An interview with Mick Flannery

Mick Flannery hails from Blarney, Co. Cork, Ireland. For reasons that he reveals at his concerts, he has not kissed the Blarney Stone and might not have gained the gift of the gab, i.e. would not call himself talkative. Still, I can prove he can talk because here it is: An interview with Mick Flannery. Generally though, thankfully he pours all his wordsmithery into his songs that are acutely observed and razor-sharply worded held up by an uncanny talent for the melancholic and sometimes angry tune. The songs at times make you forget to breathe and they wrench your little heart.

He has released five albums so far, the lastest being “I Own You” (Universal). Currently he is on tour where you can catch him next week in Germany, followed by tour dates in the UK and later in summer in the US and Canada. Listening to Mick Flannery on record is the one thing, seeing him perform live the other. Not thinking he is a natural performer himself, he nonetheless has everybody’s attention not only through his music and his mastery of guitar and piano as well as owning a very soothing, yet rough voice (cannot explain it very well) that still can get shockingly loud – no, the banter in-between the songs is so deadpan and self-deprecating, it has the audience in tears, either with empathy or mirth or both.

Offbeat Music Blog had the fortune to see him perform at the beginning of April at Little Waves in Genk, Belgium and now again at the Poppodium Nieuwe Nor’s Kloostersessies in Heerlen, Netherlands. Indeed the gig took place in the chapel of an abbey, slap-bang in the middle of town and it is a very atmospheric place. Good sound, appreciative audience, a very friendly welcome. As usual, a big thank you to the Nieuwe Nor team for doing such a great job. Also thank you so much to Sheena and Susan at Blue Grace Music and of course Mick Flannery himself for making this interview possible!

Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you so much, Mick, for taking the time.

Mick Flannery: Yes, of course.

OMB: Let us start at the very beginning. You grew up outside a small place in Ireland and started doing music there as a teenager.

MF: I grew up outside the village of Blarney, a tourist town in Ireland. Music was a big part of my mother’s family. All of them, my aunts and uncles and my grandfather sang. They would have get-togethers at the pub sometimes and they would sing. A guitar would be passed around and people would take their turn. I got in to like the music they were singing, the different people like Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan. Then I started to want to be involved, so I started to play the guitar a bit. I had been doing some piano lessons as well which I didn’t really enjoy so much, so I gave up. I just concentrated on the guitar and then later went back to the piano. 

OMB: Did you take guitar lessons as well or are you self-trained?

MF: Self-trained but I had some chord books. The chord books were written vertically. For a while I didn’t know I was playing the guitar upside down. 

OMB: Because you are left-handed.

MF: I am left-handed but I was playing a right-handed guitar. But it hasn’t really affected me that much. But I guess it is a little strange for people to see, especially guitar players that can’t tell which chords I am playing. My hands look odd to them.

OMB: Does it put a strain on your hands?

MF: No, it doesn’t really affect much. I guess it is not the best method for doing solos like Slash or someone like that because the high strings are on the other side of the guitar. They are not so much available to you. But that’s okay, I get away with it. 

An interview with Mick Flannery

OMB: You are sort of dismissive of your earlier work, finding it not so original. I do hear more original Mick Flannery in your newer albums. Have you found the real Mick Flannery?

MF: I don’t know if I have. With the earlier stuff I can hear the definite influences of Tom Waits. And I can hear myself emulating his voice too much. It kind of annoys me and embarrasses me now. I still use americanisms when I write. I find it hard to get away from using American phrases. It’s just seems to be the language of songwriting in the English language. It seems to use americanisms like the word “ain’t” appears a lot in songs but it doesn’t appear in common parlance, especially on this side of the Atlantic. For that reason I don’t know if I’ve actually found any Mick Flannery voice as yet. Maybe when I am older. I am still a stew of influences at the moment. 

OMB: I do find that in your later albums there is less a mix of genres and it becomes a more definite style. But in Ireland there would be a strong tradition of being connected to the US anyway, also musically, rather than to England?

MF: That’s who my family were interested in. That’s true of Ireland in a lot of ways. We import and seem to have some affinity with country music as well. Like Johnny Cash is big in Ireland. And I guess because of our history with England, we feel less obliged to follow their musicians (laughs) even though we follow their soccer teams religiously…a strange thing. For me anyway, there is a lot of American influence. Which is fine, there’s been a lot of very good music coming from America.

