Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov ’18

Avid Kurt Vile fan that I am, I have been looking forward to see Kurt Vile & The Violators performing live again in my vicinity for the past six months now. The anticipation was made all the more glorious when the support act was announced: Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird. A veritable feast so to speak and I will of course let you know how this festive occasion turned out, so join me for a review and more blathering on Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov ’18.

It makes my blood boil a bit even though it should be Kurt Vile himself who is the judge on this, but this sticking the “slacker” label on him and “slacker music” on his work, is not quite right. Alright, there’s the guitar music with some of the obvious influences such as Pavement and the appearance of a drawling, goofy, long-haired, slackerly dressed person on stage…fair enough. But there is so much more to Kurt Vile and his music. Steve Gunn, former member of The Violators, and guitarist and songwriter par excellence, should know and in an interview he claimed that Kurt Vile just has it, that ability to write brilliant songs with ease. I do not know how easy it really is for Kurt Vile and his limited vocal range is both just that – limited and one of his trademarks. But on the other hand, if you ever took a closer listen and look at Kurt Vile, you will find a perceptive, witty and touching songwriter, an excellent musician and a down-to-earth, humble person, way beyond the lazy “slacker” label. Also he is an incredibly diligent musician which this year brought him to the brink of mental meltdown due to stress. Not only has he released an album full of the sweetest songs and toured with – it seems – perfect soulmate Courtney Barnett from last autumn on, he has been on the road himself for three years and managed to write and record songs for his new album “Bottle It in”. By no means is he bottling it in on this album, he is lyrically at his sharpest yet and it just seems to flow from his inner self unfettered. Musically he (with thankfully the support of his label Matador) is not restricted to churn out radio-friendly three-minute pop songs (not that there would be anything wrong with that) – the thirteen songs on “Bottle It In” are his lushest in instrumentation yet and the haziness of his four albums before “B’lieve I’m Going Down” has returned, but mostly in a much tighter way. Three of the songs hit the ten minute mark and over. A brave move and a self-confident one and certainly one that his fans mostly cherish. Much to discover then from the new album on this year’s tour.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

The venue he played that night, November 2nd, Kantine, Cologne, Germany, well, it is a biggish one and as much as I of course am happy for Kurt Vile to go on to bigger things, I miss the intimacy of earlier performances. A big drawback to the venue is having two bars in there and the toilet facilities behind the stage, meaning there is constant squeezing through and movement in the crowd. Also the sound in front of the stage was pretty bad in my opinion, so I moved to the middle where it was fine and then to the back where much of the vibe got lost in people chattering.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

That constant drone of talking and only the first five rows really being captivated also annoyed me during the faultlessly beautiful and magical performance of music scene stalwart Meg Baird (she of Espers, Heron Oblivion, The Baird Sisters with her sister Laura and as a solo artist playing with the legends of fingerpicking guitar style music) and harpist to the stars Mary Lattimore. Mary Lattimore has had a tremendously busy year too, not only contributing her evocative and experimental and just so right harp flourish to a host of albums, but releasing her solo album “Hundreds Of Days” (Ghostly International) which is sheer bliss and has personally helped me to relax, reflect and restart on many occasions since summer but then she went and finally did an album with long-time collaborator Meg Baird, the breathtakingly delicate and haunting and therefore aptly named “Ghost Forests” (Three Lobed Recordings).

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

We got treated to a fine set of songs of this album by Meg on acoustic and electric guitar and crystal-clear vocals and Mary on her enormous Lyon and Healy harp, “Harpie”, her looping gadget and keyboard. I am getting ready for any comments from behind as to what the hell this performance has to do with the guitar rock Kurt Vile is presenting later. Indeed Mary has been working with Kurt Vile for a long-time and the additions of her harp to the songs on “Bottle It In” range for many among the finest details of the album. But – at least the front bit of the audience – are captivated. My highpoint of Mary’s and Meg’s set was the unexpected delivery of Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball” which is absolutely chilling. Mary Lattimore and Meg Baird were present at the merch table for a long time during Kurt Vile’s set and afterwards and were very kind to chat to everyone and thanked everyone so nicely for their interest. Och, they’re just awesome.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

But this meant also, that on this occasion there was no rolling the harp back on stage and Mary joining in on some of Kurt Vile’s songs. A pity, that.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Kurt Vile & The Violators entered the stage to a very warm welcome which they ever so humbly and sweetly accepted and went straight into the marvellously and ice-breaking “Loading Zones” of the new album. (If only the sound had been better…) Expert musicianship delivered all the way through the shortish set by Kurt Vile, Jesse Trbovich (bass, guitar, saxophone), Rob Laakso (guitar, bass) and Kyle Spence (drums), managing  to unify the kids, the youngsters and the older generation in their appreciation. A large proportion of the new album was played, interspersed with some classics like “KV Crimes” and “A Girl Called Alex” from earlier albums. I was missing a couple of my personal favourites that might have pumped the lagging middle part of the concert a bit such as “Wheelhouse” but then again that might have to do with the fact that I was in the back at that time and the vibes did not catch on so much there. Then again, you can’t please everyone with a back catalogue like that. Many, many people in the audience had never heard Kurt Vile before his single “Loading Zones” off the new album but I always feel happy that other music lovers find older styles like folk and americana or blues to discover via a totally different angle. Happened to me too and Kurt Vile played a great part in that.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Are there any gobsmacking going-ons on stage? No, of course not. Kurt does not even say that much in between songs, being busy with getting yet another guitar or the banjo or the acoustic ready for the next song and that is perfectly fine with me. (Kurt Vile’s guitar rack made me cry with envy almost but then again, unlike him, I would not even deserve them half as much as him).

The band left the stage rather abruptly but did return and gave the fans “Pretty Pimpin” amongst others, the song that is probably his most well-known and caused a huge applause and whoohooing.

A very sweet “I love you all” from Kurt and smiles all round from the band and they were off.

