In a student-heavy front room in a student-heavy part of town, only the sixth Newcastle Sofar Sounds kicks off. As regular TGTF readers will know, the idea of Sofar is to bring live music literally into people’s front rooms. In some parts of the world, the events are wildly oversubscribed, making a pass-in one of the hottest tickets in town. Newcastle has yet to reach such giddy heights of success, but it’s not for the want of quality acts. Acoustic troubadour and medical student Matt Hunsley hosts, his housemates and fellow students make up most of the crowd, and TGTF was there to record proceedings.
Suntrapp, aka Jake Houlsby, is that rarest of things: a professional musician. That is to say, he earns his living through playing music. Most acts one might read about in these pages are amateurs: they work other jobs in order to finance their music making. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that; the amateur artist has the freedom to work within any discipline and any style, regardless of its commercial appeal. Professionals, however, prostrate themselves before the altar of money, making or playing whatever their customer demands. Thankfully, tonight Houlsby the pro is appearing as his alter-ego Suntrapp, so we are spared the ‘Your Song’ cover. What we are treated to is a close-quarters set of his songs so far: the pretty ‘New Morning’ is a delicately-picked ditty showcasing Houlsby’s plaintive vocal style; more memorable still is the set-closing instrumental piece: a flamenco-inspired loop overlaid with some lovely mariachi flourishes, which apparently sounds great in a church.
What becomes apparent as Suntrapp’s set progresses is how reverent the audience are tonight. One could literally hear a pin drop. Given the recent complaints about the rudeness and ignorance of modern audiences – speaking loudly during quiet bits and being obsessed with selfieing themselves in front of the band – the atmosphere tonight comes as a refreshing and deeply welcome change. If anything, this is the biggest attraction of Sofar: because this is an invited audience, everyone is here to listen to the music rather than have their own little narcissistic party.
Brooke Bentham is even more sparse of guitar, but wonderful of voice. She ranges between dusky low pitch and delicate falsetto. ‘We’ll Be Ghosts’ is stunning in its minimal presentation; she really lets her spectacular voice rip towards the end of the song and it’s a thing of beauty. There’s a song about Oscar Wilde, which hints at literary pretension, and gives a depth to the songwriting that does justice to the presentation. Apparently she’s moving to London soon to study at Goldsmiths, where she will no doubt go onto huge things indeed.
And who is this headlining? Surely not Bridie Jackson and the Arbour, the Glastonbury-competition-winning folk four-piece? Yes it is, and they sound utterly wonderful. There’s Bridie with her guitar, there’s a cello, a fiddle (not violin, as I am corrected later), and a percussionist sat on a cajon and wielding some lovely obscure noise-making artefacts. ‘Crying Beast’ – apparently written about a tiny monster who enters a house via the letterbox and feeds upon the negative energy within until it takes up a whole room – treads a delicate path between light and dark; ethereal beauty and hints of discord live uneasily together, resolved by the final coda of “I’m shrinking as you grow”.
Tonight’s presentation suits such material perfectly – the pristine, note-perfect three-part harmonies are a wonder to behold at such close quarters; the bowed instruments are plucked in unconventional ways to variously mimic lead parts or give the impact of a bass guitar. In their mastery of traditional arrangements, twisted into thoroughly modernist songwriting, Bridie Jackson and the Arbour share much with fellow northeasteners The Unthanks, which is high praise indeed. They’ve got a new album out in ‘New Skin’, and are just about to embark on a tour of suitably unconventional venues across the country, notably the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, attendance at which comes highly recommended.
Out of everything that went right tonight, only the venue leaves a little to be desired. Yes, it’s in a secluded corner of a leafy part of town, but a quick tidy up and brush of the feather duster wouldn’t go amiss, particularly in the bathroom. And how much does a bag of tea lights cost these days? A few throws and a bit of atmospheric candle-lighting would make things feel that bit more special from a visual point of view. To be fair, this is a student house, so on that scale it’s a palace; still, a variety of venue might make the Sofar offer even more compelling.