OMB: Absolutely nothing wrong with it. You were signed at a young age to a major label in Ireland. Was that luck or is it also because Ireland has such a low population?

MF: It was a mixture of things, I guess. The last point is definitely true. It is a low population. It is a small market for the music industry. So a big label – I mean there’s only a few labels in Ireland, I think, there might be only two left really. People would have their own small labels but they would be only for individual work really.  And lucky? I guess so. Even though the timing would seem to be bad, considering the changes in the industry. By two years into my contract, the industry was having a panic attack due to the technology’s influence. Not long afterwards, EMI itself, the company who’d signed me, was sold to Universal. So I found myself in a move from one stable to another without really…I guess what sometimes artists really need is a champion on the business side, someone who has some type of emotional bond or pride attached to you doing well. That may have slightly disappeared once I moved from EMI to Universal because it wasn’t Universal’s idea to sign me really. I was just moved over. Not that they haven’t worked but it is just: I am not their baby. Yeah, Ireland is a small market, so it’s possible if I were more forward thinking and ambitious, I would have tried to go abroad and get a record deal. Then I’d have been more likely to have a worldwide record deal rather than just an Irish one which is a little bit restrictive. 

OMB: Did you ever think of self-promoting or self-releasing or would that not be your thing at all?

MF: Well, back to lucky. I have been lucky enough not to have to do it too much. And that makes me really bad at it. I have always been bad at self-promotion and I don’t really see myself getting better at it. I got spoiled, I think. 

OMB: When you wrote your albums, did you have a goal in mind, something that you wanted to achieve in particular with the album?

MF:  Yeah, sometimes. The album that is the most cohesive is the last one before the new one (“I Own You”, 2016, Universal) “By The Rule” (2014, Universal) which was all done in a small time with live takes. It gives it a sound of itself. Then to listen to it, I sometimes feel it feels longer, that there are too many songs on it or that it sounds all too the same. The last album was more of a departure into different types of production. Some of it sounds more aggressive. A friend of mine said to me that it seems to him that, me included, but a lot of other artists as well, seem to have reactions to their previous work. So they create a work and it is, say, missionless or blind as to what it is going to be and it is just a bunch of songs. And then have a reaction to this. “I don’t want to do that anymore, I want to do something else”. So you just do the other. And then you move on to another again. I can see what he meant. I see it in myself as well. I guess if there was any arc or progression, it would be from the topics, the subject matters of the songs. When I was younger, a lot of them were personally based, personal experience. As I get older…I think as people get older they think less of themselves as individual and their feelings so unique, they start to view the world a little more broadly. So rather than writing about your condition, you tend to write about the human condition a bit more. 

OMB: I saw you play at Little Waves festival in Genk, two women were sitting behind me and they kept exclaiming: “Oh dear, oh dear, aaaaaw, the poor man. Oh dear. Such heartbreak. Too much for an individual person to bear.” I found your announcements actually very funny because they are so deadpan but I would agree: Too much for one person. Are these all your experiences or do you abstract it too and use other people’s experiences?

MF: Part of it would be personal. Then there are other ones that are, not so much stolen but I kind of attach myself a little bit or something. There are songs which aren’t autobiographical but you can’t help but have some piece of yourself seep in. So I do pretend to be other people sometimes. When I hear them speak or hear them use some turn of phrase that kind of encapsulates their whole life at that point for me, then I take that and put it in. I take on characters sometimes. I get to the melodies first and the melodies kind of ask you to write a certain thing because the melody won’t support any different subject matter. If the melody sounds pining, then you write towards it. If you buck away from it and the melody is pining but wrote something really angry, then that is not going to really work. 

OMB: Your songs are more on the, well, not negative scale, but on the angrier, more melancholic side. There are not too many happy songs about in works. As much as I would wish someone well and to be happy, would you still be able to write songs? Are you at your most creative when you are not happy?

MF: I would think so, possibly, yeah, because it stirs your brain up. It makes you uncomfortable, it makes you kind of different to what you normally are. It throws a storm around in your head as you consciously try to figure it out. That is probably a good time to be creative. I found in the past that when things are going badly or someone wrongs me or if I am angry, in some situations that can be useful. 