As expected a great show from Kurt Vile & The Violators and supporting Mary Lattimore and Meg Baird. If I had anything to grumble about, it was, that the venue could have been better or more suitable in creating the right vibe. (Which reminds me: It is not very convenient to be asked outside of the venue  for the photo pass en route to getting it! Also the fuss about photo passes by the venue was a bit over the top, considering that in the end there were three (sic!) photographers only on site. Yes, three songs only and no flash, got it a long time ago. Kindly, would the people with the mobile phones turn off the flash as well? And would the security man not propel himself at us a-roaring for making one more shot before the fourth song because I wanted just one photo of Kurt and the banjo? Well, I am sure the orderly was very stressed out with THREE photographers…). Enough of my bawling but the fans enjoyed Kurt Vile & The Violators and vice versa and that is the main thing! Rock on and thank you!

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe
James Elkington, photo by Tim Harris

James Elkington used to be the frontman of the much-loved The Zincs. There is simply no way you could not have come across his work – he contributed his stylish guitar work (and other musical touches) to countless works of artists and bands alike or played with them live. To name but a few: Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn, Laetitia Sadier, Tweedy, Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, Tara Jane O’Neil. The list is indeed endless.

The year 2017 finally saw him getting around to put the finishing touches to his first solo album “Wintres Woma” (Paradise Of Bachelors). On the occasion of touring with this album in tow almost a year later on the continent, James Elkington kindly gave Offbeat an interview before a tremendous gig at the King Georg in Cologne, Germany. After visiting Europe he will open for The Sea And Cake in the US in May.

Grab the opportunity to see James Elkington live by all means, check out more info here and here and enjoy the interview below:

Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time, James! To start off really heavily: Steve Gunn called you one of the best guitarists (if not the very one) of this generation and said, you can play anything, anything at all.

James Elkington: That is…untrue. He is a very supportive person, Steve, and we are good friends. But it is not true that I can do anything. As anyone who is coming down to the show tonight is probably going to find out (laughs).

OBM: Your masterful guitar playing then, does it stem from talent, is it genetic or immensely hard work or a combination?

JE: I am glad you are asking about that because I was talking to an elderly man called Charles in Overpelt (B) this morning on the train about that. And he was saying that he never played a musical instrument because he assumed you had to have some sort of innate talent or ability. Two things I have to say to that. Firstly, when I was learning how to play guitar, I was the slowest student. I mean, anyone else, anyone I studied with or played with, they all got better than me a lot quicker. I had to work twice as hard or at least twice as long to do the most basic things. Later in my life I was teaching guitar for a while, so I got to see people learning a lot and what I realised was: What we think of as being talent is just those people who for whatever reason happen to have the right muscles in the right places to be able to make those sounds. But for most of us, you just have to put the hours in. I think what we sometimes mistake as talent is just kind of luck or something. Maybe there is something innate that gets passed on but not in the terms of the technicalities of playing. I think you just have to put in the hours or even more hours if you are me.

OBM: So did you come from a musical family?

JE: My Mum was a singer in a choir and my Dad played the spoons to a high level.  People were impressed, other spoon players. But no, ultimately no, not really, There was no-one in my family. People were musical but they weren’t musicians.

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe
James Elkington

OBM: You eventually joined bands in the UK and then had your own band The Zincs and took them over to Chicago?

JE: Well, actually I started The Zincs in Chicago. I played in other people’s bands. I hadn’t really done anything of my own until I moved to Chicago. It took me moving to Chicago to have the confidence to start my own project completely.

OBM: The music of The Zincs already sounds very influenced by all kinds of American music.

JE: I had been mostly listening to American music during my late teens and twenties. I also moved to Chicago because I wanted to be near to where some of this music was being made. But also when I was a kid, I grew up listening to The Smiths and Orange Juice and things like that. All of this stuff was beginning to mix together for me. I was trying to synthesise something that was partly what I was at the time and also what I had been into as a kid. I was already thirty or in my late twenties then. So I was beginning to be interested in the stuff that I was listening to as a kid and reconnecting with that. So that band was sort of about that. But the weird thing is that I wrote a few songs…I had already sort of started my guitar style. It started around then. It wasn’t particularly technical but it had the foundations of it. I played a show one time and a friend of my bass player said: “This actually sounds like English folk music. Does James like to listen to much of that stuff?”. The fact is that I had not really listened to it since I was a kid. I don’t know if you had this too, but there was country dancing when I was a kid. (OBM: Nooo.) No, no (laughs). I mean, it was awful. We were exposed to a lot of this music and it always seemed to be around in some shape or form. It seeped in somehow but I was not really conscious of it. It was around that time that I was making more of a study of the sixties and seventies folk band stuff from England. I found that a lot of things about it really resonated with me. It set me off on this new trajectory. The Zincs were the beginning of that. I was even thinking about some of those older songs. They are not that dissimilar to my songs now but they are just wearing different clothes or something.

OBM: But being a frontman was not really your thing?

JE: Yeah, it was. I quit was what basically happened. The Zincs had been the first band that had been purely mine.  I worked really hard on it and I took it very seriously. I took it way to seriously. What I realised in retrospect was that part of me actually needed it to be a success to make it all worthwhile. However you quantify success, in sales or people coming to shows – I really wanted those things but I hadn’t admitted it to myself. When those things did not happen and they don’t happen to most bands…

OBM: Critically they did…

JE: Critically, yeah, some people seemed to like it but it did not really go anywhere and I needed it to go somewhere. I thought it was not really worth my while or I did not really have the temperament for it. So I stopped for a couple of years and I was just teaching. It was around 2010 or 2011 that a friend of mine, Jon Langford asked me to come and play a show with him. Jon has a band called The Mekons and The Waco Brothers and he has been around making records for over forty years now, I guess. I did not really know anything about his music but I took my guitar and he showed me a couple of songs. I played the songs with him and  I had a great time and I realised that what had been missing from music for me was or what it added to music was that expectation that it would go anywhere instead of doing it for the sake of doing it. I had a complete rethink. I was like, okay, I just want to play in other people’s bands because it makes me happy to do that. And it frees me up from any expectation of anything. I can concentrate on the music which is all I have ever been interested in.