But that’s picking nits, frankly. Sofar offers an unmatched opportunity to see acts “in the raw” as it were, stripped of anything as vulgar as amplification. Vocals and instrumentation are as naked as their maker intended, which means they carry a tonal, and therefore emotional, impact rarely found at a live performance. Tonight is quite the most intimate and respectful night of music one could ever have the good fortune to encounter. Bring on next month.
In name and in substance, my mind drifted to thoughts of Mayday Parade meets Morning Glory – a lazy amalgamation, or an apt comparison? I’m tempted (if not because I’m slightly biased, as it was my own musings) to decide upon on the latter. Morning Parade’s second album ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’ feels immediately like a new throwback on the emo records of the past decade.
Taking small influences from bands like Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional and to a lesser extent daddies of the genre, Jimmy Eat World – less cannibalistic and more like a tapas bar where Morning Parade have dined sparingly. After their grazing on what the still-cool but a bit run down tapas bar of emo had to offer – where I can only assume Gerard Way is a waiter after releasing a mediocre solo album – they’ve stopped off at that quirky throwback café where they’ve sampled the mild yet refreshing tastes of classic indie, which I can only assume is a bit like Earl Grey. Except, instead of tasting a bit lemony, it tastes a bit more like sweat and tears.
A trip to a tapas bar and then a weak cup of herbal tea doesn’t exactly sound like, well, my cup of tea. However, bizarre metaphors aside – the influences Morning Parade have channelled on ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’ have moulded into a formidable record that leaves a delicious taste in the mouth. As an antipasti, ‘Shake the Cage’ and ‘Alienation’ provide a rough and raw introduction to the soaring choruses and frantic guitar rhythms that litter the album. ‘Alienation’ though is the standout track of the record, with a sound that could easily strut into Radio 1’s A list and sit quite comfortably next to that chirruping turnip George Ezra – we get it, all your songs are going to sound identical because of your ‘mature’ voice – rant over.
Lead vocalist Steve Sparrow (no relation to Captain Jack, I’m assured) does have a habit of going a bit Thom Yorke on ‘Kid A’ on us, getting especially warbly on ‘Car Alarms and Sleepness Nights’. On Spotify, it states the band are in the same vein as Friendly Fires, Fenech-Soler and Delphic – this is a trifle off, as it’s only ‘Seasick’ and ‘Reality Dream’ that dabble in the realms of electronica – with ‘Reality Dream’ in particular showing shades of Delphic’s breakout single ‘Doubt’. ‘Seasick’ floats errantly in the electronic, and in turn, ended up making feel a little queasy myself.
With the flecks of emo dashing the record, I’d expected a more sombre tone to some of the songwriting, even if the title of the album is ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’. ‘Reality Dream’ is a superb glittering showcase of the championing the power of positive thinking throughout adversity: “Don’t spend your life pretending / Your happy end already passed.” However, it’s not all sun drops and lollipops of course, with ‘Culture Vulture’ providing a thorough injection of real life/reality TV satire, “there’s reason in repeating rhymes and throwing keys and swapping wives / as long as it’s within the privacy of our own private lives / stuck with no direction seeking everyone’s attention/out for his or her’s affection / fall out of cover and collection / no Viagra, no erection / no insurance, no protection / and no cure and no prevention.” Cameron’s Britain, eh?
Sparrow even delves into the comically vulgar at the end of ‘Car Alarms and Sleepless Nights’, whispering twice, “would you piss on me if I was on fire?” Hardly deep, but certainly ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’ is a breakout album for the Harlow five-piece. Their collaboration with producer Ben Allen (famed for his work with Animal Collective and Bombay Bicycle Club) on this record has paid dividends, as the end product is flawless and undoubtedly their sound has been further refined since their self-titled debut. They’re a band with the wind under their sails, where it will take them, is up to them.
‘Pure Adulterated Joy’, Morning Parade‘s sophomore album, is out now on So Recordings / Kobalt.
American alt-rock band Counting Crows have made a strong re-emergence onto the music scene with a new album, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, released this past Monday on Virgin/EMI Records. Lead singer Adam Duritz had already done a fair bit of promo when I caught up with him on Tuesday, but he was gracious enough to give me some insight into the new record, which features a surprisingly spirited reiteration of Counting Crows’ signature musical style.
