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By Mary Chang
on Monday, 3rd August 2015 at 11:00 am
“This is the first time I’ve played in America, full stop. It’s pretty amazing. It’s probably, like, the most perfect, wonderful tour that I could have had bring me into America for the first time, so I feel very excited and lucky now that I’m here.”
Singer/songwriter Marika Hackman is currently in the States, supporting her friend Laura Marling and alongside other support act Johnny Flynn on a tour of North America, and despite not fully enjoying the heat of our summer, she’s having a great time. We’re sat in a break room high above the 9:30 Club stage where she will play later, and in between our words, you can hear snatches of Flynn sound checking downstairs. On a nearby counter, a hostess plate of 9:30 Club cupcakes are alongside an exceedingly large bowl of salsa and an equally massive bowl of tortilla chips. We begin by chatting a bit about her early beginnings as an artist. Her approach to songwriting, even early on, has been pretty unique.
“It’s a funny one. When I was learning piano, when I was in nursery when I was really little, when I was about 5 years old, I was writing songs on the piano. So it’s always something that I’ve just done. Then I started to learn the bass, the drums, and then joined bands and stuff and playing in them. Then when I hit 13, I picked up a guitar and started to teach myself. That was when I really started to write, but I don’t know what made me do that. I just have done it, always.
“My parents were also keen on me and my brother (producer Hackman) learning music instruments, so there always instruments around the house growing up. I didn’t want to learn them, I wanted to write songs on them…There’s no instrument where I felt that (wanting to be a virtuoso on them), apart from the drums. But that was because you can’t really write on the drums! And I wanted to be really, really good on drums. So I used to practise hard on that. But everything else, it was always about writing songs and music.”
Marika Hackman performing at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, 31 July 2015
I ask her if being a solo artist is the most comfortable mode for her. “I was in silly school bands. But in terms of my actual serious songwriting stuff, I think I would find it hard to write with other people. I’m very private about it, I write at home alone in my room, and I’m fine with taking it to the studio once it’s done, and then me and Charlie (Andrew, her longtime producer), we collaborate on it to come up with production ideas and bring other people in. I think I’m too shy. I get embarrassed. It’s one of those things. If you were doing a painting and you’d only done half of it, that’s not what you want to put up in the gallery, you don’t want people seeing that. So I don’t want people to hear sort of half-done songs or hear me making funny noises and making mistakes. I want people to hear the finished product.”
In late 2014, Hackman moved to London. She had been friends with Marling for some time, so it makes perfect sense that Marling would bring Hackman along for a North American campaign once Hackman had a major release under her belt. The atmosphere on this tour feels entirely convivial too. “We became friends a couple of years ago, I actually toured in Australia with Laura, and then we toured Europe together. We stayed in touch and when I moved to London, she lived very nearby. It’s just one of those things, you’re with touring musicians, so we’re like-minded people, generally, and we’ve grown to be friends. It’s been really nice, to be able to come over on a tour like this, it’s just fun. It doesn’t feel like work. Touring can feel very drawn out and very stressful and long, but this kind of feels like I’m on holiday with a few mates and playing a few shows.”
I asked Marika if her prolific and now very industry-experienced friend has had any advice for her, especially being a female singer/songwriter in a male-dominated field. “We discuss stuff a lot. We discuss being a woman in the singer/songwriter world a lot, we have a lot of strong views that we agree [on]. In terms of advice, with this sort of relationship, I don’t think anyone would sit down and go, ‘I’m going to give you some advice. Listen up’. We spend a lot of time talking and I’ve learned a lot…But of course she knows so much about the industry, she’s been doing this for 10 years. You kind of learn by absorbing and watching. Particularly on tours, earlier on when I used to get really nervous, it was very nice to feel very calm with someone before I was going on stage and before she was going on stage. I could just enjoy myself.”
A lot of press releases when Hackman first appeared on the scene stated that she was from Brighton, but that’s not entirely true. Hackman did a 1-year art foundation course in Brighton but is originally from Hampshire and after living in Brighton, she had a spell living in Devon with her parents. I ask her how much effect, if any, her environment has on her songwriting. “When I was living at my parents’ house, which is kind of the middle of the countryside, it was kind of much more about nature references, whereas when I moved up to London, you can hear more literature references and things I was reading [in my songs]. But I think the main shift has been in growing up, and experiencing more life, reading more books, and learning more things about yourself. You can hear that across all of my music, rather than any sort of clear inspirations.”
