers, Suicide fell upon the term like starved children, being among the first bands to label themselves as punk and calling their first shows “punk masses”.
They flipped the whole idea of performance on its head To get Suicide, you need to understand the strange alliance between Alan Vega and Martin Reverly at the band’s core. On paper, the pairing of Vega, an Elvis-obsessed visual artist, and Martin Rev, a jazz-loving experimental keyboardist, should’ve never worked. And that’s without factoring in the duo’s music – a strange brew of wispy electronica delivered at blood-drenched live experiences. Honestly, it’s hard to explain. From the beginning, though, Suicide was intended to be more of a performance art project than a piece of conventional music. The idea was to create happenings that broke down the distance between the audience and the performers, creating an environment where everyone had to participate whether they wanted to or not. Inevitably, this meant that violence was never that far away in those early days. Lumped awkwardly into New York’s glam scene and dressed like leather-clad street thugs, the duo deliberately brought the in-your-face antagonism of the city’s streets to the stages of the art clubs they played.
For a while, Suicide were the scariest band in New York It’s important to remember that the USA of the mid-1970s was very different to the USA of the 2020s. A spike in oil prices, a stock market crash and the defeat in Vietnam had brought a sense of reality crashing back into American culture, leaving the drugged-out excesses of the art scene increasingly at odds with the mean, uncaring reality of the streets. Suicide always intended their music to antagonise their audience. Inspired by Iggy and socialist politics, Rev and Vega saw the violence as a way to force a middle-class audience to pay attention. “The audience would walk through the door of the venue, and they’d be in hell,” Vega explained in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle in 2008. “We were saying, ‘Wake up, man. You’ve gotta change this shit!’”
Suicide’s first record showed how less could be more Fusing Cluster and Eddie Cochran, Suicide’s first self-titled record still stands among the most radical debuts from any act. Only seven songs in lengths, mostly it’s bittersweet ballads smothered in swirling atmospherics and empty reverb. But it’s its brutal simplicity that makes it groundbreaking. Case in point: the album’s closer ‘Frankie Teardrop’. The only track to clock in at over ten minutes on a record where most tracks barely make it to three, it begins as a eulogy to a factory worker called Frankie, who seems to step straight from one of Bruce Springsteen’s gallery of working-class heroes. However, Vega quickly takes it further. Falling behind with his bills and unable to feed his wife and kids, our hero ends up shooting his family dead. The song ends with Frankie tortured in a hell of his own and Vega slowly turning the camera to face the listener. “We’re all Frankie.”
It was also way more radical than you think Suicide’s effect on music was a bit of a slow burner at first. Most punks hated them. “We were supporting The Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd,” Alan Vega told The Guardian’s Jon Wilde in 2008, recalling a particularly memorable evening in Glasgow. “They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man. I felt like I was in a 3-D John Wayne movie. But that was nothing unusual. Every Suicide show felt like World War Three in those days.” But for every homicidal punk, others saw the future. Suicide, with their simple two-person setup, became the blueprint for bands like Soft Cell and other synth-pop acts looking dour on Top of the Pops. Meanwhile, the sense of impending doom filtered through a tinny drum machine launched a legion of goth bands, including Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and The Banshees. Later, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Nine Inch Nails would all imitate aspects of Suicide, from the aggressive stage show to cold, unrelenting musical savagery. Post Millennium, the band are still being referenced, either through covers by The Horrors, Bruce Springsteen and Neneh Cherry or sampling, such as MIA’s use of ‘Ghost Rider’ on 2010’s ‘Born Free’.
Final Third: A Guide 6
Just listen to Suicide’s second album! By 1980, Vega and Rev seemed bored of being the edgy weirdos and were looking to get in on the New York party scene. All it took was Michael Zilkha of Ve Records to pick up a copy of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, look at Suicide, squint really hard, and think, yeah, these guys could do disco. Giorgio Morodor was Zilkha’s first choice for the producer (just imagine that), but being unavailable, The Cars’ Ric Ocasek eventually took the reins. Working almost exclusively with Martin Rev while leaving Vega to concentrate on the lyrics, he managed to tease out a vein of pop in the duo’s minimal sound. The result is a record with all the rockabilly snarl and moody electronics of the first album but a lot more heart. From the melancholy heartache of ‘Dream Baby’ to the tough-talking electronica of ‘Harlem’, Ocasek kept Suicide’s experimental tendencies under wraps and tidied up their sound, turning what should’ve been a collection of weird art house curiosities into a dark pop masterpiece.