OMB: Do you find it cathartic?

MF: Yeah, it would help. If you are getting back at someone especially. (Lots of laughter). “Can’t wait for them to hear this! Bastards!” (More laughter).

OMB: When you perform older songs, does this transport you back in time or do you find the songs get a new meaning?

MF: You have to kind of apply it elsewhere, I think. Because the feelings of the time are gone, pretty much, beyond you. If the songs is good enough, the audience members will be able to attach themselves to it as well. If the song is able to do that for them, it should be able to do it for you as well. You should be able to apply different meanings to it as you moved on from the original one. That’s why people don’t use specific names and specific incidents or sometimes they do. In that sense the songs don’t really last. 

An interview with Mick Flannery

OMB: You spent some time in Berlin to get out. Why out of all places Berlin? I would have probably seen you choosing the US more like.

MF: I don’t know really. A friend of mine had been to Berlin. He said it was a great place to go with a lot of art happening there, a melting pot of different nationalities. That was true. I like my time in Berlin even though it was a little bit kind of solitary. I just wanted to move somewhere I think. There was a promotions company interested in working with me around Germany. One of the albums had been picked up by the EMI branch of Germany. So I thought, if there is going to be a bit of work around, I might as well be there rather than go to America and have to cross the Atlantic. I just wanted to get away from my comfort zone. I’d been knocking around Cork City in Ireland for ten years, leaving away from home, drinking too much in the same places, not really doing anything new. I got sick of myself.

OBM: How long did you spend there?

MF: I was there for three months the first time I went. And then, I think it was a year and a half the second time. 

OBM: You spent some time in New York too.

MF: I spent three months in New York when I was twenty-one. Knocking around singer-songwriter nights and stuff like that. That was my first delve into ambition. But I didn’t really believe in myself that much. I didn’t have enough songs anyway and I shied away from it and went back home. 

OBM: You were very young though.

MF: Yeah, it’s hard to know. Sometimes I give myself a hard time for not sticking it out in New York and say to myself, oh, you should have stayed there and gone properly ambitious and met the right people. But I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Maybe I have a bit of a home bird instinct in me. Or maybe I just like a quiet life. 

OBM: Well, New York is hectic.

MF: Yeah, I just don’t know. What I enjoy most is writing songs and it seems to take me quite a while to ferment stuff. I can’t rush myself. My brain works as fast as it works. It seems a have a certain gearbox in my head and I am stuck in one of them (laughs) and I can churn out maybe sixteen songs every two years, maybe a little bit more. Then twelve of them will be worth being on an album. I am okay with that. I am kind of okay with the level of ambition I have had as well, the level of success which has been good. It hasn’t been astronomical but it has given me my own space to do what I really like to do.

OBM: And you can live on it.

MF: I am not rich, so I am not detached from society.

OBM: Still grounded, yeah. 

MF: Yeah and I am not super famous, you know, it’s fine.

OBM: You also work or maybe not so often now as a stonemason. A lot of people see a contradiction between working as a stonemason and as a musician. It is not really, is it? Both being creative professions.

MF: Yes, it is and I liked it. I still like it. I don’t do as much as I used to. It is creative and it is kind of calming. If I go on holidays, I have to bring a guitar because I don’t play the guitar. It calms me down. Building is probably a bit harder physically than playing the guitar but it calms me down. It’s relaxing – as long as it is not snowing on you. (Laughs).

OBM: Is there any other artist you would like to work together with? Maybe in Ireland which has such a huge music scene for a relatively small place?

MF: Sometimes, yeah. I don’t know, look, I don’t know I could work with anyone else because I am kind of such a solo artist, I guess. It’s nice to meet the other people in the business and be on a gig with them or have a chat about what it’s been like for them. Maybe have a singsong somewhere – that’s always fun. I have been doing a few more bits of co-writing recently which is interesting. It is never the same. Whatever comes out is always a little bit scary for me, because it’s not really mine and there are things about it I would change and avenues I wouldn’t have gone down maybe. We’ll see. The Irish music scene is good. It seems it’s always been healthy. I guess there’s just a lot of people around. The younger generation is always going to see someone is doing it, someone getting somewhere with it. They can see the bigger examples of it like, I dunno, U2, Phil Lynott or Van Morrison. Big examples of people who have gone far in that industry. I guess they just believe they can do it to.