We turn our attention to Marika’s debut album ‘We Slept at Last’, which was released back in February on Dirty Hit Records. I ask her how she decided on its title, and it turns out its selection was directed more by the cover art than anything else. “Naming stuff, like songs and records, is my least favourite thing to do. I hate doing it! So it was the last thing I did with this record, to finally name it. It’s actually a bit of a cheat…I picked lots of lyrics [from the songs of this album] that jumped out at me that I thought would be appropriate, wrote them in a list and went through them, read them over and over again.
“Then I was looking for the artwork [to use on the album cover], and I saw this picture by a photographer I love called Glen Erler of a girl on a bed. And I just thought, I had a feeling that that *has* to be the photo for it. And of course, as soon as I saw that, then ‘we slept at last’ jumped out at me. I also think [the title] is very appropriate, there’s also lots of sleep references throughout the album, and there’s a sense of relief and giving into yourself and letting it be. And just being able to turn off and that’s it after the whole journey you go through over 12 tracks, and it’s that final closing down. Being.”
Hackman has been working a long time now with producer Charlie Andrew, who these days is most famous for producing alt-J‘s music, including their 2012 Mercury Prize-winning ‘An Awesome Wave’. Seeing that her musical style and alt-J’s aren’t alike at all, I asked her how her and Andrew’s collaboration began and how it works in the studio. She has nothing but praise for him. “Oh, it’s so much fun. We’ve worked together now for 3 years. And we’d never met before we worked in a studio together, and yet we worked together very well. He’s now one of my very, very good friends, and he’s a lovely, lovely guy. And it’s just very easy.
“We have similar ideas. I love what he can bring to my tracks. He gets very dirty sounds out of amps and guitars and things, but there’s still a lot of space on the record. There’s loads of room to breathe, for the vocals to speak and the music to speak, or even a little twinkling thing that’s far off to come to the front. He’s an absolute genius. It’s basically a lot of fun and we sit around, he puts random instruments in front of me and I play with them, make a few weird noises, a few accidents, and then he’ll go, ‘god, that’s great!’ And yeah, then we sort it out that way.” There’s no doubt in Hackman’s mind that she will be working with Andrew again on her next release (I’m pretty sure that’s an exclusive, by the way.)
Two Christmases ago, Marika went on a tour of England with another favourite artist here at TGTF, Sivu. “Oh god, I love Sivu…When I first met Charlie, he also produced Sivu’s album (‘Something on High’, one of my top 5 albums of 2014), he was always going on and on about him, ‘Sivu, you gotta hear his stuff’. So eventually I did hear it, I thought, ‘he’s amazing, he’s great’. We started hanging out, because you’re in the studio and I met him a few times. And we decided to do a co-headline tour.
“He had this track he wanted me to sing on (‘I Hold’), so I thought as part of the promotion for the tour, I could then have a track that he would sing on (‘Skin’, which appears on ‘We Slept at Last’). So we went in and recorded both of those, and we just had them on tapes that we gave away…He’s part of that sort of Charlie Andrew crew that’s so nice to be a part of, so everyone’s so close and sweet…These are the kinds of relationships in this industry that keep you sane, basically.”
‘Next Year’ is Hackman’s single that is currently on the BBC 6 Music playlist as of the week of 27 July 2015, and the themes of time and change suggested to me that it was written during a time of upheaval. She agrees. “There’s a lot of change themes going through the whole record, but in that [song] it’s definitely very explicitly written. It was the start, really, of the change [in my life]. I came out of a very long-term relationship right at the beginning of the year, and that’s when I wrote that, and I wrote that before [the break-up], it’s almost [got] that sense of knowing before that wave hits. Then I moved up to London and moved away from my parents’ house. The whole year was just quite full of new experiences, feeling quite isolated and lonely but also kind of liking it. So I’m glad you could hear that on it.”
One of the things that most impresses me about Marika’s style of songwriting is that fact that she can say so much and you feel so much emotion through her music, without her feeling the need to hit you over the head in sound or effects. She tells me about a time when she was younger and realised this was possible and one better, how to achieve it. “Once I was putting on a small concert with friends at school. It was just something we were putting on the school’s little common room, and we were deciding whether or not to bring some amps in. My friend said, ‘actually, you know what, if we bring amps in, everyone’s going to chat. But if we just have acoustic guitars, everyone will listen’.