Alan Vega’s first solo records weren’t just nostalgia Artistically, at least, Suicide was gassed out after the second record. 1988’s A Way of Life and 1992’s Why Be Blue were both decent albums in their own right, but somehow they lacked the magic or the menace of the early work. Alan Vega spent the early part of the 1980s exploring the rock ’n’ roll of his childhood. His first solo record, Alan Vega, is basically a straight-up R&B record, replacing the harsh electronica with lush if equally sparse guitars. 1981’s Collision Drive continued the trend and even reshaped the Suicide classic ‘Ghost Rider’ into a Chuck Berry number. This Vega wasn’t retreating into the warm comfort of the past. Both records contain some of his most experimental work, typified by ‘Collision Drive’s Viet Vet’ – a 13-minute dirge in the spirit of ‘Frankie Teardrop’, filled with menace, regret and unreleased tension.
Saturn Strip should’ve been as big as Bowie’s Let’s Dance By 1983, Alan Vega was done with being one of pop’s outsiders. Determined to land some of the fame and fortune he’d so far avoided, he signed with major Elektra and reunited with Ric Ocasek. The plan? Apply as thick a coat of pop sheen as his music could handle.
Condensing his experimentalism into straight-forward four-minute pop songs, Saturn Strip should be heresy to Suicide fans; it turns out its a work of rare genius. Dropping all the self-indulgent musings and extended jams for simple song structures manages to elevate Vega’s provocative lyricism and fractured delivery. It holds a weird mirror to the glamour and cynicism of the ’80s, slipping between hedonistic disco and cold-hearted reality. Ending with a cover of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Every 1’s a Winner’, it was a complete commercial failure.
Vega’s weird failed attempts at mainstream pop are kind of amazing Sensing that he had one more shot at the big time left in him, Vega tried again for chart success in 1985 with Just A Million Dreams. Marred by struggles with his label, with Elektra even trying to remove the singer from his own record, it’s a horrible, disjointed mess. A commercial and critical flop, it sounded both banal and hideously dated, even at the time. Worse, Just A Million Dreams ushered in a bit of a fallow period for Vega. The late ’80s and early ’90s are littered with ambitious yet over-polished misfires, with both Deuce Avenue and Power On Zero Hour falling as victims to Vega’s inability to edit himself. Outside of music, it was a different story. Deuce Avenue War/The Warriors V3 97, his first book of photography, appeared in 1990, while Cripple Nation, a collection of prose and lyrics, came out in 1991. Right until the end, Vega’s approach to work was similar to cooking spaghetti – he threw so much against the wall that even during his worst periods, some things stuck. His back catalogue is full of exciting experiments and the odd hidden gem.
Final Third: A Guide 10
Cubist Blues is a criminally underrated pop masterpiece Like an old-time jazz session when the cats would just show up and see what happened, Cubist Blues came out of two consecutive dusk-til-dawn sessions at Dessau Studios in New York’s Lower East Side. It’s just that this time, the players were terminal outsider Alan Vega and roots rockers Ben Vaughn and Alex Chilton. The output turned out to be an unholy union of Gene Vincent, noir blues and gothic pop, and it is one of the most captivating if cruelly overlooked rock records of the 1990s. Recalling making the record to James F. Thompson in these very pages in 2015, Vega still couldn’t understand how it had happened. “I was surprised by it, how intense it was. I had to understand how, like, I thought it was so commercial. But it’s not... it sounds great. It’s really a great record! I could listen to it over and over again and be like, ‘Holy shit!’ I don’t know how I did it, but I did it! I really did it! I really hate to say it, I kinda wish it was shit, but I really amazed myself. I didn’t realise I’m as much a blues singer as I am.” Cubist Blues should’ve been a massive success, but landing in 1996 – when the pendulum had swung away from US alt. rock after the death of Cobain and grunge – it ended up flying underneath everyone’s radars. Yet again, Vega’s sense of timing was dreadful.