On listening to ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, I was instantly struck by the energy and expansiveness of the sound, and I asked Duritz what had inspired that size and scope. He explained that the band were galvanized by their previous release, 2012’s ‘Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation)’, which featured covers of songs by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star and Bob Dylan, to name just a few. “There was something really good happening with the band when we made ‘Underwater Sunshine’ a few years ago now. Playing all those songs by other people, I think it did a really good thing for the band. Maybe they took more ownership of it, or maybe it’s just the variety of playing songs by people other than me. We immediately noticed as soon as we got on tour that we were just way better. We’d always been a pretty good live band, but we got great after that. And you know, it was the best year and a half of touring of our lives, and when it was over, we just really wanted to record. I think there’s a lot of that, the guys in the band really being a lot more daring. I think they’ve played fantastic on these last couple of albums. The contributions, the collaborations with everyone. They just really, really did a great job.”
The opening track on the new album, called ‘Palisades Park’, makes an immediate statement about Counting Crows’ newly revitalized musicianship. Duritz says that he knew it would be the first song on the album as soon as they finished writing it. “I’m really proud of it, I mean I really love that piece. For years we’ve been taking our songs apart in concert and kind of exploding them, you know, like taking a left turn in the middle of ‘Round Here’ and going somewhere for 5 minutes, then going back to ‘Round Here’. We’ve been doing that with a lot of our songs for years and years, but we’ve never been able to write it into a song and therefore capture it on a record, and I think with ‘Palisades’ we really did that. We got a lot of what we’ve been doing live and put it the composition of a song. I think it was really cool, it’s a really unique piece of music.”
Starting with the extended musical journey of ‘Palisades Park’, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ shows a variety of musical styles in its track list, including the more radio-friendly songs ‘Earthquake Driver’ and ‘Scarecrow’. Though ‘Scarecrow’ is the current radio single here in America, Duritz says the band didn’t write it with that intention. “It’s still probably 5 minutes long. They wanted us to cut it, but I said no, we’re not cutting anything. They wanted to remove all the guitars at the front and the back to make it shorter, but (we’re) just not really interested in doing that. It’s nothing we ever think about when we’re working on records, but it is how records are promoted, so it’s good to have songs on the radio. It’s not something we ever put a lot of thought into. It might be better if we did, but I wouldn’t even know how to do it anyways. Other than to clip everything shorter.”
Like previous Counting Crows records, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is filled with specific characters and geographical references. When I ask Duritz about the mysterious title to ‘Earthquake Driver’, which also contains the lyric that became the album’s title, he gives a vivid description of the character in the song as “a guy who can’t figure out whether he wants to be in a small pond or a big pond. He wants to make a difference, he wants his life to mean something, but he can’t decide whether it’s okay to do that.”
Talking about the very specific references that pepper his lyrics, Duritz remarks, “I’ve always been big on details. I think it’s just something I do when I write. It’s funny, when we were first signed to make a record, there were a lot of people who told me that I should stop doing that, to stop using proper names and place names, because they said it made it too personal and people couldn’t relate to it. Which might be true, but it still seems stupid to me. I like writing in details. I think that communicating things that really are meaningful to you will communicate something that’s meaningful to other people. But either way, I didn’t really care. I mean, the truth is, you write the songs that you’re moved to write, and in my case, details make a big difference.”
I suggest that those details might actually make the songs more relatable to a listener, and he continues, “oh, I think they probably do. But I had people telling me the opposite back in the day. But you’re not writing songs to relate to other people. You’re writing songs because they’re important to you. Hopefully people do relate to that, but I don’t have a plan for that, really. For me, I don’t think you need to tell people how you feel. I think if you tell them what’s on the shelves in the room that you’re in, how you feel comes through in that. I mean saying “I love you”, it can mean a lot when you’re saying it to another person, but in a song? It’s just like everybody (says) over and over and over again, it doesn’t really communicate anything anymore. But if you tell someone how it feels to look at someone, (for example) the line from ‘A Long December’: ‘All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl’. That tells something about how the guy felt. I think the details make it meaningful.”