“If it’s not coming at you really loudly, then you *have* to listen, because then you can’t hear very well, and everyone shuts up. It really stuck with me, and it’s something that I think Charlie was good at registering for the album as well. When you hold back a little bit, you invite people into your world, rather than trying to shout it at them. So that way, they can really get involved and listen to all the different things that are going on, rather than just have a wall of sounds.” She also confides in me that the one time I’ve had a chance prior to see her perform live, an acoustic set in Brighton at the Unitarian Church during the The Great Escape 2013, was one of her favourite live shows ever. I’m glad she still has a fondness for intimate gigs, and it keeps me hopeful that we will still get a chance to see her play in such venues in the future.
I ask her what’s up next for her. Although she has only just released her debut album this year, she’s already gotten to work and been very busy writing new material. You can tell she’s very energised about her future. “I think the plan is to write the [second] record – I’m about halfway through – get that done and then get straight into the studio so we’re done with the next one. I’m very excited to get back in there.” And I’m very excited to hear what this extremely talented and still so young singer/songwriter has show to the world next.
Many thanks to Ed and Mark for sorting this interview with me, and a big thank you to Marika for kindly chatting with me before her first show ever in Washington.
Did you miss part 1 of this interview? Don’t fret! Catch up here.
Based on historical source material from the project’s extensive research, the songs on The Payroll Union’s ‘Paris of America’ are an exquisite expression of the social and political upheaval in mid-19th century Philadelphia. In writing them, frontman and songwriter Pete David has balanced historical accuracy with artistic licence, incorporating both precise detail and cleverly imagined empathy with the characters he attempts to portray. “I wanted [the songs] to represent those events and those characters successfully, in a lyrical way,” he says.
“Basically, I’m trying to write characters, I’m trying to write stories. And although I want to have some kind of integrity to what I write, in the lyrics, it’s not necessarily about accuracy. It’s about, telling a story, painting a picture, you know, creating something very visual for the listener. But you know, if a historian dissected the lyrics, I mean it’s like dissecting poetry, you can’t really get into it and on a kind of accuracy level. They’re lyrics, they’re not an academic essay.”
The album’s lead single ‘The Mission Field’ is based on the historical account of Protestant minister Benjamin Sewell of his time with Philadelphia’s Bedford Street Mission in the 1850s. “Bedford Street was an area of a lot African-Americans, a lot of Irish, generally poor, generally quite diseased. A place with a lot of bars, as you might expect, a lot of taverns, and prostitution was rife and what have you.” David inhabits Sewell’s character very effectively on the recording of the song, his vocal delivery vividly conveying Sewell’s violent distaste for the people around him.
Talking of Sewell, David displays a unique understanding of his subject. “He’s just incredibly judgmental and unpleasant about the people. He hates the Catholics, and he talks about them like they’re animals, you know. And there’s this kind of correlation that runs through the literature of the time, where people are talked about as savages, you know the savagery of the American Indians, and there’s the savagery of the poor. Both of which are abhorrent things to correlate.”
David took a similar approach to writing and singing album opener ‘The Ballad of George Shiffler’, in which a Nativist mob makes a martyr of one of its own men who was killed in an anti-immigration riot. In writing the narrative song lyrics, David says, “I sort of took the place of one of these men who were exacting revenge for George Shiffler’s death. I think that is always more interesting, in a way, to try and explain the perspective of the person you don’t have any sympathy with.”
While the song’s turbulent subject matter might be easily relatable to his listeners in terms of current political events, David says that he stays away from writing songs with a deliberate political intent. “I just think it can end up clumsy. You’ve got to tread carefully I think, with trying to make a political point in a song. Very few people can do that well, and I don’t think I would be able to do it very well. That’s why I just try and write stories. But obviously I have sympathies with certain characters that are going to betray my political persuasion.”
One of the album’s less politically-charged tracks is ‘Winter of ‘41’, which David describes as “probably my favourite song on the album, actually, and probably, lyrically, I think, the one I’m most proud of.” It’s an imagined narrative, based on one line from a letter written by James Fenimore Cooper to his wife during his visit to Philadelphia in 1841. Inspired by the words “Philadelphia is struck by a paralysis”, David has here installed Cooper as his narrator in describing the atmosphere of that long, bitter winter. “In January 1841, the Second Bank of the United States closed its doors in Philadelphia. There was already a depression going on at the time and the city in particular was really hit by that. At the same time, this incredibly bitter winter is going on, where it basically lasts from October to about May. I just thought it was such a great opportunity to use that kind of wintery imagery to explain the economic depression that was going on.
