Spain’s Josh Haden – an interview

Josh Haden’s band Spain has had a long and winding career. Throughout the band’s existence their output of six studio albums, however, has had a consistent level of high quality. Their music is among the critics’ favourites, the fans are faithful. Deservedly so, as Spain is a band that offers genuine and heartfelt and well-crafted songs that never bow to trends, never try to endear themselves to the business and above all remain absolutely timeless. It is always mentioned that Josh Haden is the son of jazz legend Charlie Haden. Yes, Josh has immense musical pedigree, also on his mother’s side, even down to his grandparents and his triplet sisters Petra, Tanya and Rachel hypnotise with their own musical project The Haden Triplets. He also has talent, of course, and/or a gift for music. But more than three decades playing and honing his craft, he can by now, I think, maybe, also express it like this: Charlie Haden was the father of Josh Haden. I felt very honoured that Josh took the time for this: Spain’s Josh Haden – an interview.

Spain have just released their sixth album “Mandala Brush” on Glitterhouse Records/Dangerbird and I am looking forward a lot to have still hours of listening pleasure ahead of me as there is much to explore on their new oeuvre again. During the release, Spain were already on tour in Europe and you can still catch them in Germany, Denmark, France and Italy. I had never before seen Spain live and when they started off their set at Eupen’s Alter Schlachthof (thank you, all the lovely people at this wonderful venue and also Chris as tour manager and Judith for your help), it went like this:

The bottles of Eupener beer came in handy and were used for making hooting sounds that were repeated by the instruments, came and went and changed and it went all experimental and free jazzy and to my utmost astonishment, very magical, warm and above all inclusive and humorous and not a bit self-indulgent. Turns out to be a rendition of “(Korean letters) God Is Love” from their new album. At this point let me tell you who is on tour with Josh Haden: His sister Petra Haden on vocals and violin (simply wow, the violin playing and that voice, especially in the encore, the very famous “Spiritual” – I noticed, almost blue in the face, that I had been holding my breath and that there were tears trickling down my face), the versatile and expert and straightout great peformers Kenny Lyon on guitar (and melodion?), Shon Sullivan on acoustic guitar and keys and Jakob Hoyer on drums. Spain continued with a couple of renderings of their new album “Mandala Brush”, a bit of banter, especially on Mr. Trump (much more of that later in the interview), and many perfectly rendered classics from the older albums. Just go and see them live, for goodness’ sake, and be bewitched. After a French venue did so and Josh really appreciating it, he has ever since labelled Spain’s music as indie, americana, slowcore, free jazz (I think) for those of you who would like to place them somewhere. Well, Spain’s Spain and that’s more than good enough.

Spain's Josh Haden - an interview

Now make way for Josh Haden. Well, and yes, I am almost interested how musicians or artists in general feel in the U.S. these days and Josh went for it. But other than that, lend him an ear when he talks about his new album, the music industry and a lot more right now in his own words:

 

Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you very much for taking the time, Josh!

Josh Haden: Thanks for having me!

OMB: Your band Spain is gracing Eupen tonight with a rare concert on the release of your new album “Mandala Brush”. I would like to go back in time a bit. You come from a musical family – it couldn’t get any more musical. Your sister Petra Haden is with you on tour, you have to more sisters who are musicians, your father was a famous musician and your mother is one too. Was there any point in your life and even if was out of sheer teenage rebellion where you said: “I am not going to be a musician”?

Josh: Well, not really. I have always been interested in music and I grew up with musicians, so it seemed pretty natural. But I also like reading books. I grew up with lots of books around and I also wanted to be a writer and I am still working on that. But so far the music takes up all my time. 

OMB: There has been a point in your career, not a loss of interest in music from your side but hassle with the music industry, let’s put it this way. I read somewhere, it not only almost destroyed your livelihood but you did not find the energy to play. Is that true and how did you overcome that?

Josh: Well, this was a long time ago and I was much younger and I think I had a little bit too much pride and not enough willingness to compromise. I said to myself, if I cannot do it my way, I am not going to do it. I took a little time off and went to a school for writing. I wasn’t really happy there. Then this rap producer Dan The Automator contacted me and asked me if I wanted him to produce my record because I stilled owed a record to this company called Dreamworks that doesn’t exist anymore. That’s when I got back into music. It was really just a few years I did not do much music. Spain, the band, were the project I did put on hiatus for quite a few years. In ended that in 2001 and did not start again until 2008. The first record of the reboot, I guess you can call it, was not until 2010. So that was quite a few years. 

OMB: Did you, during that time, look for musicians who would share the same goals, the same vision?