Duritz says that his songwriting has always been informed by his struggle with mental illness, specifically depersonalization disorder, and I comment that he seems to have addressed it directly in the songs on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, particularly one called ‘Dislocation’. His reply is candidly straightforward. “Well, I mean I think you could go all the way back to most of the tracks on most of our records. They’re all sort of addressing me being a crazy fucker. There’s plenty of my nonsense all over our catalogue. Certainly ‘Dislocation’, but all the other ones too. I mean, ‘God of Ocean Tides’, the last line of it, ‘I can’t remember yesterday, I tried, if I said I could I lied’. That’s a part of the dissociative thing, not being able to register the meaning of anything that happened to you, remember who the people you know are. I mean, it’s all over all these songs.”
Duritz cites another creative project as influential to the songwriting on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ as well. He has spent several years working on and off with Broadway playwright Stephen Belber on a play called ‘Black Sun’. While the project has been stalled by Duritz and Belber’s conflicting professional schedules, Duritz says it has been “the first time in my life I ever wrote for people other than myself. Writing different characters, different voices, you know, and discovering that it was possible to invest a lot of meaning in things that weren’t necessarily the pot of my own life. And that gave me a much larger palette to paint on.”
He is enthusiastic about the project, but unsure about when it might be completed. “It’s a really cool play, and it was really well-received when we did it at a playwright conference a few years ago. The other writers, the directors that were there, flipped over it. The crowd that saw the reading of it flipped out. I thought it was really cool sitting in the audience watching people sing my songs. But Stephen and I have two totally different careers, and it is just really hard to find time to do this. I don’t know, I’d love to finish it. I think it’s a spectacular piece. I pulled one song from the play for the record. Just one.”
That song is the final track on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, called ‘Possibility Days’. Duritz clarifies his statement, saying “It was written right before we started to work on the play anyway, so it wasn’t really for the play, but it was a big part of the play. And I pulled it for this. It’s the only one I took, though. I don’t think it was the best song in the play by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a really good song, which should give you an idea of the quality level of the play. It was really beautiful at the end of the record.”
For the moment, the ‘Black Sun’ project has taken a backseat to the busy promotion schedule leading into Counting Crows’ November UK tour dates. I ask Duritz how the constant promotion and performing affect his singing, as his vocals are a hallmark of Counting Crows’ overall sound. He says that he does end up doing interviews and promotion even during tours, but he keeps it to a minimum. “I try and limit it, because, I mean, we’re playing like 2+ hour shows nowadays, so they’re pretty long, and I sing really hard. I just have to be careful about it because you really do need to rest your voice. When we started out, I had trouble getting from gig to gig when we were playing half hour shows. Now we’re playing 2-hour shows and we’re 20 years older. And you know, it’s not easy, but I also never miss a show anymore. ” While he has learned to pace himself between performances, he says he doesn’t hold back when he’s on stage. “I get completely lost on stage during the shows. It’s only afterwards, I just go in a room and sit by myself for the next day.”
Looking beyond the upcoming UK tour dates, it’s easy to see why Duritz might need some time to himself. The band spent this past summer touring in America, and their autumn schedule is similarly busy. Duritz notes, “I haven’t had a day off in a long time. But we have some weeks off in October, and then Outlaw Roadshow comes to town again, so we have 30 musicians staying at my house and 30 or 40 bands playing in the Outlaw Roadshow in New York during CMJ. And then, when that’s over, we leave for England to start that tour.” For 2015, Counting Crows are looking at shows in Australia, South America and South Africa in the spring before returning to Europe for the summer festivals, followed by more touring in America. And after all that? “I don’t know, make another record or something. I’ve never really planned any of it out.”
Counting Crows’ new album ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is available now on Virgin/EMI. Keep an eye here on TGTF for a full review of the album coming soon. Counting Crows will spend the first part of November playing tour dates in the UK, including two already sold out shows at the London Roundhouse.
Thank you to Adam Duritz for taking the time to talk with me, and to Kat and Michelle for arranging the interview.