Paris of America by The Payroll Union
“And that story developed from this kind of frozen city, and there’s that point at the end of the second verse where the river starts to thaw and the ice breaks up and the poor are picking up the driftwood to keep the fires going. And when you get to the end of the song, it’s kind of this point where, as the sun comes out, so does the disease and so does the violence. It’s almost like it breaks everything open, and that kind of feeds into this popular theory of what’s called miasma, where disease and disorder would kind of fester in the rotting matter, you know, and kind of taint the air. At the end I really just wanted white noise, I just wanted it to be absolutely terrifying. And Tom put down so many guitars on that track, just a sense of chaos at the end.”
‘Paris of America’ ends with a final hidden track called ‘The 6th’, which is a postscript to the album proper, written from the vantage point of a regiment of black soldiers who had volunteered to fight for their freedom in the Civil War. The song looks ahead to the war while also taking a somewhat ironic look back at the social and political events immediately preceding it. David talked at length about how the song fit into the context of the other tracks on the album. “I wanted to have this very linear narrative that [would] start in, say 1838, and end in 1863. But it just doesn’t work like that, you know. If I was going to do that, I would have had to write every single song understanding the ebb and flow of an album and the sequencing of an album right from the start, and match sequentially each event to the ebb and flow of the album. I mean, it just wasn’t realistic. But what I’m really pleased about is the last song, because that is almost this point of bitter redemption where all this stuff has happened.
“Philadelphia was a horrible place to be if you were black. They had these ties to the Southern economy, and they were a point of trade with the South, and there were a lot of people from the South living in Philadelphia. And although there was a very small black middle class, it was generally pretty unpleasant. And I was really careful, I was trying to be careful, not just because I’m trying to put myself in their shoes, but also because you can’t end it on this note of redemption. It’s not a moment of redemption, it’s a brief moment of relief in a way. That’s why there’s that line ‘You’ll never know this bitter pride’. That’s kind of, in a way, talking to myself, saying, you know, how can I even attempt to do this? But also, there’s a real bitterness to it as well. I mean, they’re going along and there are these crowds cheering them. It would have been pelting them with rocks before, you know. And then they get to this point where they rest for a while and they’re being served by whites. It’s just really strange. So, I was glad we were able to end the album on that.”
Though ‘Paris of America’ is barely complete, David is already thinking ahead to future projects. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he spoke of a few possibilities, and I must admit that his enthusiasm was contagious. “I want to start writing again, because it’s been too long really, I’ve been taken up with other things. So I’m going to start writing properly, hopefully in September. I have so many different ideas, but it’s which one to choose, really. I think we want to do something a bit more experimental, musically, and play around with some different sounds.
“I have one idea certainly to do a whole album about New York in 1836, which is basically a series of characters that I want to write about, but I haven’t yet, or maybe just touched on, and they all just sort of pass each other in some way, on one day in 1836. There are a lot of interesting stories that happened [in the context of] the rise of the penny press, this very cheap form of news, and you’ve got this, well this is a few years earlier, but I’ve wanted to write about a very small religious cult, which has got this weird kind of sexual angle to it, and there’s just a few stories that are around that time that I want to bring together in some way. Definitely bending the truth. And then, I guess, I actually want to do something that is just a bit more, absurd, maybe, and lyrically playful that has nothing to do with history whatsoever.”
Whatever he decides, the next Payroll Union project is sure to be another fascinating narrative study. David’s songwriting style has evolved alongside his thematic interests, and the band have kept pace, musically, with the demands of their subject matter. They have carved for themselves a unique niche within the Sheffield music scene as well as within the genre of folk-rock, and one with many facets yet to be explored.
Many thanks to Pete David for this extensive and enlightening chat. I look forward to hearing more from him and The Payroll Union in the future.
When I first listened to ‘Paris of America’, the new album from Sheffield-based Americana band The Payroll Union, last month, I realised almost at once that in agreeing to write a review of the album, I had taken on a daunting task. This was always going to be a bit more complicated than an ordinary indie folk album, with its thematic material based in American history, specfically the violent “riot era” of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. But ‘Paris of America’ was challenging in terms of its musical expression as well, experimenting with structures and instrumentation that go beyond the straightforward confines of typical Americana or folk music. As I stated in my review, I found the songs on the album to be both emotionally evocative and intellectually fascinating, and I was happy to have the opportunity to discuss them in more detail last week with The Payroll Union’s songwriter and lead singer, Pete David.