OBM: Also, no responsibility?

JE: Oh yeah, that’s another one. I mean, I am not really a natural leader. I never had a gang or anything. I was more worried that my band was having a bad time. or there was not enough money. Being in other people’s bands was a way for me to play music and be completely absolved of that responsibility. That made me happy to the extent where when I had some free time, I actually started to write songs. But it was purely as a kind of…you know, I always liken it to when people were on the phone, or when they used to be on phones that had cords, they would stick it under their chin and they would draw little doodles. The music I was coming out with was like my little doodle that I did when I had time off from touring. It was really just for me and not meant to be anything. But I found after a year of these doodles that I had of what amounted to a collection of songs. I very slowly recorded them and stopped, thought about it for a while and play some to people and stop. I was sort of edging my way back in but it was very important to me that it wasn’t like before and I was doing it for the right reasons, just that it made me happy to do it. That’s how it worked out.

OBM: The artists whose work you contributed to or played with cover a wide range of genres. Is that part work for you or does it reflect different sides of your musical character?

JE: Sometimes when I would be playing with people it would be more of a technical exercise for me to see if I could do it.  The thing is though, with playing in different styles of bands, my style of playing remains the same in all of those bands. The fun for me is to figure out where I fit in to something. I played with Jon and that was fairly straight rock stuff with a country tinge. But then I played with Kelly Hogan for a year and she has almost more of a soul thing going on but again, I was still playing my style, my sound, but her songs. Usually I can find some sort of combination that makes me fit. That’s why I don’t really think of myself as a session person because if I came to play with you and you wanted this to sound like Nile Rodgers, I don’t know if I’d be able to do that. I can only do the thing that I am going to do. Fortunately for me, the people I played with have asked me to because I do a certain kind of thing. But I am certainly not a master of all styles.

OBM: Is that a technical thing or would you say, your heart is not in it?

JE: I think I made a decision when I got back into music that there is a lot of people playing guitar, a really tremendously huge amount of people playing guitar and to try and play like someone else, it’s just a dead end for me. I don’t think it’s worth pursuing for anyone. Because there are a lot of them out there. By finding your own voice on the instrument, the interesting things happen. But that’s what I have been able to concentrate on. But I have also been very lucky. It’s a Chicago thing too because Chicago has a wide and very inclusive musical community. People play across genres all the time. The folk guys play with the jazz guys who play with the experimental rock guys. It’s always been that way.

OBM:  Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback) himself is already combining all the genres.

JE: To be honest, the way Doug’s whole career has gone…I play in a band with Doug…even just watching him, developing the different things he was doing, was part of led me to move to Chicago anyway. You could go and play different kinds of music but that does not necessarily mean that you are like a dilettante or that you are somehow insincere. I think, if you have a style or a sound and an approach, then it is actually an interesting synthesis to be playing in different styles. When I lived in London, I did not find that people looked at music that way so much. It seemed to be much more segregated. That did not appeal to me so much.

OBM:  I do think your style is very distinctive. I was listening to James Toth’ (Wooden Wand) wonderful “Clippership” album and during the song “Mexican Coke”, I thought “That sounds like James Elkington in there” and I looked it up, yep, it is.

JE: That’s the best compliment anyone could give you, thank you! Or did you go: “Hang on a second, this does not sound that good. I bet Jim is on this.” (Laughs).

OBM: No, no, it wasn’t that way at all. You do not only play guitar though, you are a multi-instrumentalist.

JE: No, I play the drums. The drums were my first instrument. And I love the drums but the drums do not love me. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I just don’t get very good on the drums. So I sort of stopped doing it. I loved it though! The again, it is just for me. I play drums on a couple of records. Doug’s band Brokeback – not on the last record, the record before, I was the drummer. And I played drums with Laetitia Sadier as well. Both of them will tell you (laughs), it’s not my main thing. I play a lot of piano on people’s records, too. And I am a terrible piano player.

OBM: Oh stop! On Joan Shelley’s record for example?

JE: Yes! There’s some terrible piano playing on that record. But no-one else wanted to do it. (Laughs out loud).

OBM: Ah, I wouldn’t believe that. It says here on the blurb for tonight’s gig on the website you are the master of the open tuning. Did you always use open tuning? I did not think that.

JE: No, I didn’t. Actually, I play with this guy, Nathan Salsburg, and he really is the master of the open tuning, as is Steve (Gunn).

OBM: Yeah, he is trying everything and so is Nathan but I would have thought that you stick to the classic one.

JE: Yes, I do, especially when I play with those guys, I just need a stable reference. I need to go with what I know. But again, the record that I put out last year, my solo record (Wintres Woma) is all in this tuning called DADGAD. That was part of the doodle. In my spare time, instead of just going to sleep or wandering off to a record shop or something, to sit down with this tuning that I did not really understand, I got that feeling back when I very first started to play the guitar. I did not know what I was doing. I was kind of wandering around.

OBM: You were out of the comfort zone?

JE: Yeah, and that’s were all these songs came from. I was finding all these little surprises in this tuning. But I am too lazy to change the tuning. So I went, this is all just going to be DADGAD. I never change it, so I am by no means an open tuning master.

OBM: So the album was based on the tuning DADGAD, you had that and you took your time to do it. It took some convincing to get on with it (JE laughs), so I have heard. But did you also have in mind, well, not in the sense of a concept album, but a certain atmosphere that it was going to convey?