OBM: I found that in Ireland people, especially young people, still attend gigs a lot and go to record stores and play themselves rather than just listening to a list of what’s offered to them on the charts or by the music industry. There is more of a go out and get it, a looking for it attitude, I reckon.

MF: The Irish are good music fans as well and they pride themselves of having a good knowledge of music, not just pop music.

OBM: You do record with a band. I suppose, you perform with the band in Ireland but you did not bring them with you abroad?

MF: It is a financial restriction, you know. The gigs aren’t big enough in Europe at the moment to be able to afford to bring a band. I would like to even though it is so unhealthy. Too much fun.

OBM: Too much partying?

MF: It is impossible to avoid. It is just a circus. It is a pity because it so much fun when the guys and girls do come.  They have all such fun and I really enjoy the fact that all this fun is slightly because of me. It makes me feel good. I kind of regret that I can’t always have that party going on.

OBM: Stating that what you like most is writing the songs, would you call yourself a natural performer?

MF: No, I wouldn’t have been but I am getting better at it the more comfortable I get. I am just more experienced now. I kind of know what will work at various times. I think I can get a feel for the audience when they are getting bored. I don’t really have a setlist. I am long enough in the tooth as well – I have five albums worth of stuff. So I don’t really have to get bored myself. I can pick stuff from here and there. I always have to play more upbeat songs to break the rhythm of the evening but that’s okay. 

OBM: At present you are not only on tour, you are also writing new songs. What direction are the new songs going in?

MF: There’s a lot to do with desire and ambition actually and the internal battle that people have with their dreams and their goals, the level of pride you might attach to your status in whichever field you are striving in. So that’s kind of a buddhist album (laughs). It is a little bit of a brain exploration, I guess, in parts. So more of the human condition stuff again. 

OBM: Are you ambitious?

MF: Not really, no. I dunno, pride does peak its head up now and again. (Long thinking pause.) I guess if you work a lot at something and the quality is good and you felt that you had worked hard at getting lyrics right…It’s hard to think about it. There is some ambition lurking around at the back of my head alright. I don’t know where I’d like to be. But I know when I get there, I won’t be happy (laughs). I think I’d like to meet some of the people that I like in the business like Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen. But that’s true for a lot of people. A lot of people would like to meet them (bursts out laughing). Maybe there’s some part of me that would like to play a song to Bruce Springsteen and have him say that it’s good. That’s an ambition of mine. I dunno, I sometimes think does acknowledgement become addictive? Do you get addicted to positive appraisals? This is part of the unhealthy stuff…maybe not healthiest stuff to have in your head. It’s important to be happy to be just happy yourself with what you have done. There is a guy I really like in Ireland. His name is Blindboy Boatclub. He’s from a band called The Rubber Bandits. He talks a lot about self-evalutation and self-actualisation, having an internal locus of evaluation rather than exporting it to somebody else which I think is wise. I must try and keep that up. 

 

 

 

Nap Eyes, one of Canada’s finest – an interview

Nap Eyes, one of Canada’s finest – an interview, on the occasion of the band being on tour in Europe and the UK and presenting their latest album “‘I’m Bad Now” (You’ve Changed, Paradise Of Bachelors, Jagjaguwar) to the eager audience.

Nap Eyes, one of Canada's finest - an interview

Because as much as you can sit at home and delve into the lyrics of wordsmith Nigel Chapman, an abundance of introspective, reflective, self-deprecating, funny and elegant and simply informative lines and a few on the big picture…As much as you can admire the music that is added to those lyrics by guitarist Brad Loughead, bassist Josh Salter and drummer Seamus Dalton – music that appears so light and easy-going at first and still is peppered with unexpected turns in gear and atmosphere…No, you want to see them live. You still can in the UK, supported by the fantastic Haley Heynderickx who unfortunately did not come with them to mainland Europe.

Also missing was Brad Loughead. Sad but then again, it gives everyone a chance to witness Cian Nugent doing his magic on a guitar, seemingly effortlessly. On the 5th of May, on a lovely summerish evening, Nap Eyes drew quite a crowd to Cologne’s King Georg and kindly gave Offbeat Music Blog some time for a chat.