Currently comprised of five members after the addition of a new keyboard player, The Payroll Union came together as a band about six years ago, according to David’s account. “I had a couple of bands here and there,” he says, “but mainly I was doing solo stuff. And it was in 2009, so 6 years ago, well a bit before that actually, I was playing with a banjo player, and we were just doing little acoustic gigs here and there. And then in 2009, my friend who’s a drummer, Ben, came to one of our shows and said ‘I really like what you’re doing, do you want any drums on that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great’. And he brought his friend along, Paul, who played bass. So 2009 was when we started, and we were very much a country, Americana band, playing a few covers, a few standards, and a few of my songs. My songwriting was very country-influenced around the time.”
In fact, David remembers the country-folk influence on his songwriting going back a bit further. “I grew up listening to my dad’s records and my brother’s records, so within that was kind of the obvious ones, Neil Young and Dylan, and as I got older I started listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, and then kind of in my early 20s I suppose, I listened to those Ryan Adams records that came out, ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Gold’. There were always little hints of country within some of the stuff I was listening to when I was growing up. But then I got really into it in the early noughties, listening to a lot of alt-country stuff, Hamilton Family, Wilco, and people like that.”
Once the band was formed, David says their shared love of the style led them to dig deeper into its history. “We got into listening to a lot of old American music, because we just saw it as this whole, you know, 80 years of music to explore. So we listened to a lot of bluegrass stuff from the ’30s and worked our way through, and just discovered a lot of great American country music. And so it just came out in the songwriting. We wanted to write country songs, and we wrote in a very narrative way.
“We were inspired by that type of songwriting, or certainly I was, because I had kind of got to a point where although I was still writing what you might call confessional songs, I kind of got a bit bored of it, and we were sick of just going over the same ground. So there were a few things that inspired me from that point to look at it in a narrative way. And obviously there’s a whole history of narrative songwriting. So it’s kind of developed from there.”
One of the central themes in David’s songwriting up to this point has been his interest in 19th century American history. “I’ve always had a bit of a fascination, when I was growing up I was interested in American culture generally, but certainly post-war 20th century history. That was kind of sparked by, basically the Kennedy assassination. When (the film) ‘JFK’ came out, I was 13, and I got into all the conspiracy theories, and reading books about it and was fascinated by it, so I got really interested in the ’60s and Nixon and all that kind of stuff. But it was probably, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, when I read a one-volume history of America and I got stuck on 19th century America or particularly the antebellum period, that just kind of struck me in a significant way.
“I got interested in the Revolutionary War stuff, but I was more interested in the tension that ran up to the Civil War. The country was kind of finding itself, you know, becoming industrialised and figuring itself out politically and socially. That was just a fascinating thing for me, so ever since I’ve been interested in 19th century America and haven’t really strayed far from that. I wrote a song not that long ago called ‘Chappaquiddick’ which is about the Chappaquiddick incident with Ted Kennedy (in the late 1960s), so every now and again I kind of stray, but generally I’m interested in 19th century America.”
I had imagined that David’s interest in Americana style music and his interest in American history were related, but the songs on ‘Paris of America’ are clearly written in an early 21st century postmodern folk style rather than in a musical style that might have been heard in mid-19th century America. Layers of guitars and percussion generate the overarching dramatic tension of the songs, and while they aren’t authentic to the time period, they do create the desired effect. “We wanted to do something very dark and unpleasant, that’s just kind of the way we were going musically. You know, it was great fun for Tom in the studio, our guitar player, we just let him loose on it really. He was probably the most active on the album in a lot of ways because he’s just playing with loads of different things and putting loads of guitars on there.”
When I asked David about the connection, or lack thereof, between the album’s more modern musical style and his thematic material, he was emphatic. “That’s just coincidental, me being interested in American history, they’re not related. I mean people do ask me, [if I’m] trying to re-create, you know, old 19th century folk melodies. No, I think that would be the worst thing to do. I’m obviously retelling an old story, but I want it to resonate now.”