JE: I had already been involved in a couple of records that were made in the Wilco Loft recording studio and I knew that the sound that they have there was going to marry well with the way the songs sounded. “Wintres Woma” means “The Sound of winter” and I wanted it to have a sort of, not cold sound, but sort of sparseness to it. I had quite detailed demos already. I have a project studio at my house. I pretty much mapped out exactly how I wanted it to be. It was never going to sound great. It was just a kind of a road map. I work with this guy in Chicago, Mark Greenberg, who is very good at reading maps and being “oh that I think what you mean is this” and then makes it sound great. It was a combination of me having a strong idea of what I wanted and Mark is just an amazing facilitator at that sort of thing. I kind of go into making records with kind of a strong idea in mind of what I want it to sound like. Sometimes it doesn’t really end up like that. Most of the time it doesn’t end up like that. I don’t even like to go into the studio without knowing. I am a little uptight like that (laughs).

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe

OBM: I have seen pictures of The Loft and it must be guitar heaven.

 JE: That’s it. It’s insane.  I could use whatever I’d see but there are so many guitars there, there isn’t time to try out everything. So I limited myself to the – literally – five guitars that were within eight feet of where I was sitting. And that’s the whole record. It’s just those guitars. Of course they are all fantastic and they all record really well. I’d love to have all of them.

OBM: What would a guitar you would like to play have to be like (other than like in that case be in the proximity). How would it have to feel or sound?

JE: It is kind of a difficult thing to quantify. We settled on this old guitar from the 30s, a Gibson that Jeff owns.  I sat down with it and immediately it had the kind of sound that associate with Davey Graham and John Renbourn even though none of these people played this guitar. This guitar is more synonymous with old blues players. But I played it and it sounded really good. Mark recorded me playing and when I finished he said: “You should come and listen to this because it sounds good when you stand next to the guitar but it sounds amazing recorded.” For some reason it sounded better recorded than just our ears. That ended up being the guitar for the whole record pretty much. Any other guitars I used just had to not sound like that one. Everything was built around that.

OBM: So you are not into a specific brand?

JE: No, no, the Gibson ended up being the basic guitar and if there was any other guitar, I made sure, it was as far removed as possible just to give it a different feel.

OBM: And are happy with the result of “Wintres Woma”?

JE: I think, yeah, I am. It’s the only time that I have been completely happy with a record I have done. Maybe even though I had a strong idea of how I wanted it to sound, I left ten or twenty per cent to chance and that’s where the surprises are. When I listen to it, I still like it. There are records of mine in the past where I really controlled every aspect and ended up with this boring…well, not exciting to listen to because everything sounds like something I have decided to do. This one has some random stuff in it. The mistakes are all left in. It’s pretty rough but I like it like that. It is like the music I like to listen to.

OBM:  You come up with the lyrics last and they are pretty abstract.

JE: Deliberately so. Sometimes my lyrics are genuinely random. Then I find out six months down the line that my subconscious has been talking about something. I just found out something about a song, discovered that a song that I had written a year ago was about a very specific thing which is extremely mundane so I would not tell anyone what it was. I always like the sort of lyrics where you are given enough information for your brain to do the last bit of work. I mean the listener has to think to himself: What does it actually mean? What does it sound like to me? Because then the listener is involved in the process. Their brain has to work a little bit. All of my favourite lyrics have that. They don’t completely spell it out. There is enough space for the listener to get involved. Even if write something about something specific,  I will intentionally cryptify it a bit to give it a space to operate in.

OBM: Or to make it possible for the listener to own a song – or totally misinterpret it, thinking the song is about a lovely man singing an ode to his sister….:-)

JE: Exactly. And yes, that just happened to me.  A year a go I was playing in Louisville, Kentucky. A friend of mine went: ” I really like that “Sister of Mine” song. I think that is my favourite song of yours. What is that song about?” I told him and he went: “Errgh. I don’t think I a like it as much anymore.”

OBM: It does cast a shadow!

JE: It does, I know!

OBM: But it is about all not being black and white and perspective and all that, but yeah, people are humming along and then comes that dark cloud.

JE: Yeah, I spoiled it for him. That’s my point. I blew it. So now and try and shut up as much as I can. Difficult for me though.

OBM: So what are your next plans?

JE: I am going to finish tour and then I have another short tour opening up for my friends The Sea And Cake on the East Coast. And then, I am going to make another record! But again I am being careful not to get too far ahead of myself. I had so much fun making the last record. And I really had no expectations for it whatsoever. It was really nicely received and this is my first tour and it is really wonderful of everyone to come out and see it. I am really having a good time. I’ve got more than I could ask for right now. In making another record, I just want to make sure that I go into it with the same perspective. Not really wanting anything other than having a good time. So I frequently pump the brakes as they say. I go: Oh, wait a minute. I can tell I am really getting concerned or serious about this particular song. And then I just stop. You know, I have a wife and a four-year old – I am happiest when I am just with them and cooking and so on. So I have plenty of other stuff going on and then I play with other people. This is just one thing that I do but I am keen to protect it. Its value to me is really for me to have fun.

OBM: Thank you very much.

JE: Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public Service Broadcasting Interview, Yuca, Cologne, Nov 26th

After two albums and an EP (“Inform-Educate-Entertain”, “The Race For Space” and “The War Room”), all of which were setting audio footage (and visuals on stage) from public information films to driven synth music plus guitars, banjo and drums, resulting in a feast for the ears with an optimistic, sometimes of course ironic undertone, Public Service Broadcasting released “Every Valley” (PIAS). Now, I for my part, liked the other albums but their third oeuvre I love to bits. “Every Valley” is a change of direction in so many ways: It is not about a big global subject, not something from the past, not only celebratory, not with media commentary only – the album is about the demise of the coal mining industry in Wales, that and the still ongoing repercussions for the local communities, mostly told by members of the community of Ebbw Vale in South Wales themselves.