Nap Eyes, one of Canada's finest - an interview

 

So here we go:

 

Offbeat Music Blog: Your three albums including the latest “I’m Bad Now” are often seen as a trilogy. Would that be a conceptual trilogy or more in the way that there is a continuity in the three albums?

Nigel Chapman: Yeah, I would say, more of the second. We did not probably do anything consciously differently or similarly. The songs just evolved as they did in our playing together but that being said, maybe the fact that we did not make a deliberate big change means all three (albums) fit together. And there is some connection. We did know what we were doing.

Seamus Dalton: And artwise they are thematically similar which was on purpose, to keep some sort of theme going through all of them.

OMB: How would you describe your own development?

Nigel: For me, just continuing with songwriting. Musically, I think, we have gotten better. I feel I have got more practised at singing. It was two years ago that we recorded this record almost now (July 2016). But gaining some skills and experience in singing, still with lots of mistakes but, you know, getting there (laughs). Lyrically, it was mostly from a different time. Sometimes it felt a little less imagistic, less imagery. For me it felt more like direct explanations of things that were going on in my mind. But I can’t really say. That may be just be me talking now. Maybe it is easier for someone else to say how it is the same or different. 

OMB: I think the first album “Whine Of The Mystic” was almost a little rougher (“uh-huh” go Nigel, Seamus and Josh in unison) and had a live feel to it and the second album (“Thought Rock Fish Scale”) sounded like it was done in a smaller room (‘absolutely”, “definitely”) and on the third one, you can hear, ah, this is a big recording studio. Was it tempting to not just going in there and play the songs if you have all the possibilities to fiddle around with the music? Is it hard to say, okay, we are stopping at this point and leave a song like it is?

Seamus: It is, and I think we have tried some new things in the studio that we have not tried before. You can carried away very easily and lose what you set out to do in the first place with all the toys lying around. 

Nigel: It was good that we did not have that much money. So we did not spend that long in there. 

OMB: Much has been made of the alleged contrast between you, Nigel, being a scientist and a musician. Do you notice ways each field would influence the other?

Nigel: Yeah, definitely. Especially for me the way I approach music or songwriting is very much a part of or results from the kinds of thoughts that I am thinking. If I spend some time concentrating on a particular research area or subject, then as a result my writing will take on some elements from that field. You will hear, I am talking about it sometime what it is like doing research. But equally often or in a different way, you could say that the constant perseverance and repetition that you do in science and a lot of failure – you have to get comfortable with things not working out the right way the first time. This has given me some very valuable lessons in life and in approaching music. It has given me more patience which I think is not something I am naturally imbued with. What Jim (Elkington) had said about practice (good playing has  got little to do with talent, just practice), that’s similar. I felt that way as well. Just having more time to repeat and practise. You should be comfortable with taking it slow. Because things do take way longer than you would hope in all kinds of ways, including our career or how long it takes for an album to be released or finalised. But if you get patient, this won’t be as painful an experience. You don’t mind waiting as much and figure out things to occupy you with while you wait. 

OMB: Maybe also, if you don’t burden yourself with a failure but accept something has to be, say, repeated, that is a relief?

Nigel: So true, yeah. Because it does not really do much good. If it does not work, it does not do good to have a huge amount of negativity towards yourself. It does not really serve any purpose. 

OMB: You made music your profession now. Does that pose any problems, to know, this is it, that is my source of income.

Nigel: There are probably challenges and problems in any career. Since we have to earn our rent and our food in this way, it is stressful in a different way than it used to be. We are putting a lot of personal investment in terms of time and energy into this. We hope that it works out. Sometimes it is scarier than before when it could be more casual. But overall it is a satisfying and fulfilling thing. I feel really happy about that and lucky and optimistic. 

OMB: So you rather see the benefits of it than feel like it casts a shadow over something that you like to do?

Nigel: Yeah, I think so.

Seamus: I don’t know what else we would do, probably. (Laughs). 

Nigel: It feels natural. It is the kind of work we like to do and we felt drawn to and somehow ended up continuing. 