That contemporary resonance is one of the main goals of The Payroll Union’s album, ‘Paris of America’, but also of the larger collaborative project ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’, of which the album was a part. David related the band’s connection with the project, which was funded through the Arts Enterprise at the University of Sheffield: “I became friends with a lecturer at Sheffield (Dr. Andrew Heath) just before we released our first album. [He had] heard from a friend that this band were playing songs that were inspired by 19th century American history. He was interested in what that was all about, and he came down to the gig, and we got chatting and got on really well. And he said, ‘you know there’s this fund we can apply for, where we can maybe get some money to do something, would you maybe be interested in doing something together?” And obviously I said ‘yeah, that’d be great’. And we met a few times and chatted about what we could do.”
At the time, David had already been thinking of writing an album focused on a specific place and time period. “[I was] very focused on that because the previous album was kind of flitting around, you know, across different times. I was actually really interested in doing something on, like more of a religious thing, because I had touched on the Second Great Awakening, [and] the writers of charismatic evangelism in the Twenties. So I was interested in Rochester, in New York, that was the place where a particular preacher called Charles Grandison Finney was very successful, and it was one of those boomtowns on the Erie Canal, and I just thought it would be a great thing to do.”
But the ‘Faith and Fear’ project’s research was based in Philadelphia, and after some discussion with Heath, David was convinced that he could write something equally immersive about that city’s so-called “riot era” of the 1830s and ’40s. He describes the project as “very experimental” in terms of its scope. “We thought ‘let’s just work with lots of different people and see how we can look at history in a different way’, through music, but also through film and through illustrators, and there were lots of other strands that didn’t really work out. We wanted to do so much, but we just couldn’t do everything.” The ambitious project is still “in an ongoing way” according to David, who along with Heath gives a fuller explanation in the following video clip from the ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ Web site.
Pete David’s chat with Carrie continues on TGTF this same time tomorrow.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 16th June 2015 at 11:00 am
“I was in Paris the other day. This little boy comes up to me, he must be no older than 6 or 7. He seemed to make a beeline for me, and I didn’t know why. I thought, okay, uh, where are your parents? And then he started singing ‘Romeo’ to me, in French. And then I thought, you know what? That’s more than anything else…you know that thing about always chasing the next thing? I try not to believe in that, because where does that stop? When does that train stop?…How do you sustain that? I think I’m in a place where I’m perfectly fine playing to 50 people in Washington, it’s not where I’m not from, and that’s amazing to me. On the next album, there might be twice that amount [of people], you know?”
It is a balmy Thursday night in Washington, DC, and it feels like most any other night here in summer, around 34 degrees C (93 F), the sun is slowly setting in the distance behind my interviewee, electronic producer and musician Pete Lawrie-Winfield (pictured far right in the top photo), the mastermind of the eclectic, hard to pin down by genre Until the Ribbon Breaks, who will be playing Black Cat Backstage in an hour. I am sat at a table with the tall and tattooed Welshman on the corner of 14th and T outside the Cafe Saint-Ex, a restaurant inspired by author of The Little Prince and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and we’re having drinks. We’re like old friends; I met and chatted with him in Austin the first time they showcased at SXSW back in 2014, and I was so chuffed seeing that Huw Stephens placed them to headline his Music Wales: Cerdd Cymru night in March at SXSW 2015, high-fiving him after their brilliant performance there.
Lawrie-Winfield and bandmate James Gordon performing at the British Music Embassy,
Latitude 30 at SXSW 2015, 17 March 2015
That moment in time where a small child proved this Cardiff musician’s popularity, however niche, in France will no doubt stick in his mind forever. Lawrie-Winfield is being quite philosophical about where he’s been and how much he’s accomplished. Which in my opinion is an extremely good place for your head to be, and an all too uncommon place for said head to be after you’ve released your debut album. “I look at bands like The National. It’s taken so long [for them to be successful], but because it’s taken so long, and it happened naturally and it happened the right way, their fans will always be their fans. We see [the same] people at our gigs over and over again, and that’s amazing. We’re not on the radio, so you go see the show. So I try not to be impatient.”
He tells me how he’s come up with a way to keep the positivity flowing while on tour. “I try and do this thing, we have a preshow ritual which used to be an obligatory American sports [chant], ‘U-T-R-B!’ But now we’ve added something new to it on this tour. The main thing I get inspired by when I’m on tour is watching music documentaries. I saw the White Stripes one when they toured Canada (2007’s Under Great White Northern Lights), and I always come away from music documentaries thinking if you feel negative about the industry or you feel like there should be more people at the show, you watch that Nirvana documentary that just came out (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck), that made me feel, ‘whoa, I gotta keep pushing, keep pushing’.