Josh: I would never be that lucky. It was a matter of musicians who could play well and had understood what I was trying to do and who were of the musician’s mindset…not every musician can tour. Not every musician has the personality that allows them to tour. Also money, having the budget for it…I am never out of ideas but I am constantly out of money. Money is usually the biggest hurdle preventing something from being released and being able to properly promote it and tour for it. So, musicians, you know, that’s always a process. There is nothing complicated about it. It is just finding the right people. Sometimes you think you found the right person but it turns out you didn’t and you have to find someone else. Not that there is anything wrong with that musician but it might not work in that particular project. That’s a process. 

Spain's Josh Haden - an interview
Spain – Petra Haden and Kenny Lyon in background

OMB: You are from California, a fairly liberal and progressive state. How do find it, living in the US at the moment?

Josh: Well, that could take a long time to answer. It is really worth everybody asking themselves that and give their own answer. I am me and I think to myself: How could anybody support dictators? Or people who aspire to be dictators? I ask myself that. Of course I don’t support politicians like that but there are people who do. There are quite a few and they have to ask themselves these questions too. It’s not just happening in the States – it is happening in Europe too. So, young people don’t get very good educations, they are not properly reminded of the lessons of World War II. You have people in America who really, really think that the Nazis should have won World War II and that’s the Trump supporters. Then you have people in Italy who feel the same way. What Trump wants…I don’t know if it’s Trump but definitely his supporters and people in his administration, when they say they want to turn the clock back to a better time, make America great again, what they are saying is, they want to turn the clock back to before World War II. They want to be in a place where there can be a dictatorship that runs the world. They feel if they don’t achieve that, it’s going to be “kaputt” for the world. It’s a consolidation of power because Conservatives believe, even though they say they don’t believe this, that global warming is going to shut the world down and the people who have the money and the resources are going to be the survivors. They are acting out of a survival instinct, at least in their mind. And if you are reading interviews with them, this is what they say, I am not making it up. Trump, ha, Trump, I am not sure, if he is intelligent enough to think about it in these terms. He’s like Hilary Clinton. I am not against Hilary Clinton. I support Hilary Clinton. He is like the kind of politician who will change his views. If he sees that the tide is turning in a certain direction, he will change his views. But a lot of his supporters like, Stephen Miller, I think his name is – that guy is scary. He’s like Himmler basically. And the guy John Bolton – this is just my opinion – but John Bolton who is now Secretary of State or something, I don’t even remember anymore, that guy is really scary. He scares me more than Trump does because he is sitting next to Trump and tells him what to do. (Sighs). 

OMB: Like a puppet on a string…

Josh: He would not call himself that.

OMB: Of course not. 

Josh: It’s possible. But you know, I really do think that…I am a musician and make living making music and recording and writing songs and trying to communicate stuff that I am thinking about in song and writing poetry and stories and putting them to music and touring and playing concerts and bringing that music to people, so I am on a different kind of thinking playing field. I wish that all kids, teenagers probably…every single teenager in the world including the Middle East and Eastern Europe and Africa and Antarctica, that they are required to either to tour as a musician or tour as a roadie or something that gets them out of their hometown and to see the world. Usually when people tour they have a perspective on other human beings and how other human beings live that they won’t get if they stay at home and just watch TV and listen to their conservative parents. Hopefully they won’t have conservative parents. I think there would be a lot of a different kind of atmosphere if every kid could have an experience like that. But you know, I tour and I don’t have to think about Trump and what’s going on. I get notices on my phone like everyone else and usually I am fine. But today, just an hour ago, I got this notice from The New York Times and it says: The US moves hundreds of migrant children to a desert tent facility in Texas in the middle of the night with no education and no access to lawyers. And that’s like…How can anyone support Trump for doing that? For not speaking out against that and saying: This is wrong. And that’s depressing. And then I think about my son and how would my son feel if he was taken from me? And I could just picture that and here’s hundreds of kids going through that. All kids are the same. 

OMB: To some they are not. They are being dehumanised. 

Josh: Exactly. They are doing that on purpose and this is going back to what Republicans want to do. The Republicans in the United States want to get rid of labour unions. If they get rid of labour unions, the next they want to do is to cut the employment age for children and they want children back in factories working for pennies. That’s completely what they want. That’s why we have cheap Apple products and cheap clothing because there are seven-year old, eight or nine-year old kids in Thailand or Indonesia and China working in sweatshops. We have laws against that in the States. The reason why is because of labour unions, because of socialism. This is another reason they are trying to consolidate power. They see the world is going to end, at least they think it is, and when overpopulation and global warming destroys half of the planet and half of the planet is habitable, we are going to be the survivors. That’s what they are saying and if we have seven-year old kids working in factories and putting stuff together and we don’t have to pay them anything, we are going to make even more money. That’s what they want. (Laughs bitterly).