Now, some (albeit very few) regarded the work not as a step forward but claimed it was nostalgic and irrelevant (sic!) and even patronising. If you have listened to the album carefully (and I do recommend this so very much), you know these allegations could not be further from the truth. We are talking present here and relevance for many communities all over world and the fact that Public Service Broadcasting downsized on the footage and interviewed local people for quite a long time while staying in the village/town of Ebbw Vale, should do away with any of those comments for good. But as I said, those are very few and far between.

Public Service Broadcasting Interview, Yuca, Cologne, Nov 26th

Read about “Every Valley” and more in J. Willgoose Esq.’s own words below. The Esquire, Wrigglesworth and J.F. Abraham descended on Cologne’s Yuca venue on November 26th to dish up a very fine show. I had not had the fortune to see them live so far, but my word, this was excellent as so many fans had already pointed out to me earlier this year.

There was dancing, there was big emotion, there was laughing, there was gentle swaying, there was shouting and clapping and whistling in the sold-out venue. And that was only the audience responding to a band, that despite it’s non-traditional band outfit delivered truly perfect entertainment. They rocked,  they communicated, they overwhelmed with an audio-visual onslaught and magnificent drums, bass, flugelhorn and many beautiful roaring guitars and a banjo on top of a minutely timed synthesiser arrangement.

One not to be missed!

Public Service Broadcasting Interview, Yuca, Cologne, Nov 26th

And here comes the interview with Public Service Broadcasting’s very own J. Willgoose Esq.!

Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you, J. Willgoose Esq., for taking the time before your gig here in Cologne with Public Service Broadcasting!

J. Willgoose Esq.: Of course!

OMB: Let’s start at the beginning. When you first started out to make music, did you plan it to be this very specific way, not in the traditional sense, or did that just fall into place along the way?

JWE: It very much fell into place. It was a very happy accident really. I was just making electronic music and didn’t really know what I was doing or why. Heard about some archive material on the internet and thought maybe I can use some of that just to kind of spruce up my music, I suppose. From there it just grew as a concept and an idea. I suddenly thought maybe I could do an album where each song was based on a different public information film. Despite thinking that sounded really, really pretentious, I carried on doing it and we’ve made three albums now, so there you go (laughs).

OMB: You tour a lot. For instance you also did SXSW festival. How is Public Service Broadcasting received among more traditional bands or among more traditional audiences in a rock environment?

JWE: I think it’s because there are a lot of different aspects to it – there is a lot of stuff going on even just with the music, let alone when you add the visuals to it, if we can – it seems to go down well across a very wide range of people which has been the case from the very start and it’s been very surprising from the very start but it has been consistent. I don’t know why. Maybe it is unusual, because it is conceptually strong or maybe because there are so many different genres and styles wrapped up in it, it is easy to find something that you like maybe. It is difficult to say. But we have never really had an absolute clanger of a show where it was just obvious that everybody hated us. I am sure people hate us in amongst every crowd but it never seemed to have lost an entire crowd if that makes sense. But I don’t know why that is. I think it is just luck.

OMB: I wouldn’t put it down to luck only. How do you manage to transport your albums onto stage?You love touring (mostly anyway, not the downsides of it) and when you have to transport your albums to a stage, it is not a matter of taking the drums, the bass and the guitar and off we go.

JWE: Hm, yeah, there is a lot of preproduction and planning and considering how to best play the songs and whose going to play which part and how you could it layer it and how could loop and what you are going to need to rely on coming off track, I suppose, just to make it as musically engaging as possible. So we all do a variety of things on stage. Even Wrigglesworth – he is not just drumming, he is playing a lot of electronics. He is playing a lot of tuned percussion parts. J.F. Abraham has got a whole lot of instruments and I have got a few myself, so, yeah: It is a lot of planning and work before we get on stage to try and make it as engaging as possible rather than just turning up either with instruments or just a laptop and pressing buttons because I find that quite boring. I guess, yeah, the boring answer is: Hard work ahead of time.

OMB: Do you stay very true to the albums on stage?

JWE: I think it sounds different. It is deliberately different. It often has a slightly harder edge. It is more kind of visceral first and foremost because it is louder and it is hitting you harder unless people listen to the music at 100 dB at home but I doubt it (laughs). So it packs more of a punch in that respect and you can show the visuals at the same time so you have a more emotional impact as well. Sometimes music makes more sense if you put it into live mode. I think we are on of those bands if you don’t understand it on the record, it is more likely to make sense live. It definitely changes live and we allow it to evolve and have some improvisational elements as well and not be same every night because that’s boring.

OMB: You probably have a stage setup particularly for one album and the records do definitely fall into the category concept albums. Can gig goers als expect older songs?

JWE: Yes, unless it is a specific event, we never play through an album in its entirety, partly because it is impractical a lot of the time. Partly because I don’t want to be sucked into being a mostly visuals band. I want it to be clear, it is a band playing songs from across our three albums and a bit. Just like any band really. You play two or three of this album, two or three of that album. There is obviously an emphasis on the new one because that’s what we are touring. So we are trying to play more of it. Yeah, I think the emphasis with the live show is that we are the common element, so we bind it all together. Even if there are jumps between narratives and eras and subjects and sometimes it doesn’t make sense but we are still the glue that’s holding it all together. That’s the idea behind it.

OMB: With the first two albums you were very close to the field your archive material, the often enthusiastic and glorifying material on big worldwide events (even though you probably used it in an ironical way). But with “Every Valley” you toned down to one region and one industry and to interviews with the people themselves. And yet “Every Valley”, I think, can be transferred to something globally as well. The subject seemed to downsize and yet it applies to a lot of places all over the world.