“So now I’ve done this new thing where just before we do the American sports celebration, we had a quote. We have a different quote each night from a different musician in time. So last night was Freddie Mercury, this was the first night I decided to do this. I said to the guys, ‘I’ve got this idea!’ And they’re all like, whatever. Last night’s was Freddie Mercury’s, and he said all he cared about was that when he dies…I can’t remember the exact quote…’when I die, I want to be remembered as a musician who made something of substance’. He was always thinking that. You can hear it in his music. And he will be remembered for making something of substance and it came true.” Later on in our conversation, he says songwriting inspiration lately has been coming from unlikely sources: “Read more…the influence doesn’t have be from music. Go to a weird new restaurant. Go swimming. You might get a song out of that.”
At the moment, Montage of Heck is looming large in his thoughts. “When I watched that Nirvana documentary, I went back and listened to all the Nirvana records. It comes in cycles, that sense of inspiration. His work, someone like Kurt Cobain’s work, it will loop through time. There will be times when it dips, and there will be times when it’s relevant again. It was just radio, meh, you could tell that he had to say something. That part of the documentary that blows my mind, have you seen it?” I shake my head no. “It is amazing, whether you’re a Nirvana fan or not…it’s about him an artist, a writer…they take his drawings and they animate them. And there’s this fascinating bit when he’s 16 and on his own in his bedroom, and he’s playing the record button on a cassette recorder and he documents everything he thinks, but in a way that sounds like he’s doing a voiceover for the documentary you’re watching, like he knew that some 30 years later he would have done all the things he knew he was going to do and died and there was going to be this film. It was like he got all the bits together and put it in a time capsule and thought, ‘yep, that’s going to happen’. He was 16 and he hadn’t written any of the songs or done any of the shows yet. It’s wild.”
Lawrie-Winfield performing at The Palm Door on Sixth at SXSW 2014, 13 March 2014
It isn’t as common as one might think to be invited to perform at back to back SXSWs, so I use the opportunity to ask Lawrie-Winfield what it felt like to be given another shout. “When I found out we were going to do it again – and I do this whenever I find out we’re doing anything, music-related or not, even before we did this tour – my first instinct is dread, and I’m trying to get over that. I don’t know where I get that, because I don’t feel like that at all. I’m actually really, really excited. Maybe it’s something to do with nerves or something.
“Maybe not so much dread, but [makes gasping sound], and I was like oh god, because I know what SXSW is like. It’ll be like five shows in 2 days, and no sound checks. And our live show is quite intricate with equipment, and technical, and you’re like, ugh! But you know, it’s like everything. My initial instinct was, ‘oh god!’ But then you go with it, and it ends up being the best show you’ve ever done. The last Run the Jewels show at the end of South By, our last one [Friday night with FLOOD, at FLOODfest at Cedar Street Courtyard]…and it’s gone into my top three shows. I’m always ranking our shows.”
I express anguish that I missed that one in favour of Tuesday night’s Music Wales: Cerdd Cymru show, but he’s come up with a solution. “Well, let’s try and make tonight go straight into the top! That’s another part of our preshow ritual, we say, ‘let’s make tonight top 3!’. We have one in Montreal, it was the London Grammar support tour. For a while that was my favourite show ever, and it was because you’re doing a support slot, you don’t know how people will react [to you], you’re the support band, people will be talking, are on their phones, whatever. But that show, before we’d even played our last song, they were so loud – in terms in a good way, screaming – we couldn’t start ‘Goldfish’, which is our last song, we just couldn’t. Every time we went to go for the mike…I came off crying. And that’s hard to top. It’s not often that I cry! How am I going to top that?”
We switch gears to discuss his debut album, ‘A Lesson Unlearnt’, which was released in January in the States. (It’s available on iTunes this week in the UK.) I ask him if he felt a huge sigh of relief to have finally let it go into the wild. “I’ve spent a long time thinking about that. I put this post up on Tumblr recently because I never felt, still don’t feel, will never feel that our record – not in terms of it did commercially, because I never had any expectation – just in terms of how it was received or delivered artistically.