Nap Eyes, one of Canada's finest - an interview

OMB: You live far apart in Canada, Nigel in Nova Scotia, the rest in Montreal. Some people argue it is impossible to work together like that. Nigel, you have done a project where a song was passed along via email or the like and is this the way you work too? Nigel starts a song and then it gets passed on and worked on before you even meet up?

Seamus: Exactly. 

Josh: Sometimes we hear demos. But usually we don’t really do much before. Nigel writes the song. When we get together, we play it till it is the song. 

Nigel: I don’t know how it will sound when they bring their elements to it. But as Josh is saying, we usually just jam. Sometimes it takes a while for parts to start to mesh together like in a puzzle. But then they do, or sort of (laughs). And then we have a result. It is a very rewarding and exciting experience, sometimes very frustrating but mostly really satisfying and fun. 

OMB: You must know each other really well to write the lyrics, Nigel, a basic melody perhaps and have a certain atmosphere in mind and then trust the others to transfer this to music. Is there sometimes a misconception of what you had in mind?

Nigel: Not so much. I think. Maybe once in a while, my mind will be like: Oh, I thought it’s like this and that. Usually I just let go as much as I can. That’s easier for me. For me it works to let everybody else do things. I think if I had more ideas of what all the parts should be, then I would come into conflict more often with the others. Usually I just do my thing and let everybody else build around it. So in this way it works really well. The others have a good collaborative spirit and maybe more or different kinds of social skills than me. They figure out things together so we get a result. 

OMB: Also, the audience might project something else on the song. Or even the songs, since they were recorded almost two years ago, have during the performances taken on a different meaning for you?

Nigel: That’s very true. That is certainly a thing that happens. It evolves when we play together. Certainly for me when I sing the same lyrics now because I am different than I was back then. That’s the nice thing about music, too, because you can constantly reinterpret yourself and you are bringing the past to life each time when you bring an old song into the present. Sometimes you go like, why am I playing this all the time? You feel constrained about it. But that is also a good thing. It does not always feel good but it is a good discipline to do what you have to do, the best you can, any time. At a concert, we have to play our old songs. That’s what we are paid to do. 

OMB: Nigel, you are said to be quite introverted. So you work alone, as a scientist, as the songwriter and then you thrown into the thick of it, get shoved out on tour.

Nigel: At first – sorry, guys, that I am answering all of this. At first it took a period of adaption for me because I did not know what to do. But there are a few things that make it a lot easier and one is having got used to it and knowing what to expect. The rhythm of the day, when you can be in your own mind even when you are around the others. There are certain times of the day that are more suitable for not being as talkative but being quiet in yourself and recharge a bit. Knowing how to take advantage of that time is helpful. But also, gaining a bit of social skills and capability for extraversion over time, strengthening the weak side of your personality is always good. But also playing with my friends, with Seamus, Josh and Brad…Cian is actually with us, so also Cian. Travelling with your friends makes a huge difference just in terms of relating to people because I know I have people who understand me. They know my patterns of feeling different ways. I feel accepted and that helps a lot. It is like a translator with others. 

OMB: Lyrically, again, is that all you in the songs Nigel or different persons or personas?

Nigel: Different personas, I guess. Mostly it sounds like the same persona. Different sides of my personality or characters that seem to exist in my psyche. Which I think everyone has. You have got different people that act. Josh was talking about this one this morning. “The White Disciple” is the kind of person within the psyche. Some are good and bad. Some qualities that are good in certain situations, some are bad on others. You try not to judge them. You give them room to exist. You should have somebody who is able to keep them in check. There is like a really anti-social character. At times I give him a pretty long leash so he can roam around but at other times restrain him in so he does not interfere with harmony in the world. This idea is helpful for me, you know. 

OMB: What’s new on the album is that you might not have an answer to all the questions that you start asking after having a good introspective look and also at the outside world, but there seems to be a silver lining. Also I think it is beautifully transferred to the music which turns adequately. Reminds me of The Go-Betweens. Did anybody ever say that?

Nigel, Josh and Seamus: YES!

Seamus: Not a band that anyone of us would cite as an influence.

Nigel: It’s only because I have not really listened to them that much. They are probably very good but I have not heard of them so much. 

Seamus: A friend of mine gave me an album of The Go-Betweens a long time ago and I did see the similarity. They are a very good band. It is a compliment. 

OMB: Not a bad thing at all! Thank you very much for your time!

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