JWE: Yeah, that was the intention. I wanted to make an album about coal mining partly because of the availability of the material with the British Film Institute and partly because it seemed like an interesting change not to carry on in this optimistic, grand, large-scale sort of trajectory we had been on, to change things and try something new and a bit braver. And the more I researched, the more I started to think about setting it in one particularly area. For that reason, I think, in making it specific, centred in one region, it helps to let it travel. If you are able to use your imagination or use empathy and draw parallels between what’s happening in your country and what’s happening in Wales where we focussed on. It is a more political album in a quietish way. We are not making any grand, hectoring statements but we are allowing people to find their way through it a bit by telling the story of what happened in the words of the people who went through it for the absolute lion share of the album. That’s what we’ve done. Yeah, it’s weird, if you zoom in on something and make it so specific, actually, that helping to make it more universal. It seems paradoxical but I don’t think it is. But maybe I am wrong…

OMB: No, it certainly came across to me like that. It came at a time where there were elections all over the world (well the US one had already been and done). I found personally in the region where I live where there used to be mining in Germany, in the Netherlands and in Belgium, that there is no more working-class anymore nor is there the working-class spirit. Maybe because people do not feel represented by a political party anymore, maybe because they are not working class anymore but also because they have been caught by the most likely fake promises of the right-wing parties and this happened all over place. Did you encounter that phenomenon in Wales?

JWE: We spoke to a lot of people and we spent a lot of time there making the record. A lot of what you said rings true there certainly in terms of a neglected area, ignored by politicians in London for the most part. Once they (the politicians) had broken the union and wound the industry down…they did it in a very unsympathetic way without a real long-term vision for the area. The aim first and foremost was to break the power of unions, to break that kind of power of collectivism and then let the free market run riot basically. So it is not surprising that you find a slight breakdown in community and a slight breakdown in that sort of collective feeling or collective consciousness because you don’t have that collectivism that arises mostly from working in one industry together. One of the miners we spoke to said that one of the saddest and most profound changes was that young and old people in those villages and towns there don’t really speak to each other anymore because they don’t interact. Why would they? They used to finish a shift and you’d have young lads working their way up and the older hands and they’d all go to the pub together. You talk to people and it is such an easy way of bridging divides and understanding where different generations are coming from. If you lose the industry, you lose what’s at the heart of that community, the “mother of the village” as it were on the album, you lose that too. It is easy to see then how, especially with the political backdrop, these communities can become disenfranchised and disillusioned and more ready to be taken advantage of by sort of more populist ideologies like right wing or…I don’t even know if you’d call UKIP in the UK right wing, you might call them proto-fascist or something. It is very unsavoury and it is just further hurts those communities as well which is like the further ironic twist really.

OMB: Certainly having a working-class background myself and having grown up in such a region, I sometimes get told off by people for commenting, because they assume I am too far away from it now and not going through the same thing. How was that for you as a Londoner, an artist, coming to Ebbw Vale? Did you feel apprehensive?

JWE: Oh yeah, very. I am not only a Londoner. I grew up in relative middle-class comfort. I’ve never known that kind of physical toil and strife, neither that nor the feeling of growing up in those communities after the main industry has left. Very apprehensive and nervous that people might put up a wall and just refuse to talk or question the validity of the whole thing or say, what idea have you to be talking about this at all? I genuinely did not encounter that in Wales once. There wasn’t one person who took a slightly sniffy view. The choir we worked with, the miners we interviewed, the people from the National Union of Mineworkers, people in the community, people who were in Ebbw Vale who we worked with recording. The whole feeling was very much of encouragement and support and being pleased that a lens was being kind of trained on them. I think it helps that we weren’t coming in…obviously we structured the album and we made it flow in a certain way and decided which subjects we want to talk about but I don’t think we imposed our own narrative on it. We just filtered it through our creative filter of sorts. It is still their words and their story, just kind of interpreted through our music. I don’t know. I was worried about it and I expected us to get more flak than we’ve had. We have had some because it is inevitable but it didn’t deter me from wanting to do it. I’ve been reading recently about LCD Soundsystem coming back. James Murphy remembered from a conversation with Bowie that Bowie said: If it makes you uncomfortable, you should do it. That’s when you produce good stuff. I think it is definitely an element of making myself uncomfortable with this album to try and push on and do something different, do something more ambitious and challenge yourself really. Whether I succeed is only half the battle really, it is actually doing it in the first place. Being brave enough to take that risk is a big part of it.

OMB: Yeah, and not sitting at home or in a studio and sifting through the material but going out there and living there.

JWE: Yes, engaging in a more direct way. I think it is an interesting part of the evolution of the band from where it started which is much more sitting in a room at home in a much more clinical way. I think there is more emotion on this album. It is just a more interesting story told in a more interesting way. And it is interesting to see how the band has changed from its early days till now.

Public Service Broadcasting Interview, Yuca, Cologne, Nov 26th

OMB: Besides Wrigglesworth, you have in J.F. Abraham a third member now as well?

JWE: Yeah, we just want to grow musically as well, represent the records as well as we can on stage while not going bankrupt in the process (laughs) which we haven’t always been that successful with. Hopefully going to a level where, you know…if you are lucky enough to have an audience and if you are lucky enough to have people who have been sticking with you for a while and trust you creatively, I think your obligation to them is to take creative risks and not to just see them as money in the bank kind of thing. “We need to put an album out every two years because we have got mortgages”. That’s not the point of it. If you are lucky enough to have established yourself and found an audience, you need to try and take them to new and interesting places. Maybe you lose some on the way but that’s part of the risk really.

OMB: Are you still in contact with the people in Ebbw Vale – I am probably pronouncing it so wrong…

JWE: If you say it more quickly, you are less likely to get it wrong (laughs). Yeah, when we played in Cardiff, we had the choir along. So they performed the last song and closed the night, so that was a very emotional moment. Hannah (Benkwitz) who did the artwork came along to that show so it was lovely to meet her. Ben Curtis who is a doctor at Cardiff University who was very helpful in the making came along with the people of the South Wales Miners Library. Trying to kind of make it so we didn’t just swoop in, take their story and then run off with it. Stay engaged and try and do some things to actually help the community, whether it is something as simple as going there to record it or going back there to launch the album which we did. Trying to bring some money to the area, some sort of artistic and economic activity that maybe they don’t see that often. That was really a rewarding side of it and a really satisfying part of it, regardless of the artistic or creative success/failure of the record: From a social point of view or a responsibility kind of view, it has been a good thing to do, unquestionably. That’s a good feeling to have.