Spain's Josh Haden - an interview
Spain – Shon Sullivan

OMB: As a musician, what has been the impact for artists? In what terms do you see the Arts being infringed, financially or culturally?

Josh: I would not say financially for me but the Arts in general, yeah, because there is less funding. A lot of times when we are in Europe we are playing in venues that are partially or entirely supported by the government. We don’t have that in the States. There is support for the Arts but with Trump in office it gets less. They give less money to the Arts because “why should we support the Arts? The Arts is critical of us. Why should we support something that is criticising us?” That’s what they think. Also, the religious Conservatives which is another big issue, they don’t want the Arts because the Arts are from Satan (laughs). That’s what they think. For me the biggest financial hit is from streaming music. But that’s just a reality. That’s got nothing to do with Trump. There was just a law passed in the States that ensures that musical artists will make more royalties from streaming services but I don’t really know.

OMB: On the one hand modern technology has been good for music artists as they can make their music, promote their music, get it all over the place without the big music industry. But on the other hand, someone is making money on the music and it is not them. That is not referring to say Bandcamp, but, er, the other big one.

Josh: Well, you know, it’s a racket. Music business was started by gangsters and the mafia and if a lot of money can be made with something, there is going to be graft and corruption. It is the same thing with streaming, only, instead of Warner Brothers, Columbia and Universal making all the money, it is Spotify and what are the other ones called…

OMB: Deezer?

Josh: Sound Exchange, the company that collects the money for Spotify streaming, in the States at least. It’s people who say, yeah, we can make a lot of money off artists. What could be better than this? We are making all the money. All we need to do is a little bit of coding. We have coders working for us and they can do the dirty work once we fix it up and then we make billions of dollars and we can go on vacation to Tahiti whenever we want. They are saying probably, the artists are screwed anyway. Artists are already happy working for peanuts. Let them be happy. That’s what they think. I guess to a certain extent they are right. I am happy working for peanuts because I don’t care about money. I am not doing this for money and …

OMB: Yeah but nobody else should be earning money on your music either.

Josh: But that’s the problem because if I worry about that, then I don’t want to make music. I don’t want to sit down and make music. I have my son. My time is already limited enough. When I am home, I only have a few hours a day when I can work on stuff. I don’t really think about it – too much. I have this list of things I need to address. With money that’s owed to me…

OMB: Then again everyone feels compelled to be on Spotify because it gets you publicity…I don’t have Spotify…

Josh: I like Spotify. I don’t support them but I like Spotify, the app. What I listen to on Spotify a lot is the new jazz releases. The technology does not bother me. It is just the …

OMB: The business behind it?

Josh: The business behind it. The disregard for artists. The attitude of the people who run Spotify and other streaming services. I have talked to them personally and I have had arguments with them and email exchanges and I am always right. And there are always wrong. But what can you do? They have got the power. 

Spain's Josh Haden - an interview

OMB: Your albums seemed well thought out. I would not go as far as call them concept albums but do you sit down and think about the album, what kind of atmosphere it should have and which song should go and which not, and a particular order to the songs? The albums seems so much in one piece. Some artists go as far as to think in A-sides and B-sides even. I don’t know, do you plan an album to be like that?

Josh: No. No, the closest I would come to this, is maybe having an idea for the artwork like for “The Blue Moods of Spain”, our first album. I really had a vision for the front cover. I worked on it really hard. I practised with a different photographer for a 7” that we put out in 1994 that was kind of a prototype for this “Blue Moods” cover. I worked on that very much and for it to come out the way it did, that took like a couple of years of work. But as far as the songs or the concept behind it…that was very much a collaboration between me and the producer. It’s not something I sketch out beforehand. Like, what songs do I have, what songs are the best ones? How do we narrow the best ones down. Then I might like a song that doesn’t really work for some reason. So, what songs work and what songs actually sound good once we record them? And you narrow it down like that. At least that’s how I work. For the new album…that’s another thing like: I have the songs but what’s the title going to be, what’s the artwork going to be? That comes just by messing around and doing research and thinking and looking at random things that come into my life. Choosing it, grabbing it and “okay, this works”. There are aesthetics to it but I am not strict about them. I like it to be permeable and – I don’t know what the word is – and…what’s the word…spontaneous! 