No one will ever be able to explain Alan Vega fully There’s a lot of contradictory things about Alan Vega. Presenting himself as a nonsense straight-talker, he was notoriously cagey about revealing his age. Only after his death would the world find out he was ten years older than he said he was. He could also be prickly, self-promoting and downright belligerent. He yearned for success yet was weirdly turned off when Suicide finally got popular. Sometimes it was hard to tell if he was joking: “I said to Marty; I’m finished,” he told The Guardian once, bemoaning a sold-out show. “Where’re the confrontations? What are we gonna do now? People are dancing to this shit.” In the end, though, Alan Vega was the great connector. In some ways, his music is the proto-version of a whole raft of genres, be it punk, techno, electronica and goth, but in other ways, it also reached back to connect the future and the past. Listening to a song like ‘Cheree’, for example, it’s hard not to see the line from Lou Reed cutting straight through the middle and heading off into the future. Maybe that’s the reason his music sounds so resonant, even fifty years on.
Suicide never looked back One of the most commendable things about both Suicide and Alan Vega is that neither was interested in resting on their laurels or looking back in any way. Both pushed the envelope relentlessly forward, exploring new sounds and new horizons. In 2010, for example, the band finally agreed to an ATP Don’t Look Back show where the idea would be to play their first album in its entirety. Instead, the duo reinvented themselves, rethinking the old tracks and filtering them through modern technology. Rendering the tracks mangled and borderline unlistenable, the reaction turned out to be a strange echo to that debut. A large portion of the crowd hated it, expecting to hear a perfect recreation of what they’d heard on record. They’d forgotten that for Suicide, there was only ever the future.
There was a resistance once. A long time ago. Before the great surge. A generation frozen by fear. No man survived... But what if this was no man? What if the stories you’d heard once, in a distant memory of a faded mirage, were true? ‘Impossible’ is 80% possible. [Fade up from black] ‘INTRUDER’… [accompanied by children whispering his name out of time] ‘GARY NUMAN’. [Disclaimer: Not actual game footage]. When you play as much Assassin’s Creed as Gary Numan has over lockdown, it’s bound to rub off on your own art. I’m making a slight assumption here, but Intruder is his homage to his favourite video game. Numan is the protagonist, of course, who wakes up on the floor of TK Maxx in April 2020. The battery on his Sony Ericsson dead, he’s been laying in wait in the closed store for a full year, surviving almost exclusively by drinking bottles of CK ONE (‘power juice’). In no time at all, he’d raided the rails for matching faded black clothes by a lesser known brand heavily inspired by G-Star RAW. “Get the London look,” he growled as he took a Rimmel lipstick to his face on day two. But that was a long time ago, and now that lockdown is finally coming to an end, the real work begins. The Intruder must leave the reopened store and journey on a quest to his home in Surrey, where his family have started to ask where he is. This is powerful storytelling from Numan, and while some might interpret the sleeve of Intruder differently, I’m confident I’ve got the nuts and bolts of it down correctly.
Too heavy for tricks I ordered this because I was sick and tired of people whizzing past me while I cycled a bike like a grown adult. Despite it cutting 10 mins off of my morning commute, I was enjoying it so much that I threw my bike in the canal. That was until a group of young boys shouted, “Nice one, granddad!” at me. At first I focussed on the “Nice one”, but then “granddad” registered (I’m an in-shape 38). “Oh yeah?” I shouted back, “would a granddad be able to do this!?” As I tried to jump the scooter up the curb in front of them, I clipped the pavement and chipped my tooth quite badly. The scooter holds an impressive charge of 8 hours.
Boy who popped a wheely for 55 years asked if it was worth it?
illustration by kate prior
Live from the Barbican Concerts streamed from our Hall to your home
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