OMB: You put Ebbw Vale back on the map?

JWE: I wouldn’t be as arrogant as to say that! We have given something back. We have done it with a sense of social responsibility. We did not use their story and ran off to the charts with it. We’ve tried to stay engaged and given some equipment to the local area and get young bands involved, had the local bands supporting us at the shows. Those kind of things that are just good things to do if you are of that kind of nature rather than being more individualistic.

OMB: More like an exchange then really?

JWE: They were so supportive and have allowed us to use their lives and their story and their community for our own purposes. That’s undeniable. But at the same time, it is a mutually beneficial arrangement hopefully and not an exploitative one.

OMB: Listening to the album, are the songs arranged in a particular order?

JWE: Definitely, and it is written that way too. So it is written start to finish in that order. I seem to find it works that way, I don’t know why.

OMB: Starting with Richard Burton’s quote about the proud miners?

JWE: Yeah, although that sample dropped in relatively late, getting the permission for that was late. Yeah, but starting with a more golden age. With a dissonance to it. There is this grandiosity but also this dissonance. As in something is not quite right. Almost lurking beneath the surface, I suppose. So it is not only about doom and gloom but casting back to when mining was a dangerous but valuable part of the community. And then the slow dive off the cliff really. But even then moment like “They gave me a lamp” shining some kind of positive light on telling a sad story.

OMB: If you think of the unbelievable working conditions those people worked in, the danger, the heat, the noise, the confined space, the air they breathed and what they contributed to their nation.

JWE: And then being thanked by just being left on the scrapheap. It’s disgusting really. It was one of the reasons for doing this album, was trying to get that message across how these people have been used up in that way. Again that idea of collective social responsibility which is not at the forefront of the album but it is lurking behind everything on it, hopefully. That we have to look after people in troubled times and less fortunate than those who are doing better. It is about society as whole rather than “there is no such thing as society” which is one of Thatcher’s most famous political announcements.

OMB: Wow, did she say that?

JWE: I think it was kind of taken slightly out of context but still…

OMB: I wouldn’t put it past her.

JWE: If you ask people to name things she said, it is that and “If you are over 30 years old and you are on a bus, you are a failure”. It is all about this individualistic view of life. What’s in it for me rather than for the greater good. It has been quite a poisonous mindset to have developed over the last thirty odd years back home.

OMB: It is really saddening. (Sensing, time is up). Right, so what can we expect tonight?

JWE: (Laughs). Well, you know, after all this heavy talk: It is a pop show. Lights and smoke and larking around. We will play about six or seven songs off the new album and intersperse it with older stuff. We change the setlist every night, so we don’t play the exact same set every night which is good, hopefully, for the fans and for us. We are gamely plugging away to play the music as best as possible. There’s live visuals as well running in the background in sync with the music.
It is hopefully an engaging and moving and occasionally mildly humorous show. It is different to a lot of stuff out there. It can be in the right setting quite overwhelming but in a good way. That’s the idea but whether or not we are able to get that across…

OMB: Well, I’ve been known to cry under my headphones listening to “Mother of The Village”…

JWE: Oh, blimey!

OMB: But I am just like that way.

JWE: If music gets you like that, music gets you like that! For two of us in the band it’s the same.

OMB: I think, it’s a good thing.

JWE: I think so too.

OMB: And on this note, thank you very much!

JWE: Thank you!

Public Service Broadcasting Interview, Yuca, Cologne, Nov 26th

 

Lisa Hannigan Interview November 2016

Lisa Hannigan released her third album “At Swim” to much critical acclaim a couple of weeks ago. Currently she presents her new and some old songs on tour in Europe after having played in the US. She will also be supporting Agnes Obel on her tour in Europe. Offbeat had the opportunity to talk to Lisa and presents you a fresh Lisa Hannigan Interview November 2016.

Lisa played only a handful of gigs in Germany and so the intimate venue Studio 672 in Cologne was sold out. Heather Woods Broderick was supporting and playing in Lisa’s band (and selling merchandise, too, multitasking in its true form but more on that in a separate post).

The audience might not have been so happy about the venue: The small, low stage and a dark long room that stays the same floor level was not really helpful to anyone not standing in the first row to catch a glimpse of what was happening on stage. Actually quite a lot was going on: Lisa, three musicians, plus Heather showcased perfect musical craftsmanship – a quiet set without a glitch and yet in no way distanced or sterile. It probably would be – especially for the quieter songs of the new album – a good gig to watch seated, just to absorb the music and the lyrics a little better without craning your neck to see and trying to avoid fainting in the heat. (Note: Why oh why do photographers who were only allowed to do their thing during two songs have to cling to the front of that very small stage for the whole set blocking the view for everyone else? And this guy who records some concerts shiftily will one day get a kick from me, so there.)

Anyhow, as I was saying, the audience was more than content with the long and varied set anyway (and encores amongst which an a cappella or sean nos rendition of “Anahorish” just like on the album or even better) and especially thrilled that Lisa took to the merchandise table herself afterwards and patiently signed and had pictures taken and had a kind word for everyone.

Lisa also kindly took some time out beforehand to talk to Offbeat Music Blog. Interview excerpts and music will also be due at Kaleidoskop, Mondays, 5-6pm CET on www.byte.fm as well as Offbeat, Thursdays, 8-10pm CET on www.novumfm.de. There you have it!

Lisa Hannigan Interview November 2016

An incredible fresh-faced friendly Lisa awaited us and answered the questions patiently in her (it has to be said) also lovely speaking voice with the sweet lilt. (Actually, the band are trying to teach Heather Woods Broderick some Irish English while on tour and they are having loads of fun).