OMB: That is probably better for the listener to start owning a song too. If something is left more open, a listener can feel addressed more and go, that’s me who he is talking about or I feel touched by that kind of instrumentation. 

Josh: It can come either way. There are groups like Bon Ever who I really love, his lyrics, you have no idea what he is talking about. It’s poetry, definitely. They are lyrics and they are beautiful, but I have no idea what he is talking about! But then a word will come up in a certain part and I get, you know. So there is that kind of style and another style is Mark Kozelek who I toured with last year and listening to his lyrics which are very easy to understand and are super personal. Basically what he does is, he keeps a diary and he puts his diary entries to music. He talks about things that happened to him in his life in a very specific way but at the same time people love it because they can relate to it. Even though they did not have that exact same experience, it affects them. He is talking about the things he has learned from his life and it is the same kind of thing that everyone learns who lives long enough. That’s why people connect with his songs. That was really cool I thought. 

Spain's Josh Haden - an interview
Spain – Jakob Hoyer

OMB: You have come to the point where on your albums your lyrics have become more personal. On your last album “Carolina” you were connecting experiences of your family with bigger historical events or these events filtered through the eyes of your family. Did you want to do something similar on your new album “Mandala Brush” or did you attempt something totally different again?

Josh: Again I don’t really know. I don’t question myself how to create things or why. I just do it how I feel. I do have a basic idea which is I don’t want to do what I did on the last album. I want to do this certain thing and let’s see if it works. It might not work, then I have to try something else. “Carolina”, the last Spain record from 2016, and “Sargent Place’” which was from 2014, those two records were much more specific in addressing things that I was going through. The new album is more oblique, I guess, or amorphous. What I am singing about is not as…I could say what a song like “Battle Of Saratoga” from “Carolina” is about you know. The song is about my father. In the 1960s when he was addicted to heroin very badly and he was – this is just something I imagine he might have gone through – getting a gig in upstate New York for Christmas Eve and getting snowed in and not being able to get his heroin because he is in some little tiny town in New York and he can’t get back to the city. I could say that there are a lot of songs on that record and on “Sargent Place” where I wrote about something specific. But on the new album I don’t think there are any songs where I am talking about something specific and detailed. It is more like a feeling or an emotion I wanted to express. Or there is a song on the new album called “Tangerine” which was completely inspired by a movie called “Tangerine”. The song has nothing to do with what the movie is about. It is a beautiful movie called “Tangerine”. It came out maybe five years ago, I think. It is set in my town of Los Angeles and is about these transvestite prostitutes who work Santa Monica boulevard and it is like a Homer odyssian journey of these ladies who go from one part of Santa Monica boulevard to the other. It is such a great movie and it was shot on iPhone which isn’t such a special unique thing anymore. But after watching the director’s comments on the movie, I wrote “Tangerine”, the song. So there is something like that influenced by other art.

OMB: So it is more like a stream of consciousness?

Josh: Yeah, yeah.

OMB: You combine a lot of genres in your music. Sometimes it is hard for people to pin you down. They try Slowcore, whatever that is. I was told it is easier in the US to cross genres than in the UK for instance. Do you find it easier? Do find it easier to collaborate with musicians from other genres and what comes out of it is totally your own? 

Josh: I would say I don’t think about genres and maybe that is one of my big problems in getting my music accepted. I don’t care about genres and people in general want genres.

OMB: Or the algorithms want genres.

Josh: Yeah, I don’t worry about that. I write my songs and cross my fingers that someone is going to hear them and listen to them. Even when they don’t want to listen and don’t want to hear and don’t want to care,  I am still going to do it…You know, I was watching this show on TV with my son. It is this real estate show where people who are very wealthy show their incredible house. There was this guy, I don’t even remember his name. He is one of this techno guys – I don’t know his name. I was like “who is this?” and my son didn’t even know about him and my son knows a lot about new music. And this guy had a multi-million house in Hollywood hills. He was like 25 years old. Everything about this house was incredible. I googled his name and he is just some kid who makes electronic music. He’s been nominated for Grammys. I don’t pay attention to the Grammies, can’t remember the last time I watched the Grammies. But apparently he has been nominated multiple times. I listened to the music and it is not pleasant. It’s not creative in the sense of musicians getting together and being creative and trying to create something human, being social, being together. Experiencing what it means to be human as we are being human. I don’t know if that makes sense.

OMB: I don’t know. As in music making for the sake of it versus just selling any old stuff? It makes sense to me in that way: Too much money for a young kid and out of something that is out of the tin, no life experience, no nothing. Pretty thankful, my kids listen to different stuff, as yet anyway. 