Thank you very much, Lisa Hannigan and the band and Heather Woods Broderick (blog post to follow) and Una Molloy and everyone at PIAS and the venue!

Offbeat Music Blog: Lisa, touring can make you feel disconnected from home where life goes on without you. How do you feel about it?

Lisa Hannigan: I think the main thing is you feel very tired. That’s the main thing when you come off tour. A lot of people have these records about feeling disconnected, away from home. That was certainly what my last record (Passenger) was all about – being on tour a lot and feeling like, you know, what are the things you take with you when you travel. And this record (At Swim) is again about feeling disconnected but it is more about feeling disconnected at home than actually being on tour because I was living all over the place. But that’s how a lot of people feel a lot of the time. It’s worth writing songs about it, I think.

OMB: Could you take us on a short journey through your musical development and maybe what you had in mind when making your three albums?

LH: I was always singing at home in my house. My parents, my Mum in particular does a lot of singing. It was just always so. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing. I sort of thought I might be an opera singer when I was a teenager for a brief amount of time. When I realised how quiet I was, I knew that was never going to work. I just had to find my place really. I realised, first of all I needed a microphone (laughs) because no one could hear me. I fell into singing backing vocals and writing my own songs. So it happened very meanderingly. But I always wanted to be a singer.

I don’t know whether I have anything in mind particularly when I first start making a record. It is sort of a song by song situation. It’s only sometimes the further you get into finishing songs that you realise how they hang together, what sort of theme there is there. On the outset, I think, you are just fumbling around in the dark and hoping to bump into things. I certainly wanted this record to feel different. But I didn’t really know what that meant. And it took me a long time to write the songs. I was grateful for any song at all that I liked. But it did start to come together and start to feel  cohesive. But I think, starting out, you just hope to write another song which as a songwriter is always the worry. When you finish a song you think: Will that be my last song? You know, for a not very prolific one like me (laughs).

OMB: Your new album “At Swim” was a great pain to make, wasn’t it?

LH: It took me a lot longer than I wanted to. I think, as we were saying earlier about touring: I came back from the “Passenger” tour which was probably about two years, just feeling really really tired – and quite sort of burnt-out and empty. I just thought “Oh, sure, I’ll write a song next week.” I just found it so hard. I realised I hadn’t written a song in a long time and the more I tried, the more difficult it became. It sort of snowballed like that and I got very anxious about not writing songs. I would sit down every day and try and write and didn’t quite work. But eventually, once in a blue moon, I would write a song in twenty minutes and I’d have a song that I really liked. I knew I was getting there – just very slowly. Then I got an email out of the blue from Aaron Dessner from The National saying did I want to write together or did I need someone to produce my record. That was amazing. That was really helpful. He would send me these little pieces of music and I would be able to write to that and sing into my phone and send it back to him. It really helped me gain momentum in my own writing as well. We have three songs co-written on the record. But more than anything it helped me gain my confidence back a lot. He is so easy and enthusiastic about everything. He is a really great person to be around and to write with. That helped a huge amount.

OMB: Aaron Dessner also produced in a way to make the album sound much darker than your previous albums or would that have been a natural progression for you anyway?

LH: Yeah! Who knows? I am not sure. The songs themselves are a lot darker because of the theme so that was already there. But he definitely reduced the kind of lyricism of a lot of the arrangements. He took a lot of those melodic instruments and contrapuntal melodies that I would have normally done and made it more textured which I think helped reduce the exuberance somewhat. In a good way! Because that’s what the songs required. He did an amazing job producing it, making this interesting world out of the songs.

OBM: A lot of the titles of your new album are very dark but maybe the songs themselves are not so much as the titles mean something different to you?

LH: Some of the songs are definitely quite dark to go with the stark, dark melodies. “Funeral Suit” for a example is not in any way a sad song. It’s purely a love song. I always know when people haven’t listened to the record when they say (moans): “It’s so depressing…” (Laughs loudly). They haven’t actually read the words. And “Prayer For The Dying” as well. It’s a sad subject but I don’t think it’s a sad song. It’s not meant to be, it’s meant to be quite celebratory and a tribute of sorts more than being sort of dour. But the titles are quite dark when you read them in a list (loud laughter).

OBM: You also have a Seamus Heaney poem on the album (“Anahorish”)?

LH: Yeah, when I was finding it hard to write…I always read a lot of his poetry because it is so beautiful. And I felt like that would be the best thing if I fill myself with up with lovely words as opposed to my empty head. I saw “Anahorish” and it looks like a song on the page first of all but also the theme of it about memory and home and that central coheir of things, I thought, would fit really well with the rest of the record. I started setting it to music as an exercise in my time when I couldn’t write anything to help me write stuff. But I actually I loved it so much that I really wanted to put it on the record. I sent it to his family, asking if it was okay and they very kindly said yes. I love singing it live, too, it is great fun.

OBM: Do you have a trained voice, Lisa?

LH: Well, I did a little bit of classical training when I had my notions of being an opera singer. I did some lessons in school. But that was it. I did that for a couple of years. I learned how to do warm-ups, that sort of thing. But I don’t tend to warm up anymore because usually I am singing all day. I don’t really need to. If I have been ill or I haven’t for some reason been singing, then I warble away and do some scales.

OBM: The singing range is amazing and some people said that you could sing anything, jazz, anything at all.

LH: I love singing all sorts of songs and funnily enough since I started and since I gave up smoking about ten years ago, my range has totally changed. I’ve gotten lower and higher also. That’s been fun. It is playing to me, singing. I like to think of the voice as an instrument. That’s more how we approached it on this record actually. There is so much to a voice in communication in terms of texture and timbre and all the rest that is controllable to a certain extent. There is no reason why your voice shouldn’t get better as you get older…as long as you are not drinking whiskey and shouting all night which I don’t tend to do much anymore. There is no reason why your voice should not add complexity as you get older which I hope will be the case.

OBM: Thank you so much, Lisa Hannigan!