Josh: My personal feeling is, more power to him, I am happy for him.

OMB: Sure, if he is nice enough.

Josh: Exactly, if he is nice enough. If he is a fair and honest person, a good human. 

OMB: Back to the genres… I don’t like tagging genres to my shows because I compile them according to how I feel and according to connections between the songs and they could contain any genre as long as there is a flow, a thread.

Josh: Yes, exactly. 

Spain's Josh Haden - an interview

OMB: Your new album “Mandala Brush”, there was one particular aim for it: You wanted it to be like a live recording, no fidgeting in the studio with the songs?

Josh: The idea came to me, even though it is not a very unique idea, when we finished touring for “Carolina” in 2016. My manager at the time wanted me to go right back on the road in the States. We don’t really have a lot of support in the States and I need to tour more there. I was like, you know, you know, er, … (Josh distracted because his sister Petra is checking whether is finally finished and he is making signs for her not to come in, poor Petra and Josh’s poor dinner getting cold…) … I don’t want to go back on tour. If I am going to make any headway in the States, what I am going to do is find a place where I can play every week once a week…

OMB: Oh, like a residency?

Josh: A residency. And develop my audience here first. You know, in the 90s when “Blue Moods Of Spain” came out, every major label wanted to sign me. I had Rick Rubin picking me up in his Rolls Royce, taking me to coffee and bookstore shopping and buying me books. I had the president of Columbia Records flying me out on a private jet to meet with them. I am not going to go into all the extravaganza that was put on me over Blue Moods, the first Spain album. The whole time I was thinking, you know, when we play in L.A., we don’t have an audience. Maybe twenty people show up to see us and ten of those people are just random off the street and they are just going to be talking through our whole set. And these guys want to offer me a million dollars to sign a contract. I was so young back then, I was, well, if they think it is the right thing to do, I am going to go along with it. That was really fatal for me, almost fatal. It turned into this war of wills between the record companies and it wasn’t about my music anymore. Once they signed me, Dreamworks, they didn’t care about me. They invited me to their Christmas party before they signed us and that was great, hobnobbing with George Michael. A year later I had signed with them and the Christmas party comes and they don’t invite me. They return my call in two seconds before I sign and after I sign, I disappear. They didn’t accept our record. Then they got sold and I had to hire a lawyer to threaten to sue them because they were in breach of contract. They owed me three hundred thousand dollars. It’s overwhelming to me. The lack of logic and the lack of reasoning that goes into the record business and the business part of it. 

OMB: Yes, all that money and where’s the music in all this?

Josh: So, when I was making “Mandala Brush” or before “Mandala Brush”, I was like, okay, I am almost fifty years old and I am finally have a residency that is open-ended. I found the great people at Spaceland in L.A. gave me a tiny little place to play every week for over a year. We played and worked out songs and worked with different people and brought it together. After a year of that, we still had the residency but once a week was too much and we changed it to once a month. So it’s the last Thursday of every month we play at The Love Song Bar in L.A.. Now we had to record an album, it was past due. So I said, I wish we could record the album here at The Love Song Bar but that’s too technically challenging. We had great support from Glitterhouse Records in Germany and in L.A. from the US label Dangerbird. We went into the studio for a week with the same core band that’s been playing for two years at The Love Song Bar and recorded what we do at The Love Song basically. With a little elaboration, you know, some song were new and we had never played them before. Like “Tangerine”, that song with Petra and Maddie D on saxophone, that’s the core group that plays that song. I was like, okay, for ‘“Tangerine”, Maddie, can you come on this particular morning and record with us? That’s what we did. So it is very much a live album, the whole band in one room, more or less in one room, very few overdubs. In fact, I don’t think there are any overdubs on “Tangerine”. Couldn’t have been because everyone is playing live. 

OMB: I think you can very proud of it. It’s an album you listen to on headphones and it just sounds perfect. 

Josh: Oh, thanks!

OMB: Any younger band would have needed a lot of studio fidgeting for that and you with all your experience just get on and play it like that. The craft in there is amazing. 

Josh: Thank you! It was funny, we had an assistant engineer, Roman – he is from Russia. He is an international guy, he travels as an in-demand studio engineer. And he was like, I can’t believe you guys record an album like this. Every project I work on is the band saying, every note has to perfect and has to be on time and we are working with a click track. You guys aren’t doing that. I never made an album like this before…And that is how they used to record in the old days. 

OMB: Excellent! Thank you so much, Josh! You better hurry down to your dinner now!

Josh: Not at all, thank you!

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!