“What I wanted is to present this kind of world of film and music, and then be completely intertwined, as it was in the band name, you know, with cassette and VHS ribbons and intertwined with that concept. The music was going underscore the film, and the film would then underscore the music, and it was just going to be a way. And then inevitably, you sign a record deal to a big major label, because you’re broke and you’re sleeping in the studio, which I was. This company comes along and offers you a lot of money and they promise you the world, and before you know it, ‘what’s the first single, Pete? And let’s make a video that isn’t any of the videos you did without us’. I understand that the videos I made, which were chopped up films, you can’t use those, they were [my personal] tributes to the directors. But they could have been more…not even more innovative, just more thought [could have been put into them], like [as if they] felt more like they fit our music. And I guess to some extent I am responsible because I dropped the ball and put my trust in the industry that shouldn’t be trusted.
“I would hate for this to sound like a criticism for the people who made those videos, because I was involved in the process. It’s a criticism of myself for not having the balls to go, ‘you know what, my gut is saying let’s not do this’. I just went along with them. So there’s that side of about how I feel about the album being released. But the album is called ‘A Lesson Unlearnt’. Like I now will make the second one, I won’t make the same mistakes again. It’s like it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, that record. It’s almost like telling me to listen to it. Not [to the] music [itself], but [waves hands in the air] ‘hey, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do! Now no-one’s listening to me!’ It was an amazing lesson, that. Why did I do it?” He explains to me that before he started the Until the Ribbon Breaks project, he had a solo singer/songwriter act, was signed to a major label, and had similar issues. “I let other people get involved to the point I didn’t like making music, but I was really young.” So here’s the take home message to all fledgling artists: work hard and be proud of your art, but don’t be shy to speak up when you think you’re being led astray from your original intention.
But perhaps even Lawrie-Winfield’s original intention live has changed quite a lot from the earliest days of touring Until the Ribbon Breaks, to now as a three-man unit: himself on lead vocals, keyboards, programming, trumpet and percussion; James Gordon on keyboards, programming, percussion, bass and backing vocals; and Elliot Wood on drums, programming and backing vocals. “The band is in an amazing place right now in terms of three people. It started as me, and then it became three people, and now it’s definitely three people. James is just getting better and better at what he does, and so is Elliot…it keeps getting looser and live-r, and hopefully you’ll see that tonight. We’re losing laptop more and more as we go, and we’re taking that into the writing and recording process too. When I was growing up, my hero was Paul Simon. He didn’t use a laptop! I look at a laptop sometimes and think, no way, [it’s] so restricted, playing to a click [track]. Sometimes I feel like I want ‘A Taste of Silver’ to be a little bit slower, or ‘Pressure’ to be a little bit faster, and you can’t, you know?
“And then I watch bands that don’t use them, like Nick Cave. Last year I saw Nick Cave in LA and it changed my life. I thought to myself, ‘okay, what are we fucking doing?’ It was so good to see someone that makes me you think, ‘I am much worse at what I’m doing than I thought I was’. You see Nick Cave and think, ‘I’ve got so much work to do’. He’s so loose, he’s got his right hand man Warren [Ellis], and he plays the violin. He had his bow, almost like a bow and arrow. And he had a bunch of bows and he’d take one out and throw one into the crowd. It’s so spontaneous. And you don’t know what Nick Cave is going to do, he might turn to the band and say, ‘we’re going to do this one slower tonight’. And you’re like, this is so real. He’s like a voodoo musician or something. And I’m listening to a laptop, going do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do…”
I tell him that’s the best thing about music, that there will never be a shortage of goals to achieve or mountains to climb. I share with him the uplifting storyline of Stornoway‘s ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, and the lyrics “but sometimes, when you get to the summit / you will see another hill to climb.” He makes the surprising admittance that he loves Stornoway and upon my recommendation, he is excited to check out their new album. “Even now, we’re smashing that mountain, but that’s the aim. Looser, live-r. More honest.” Sounds like a plan to me.
Massive thanks to Pete for such a lovely, insightful interview! Until the Ribbon Breaks’ remaining tour dates in America include the Barboza in Seattle tonight (16 June), Bunk Bar in Portland tomorrow (17 June), the Roxy in Hollywood 22 June and Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco 25 June. They will also appear the Underground Music Showcase festival in Denver on 25 July.
Lawrie-Winfield performing at Black Cat Backstage, Washington DC, 11 June 2015
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 28th April 2015 at 11:00 am
Last week, London-based Life in Film had just started their support slot with the Wombats on their month-long tour of North America, beginning in Toronto on the 21st of April. After quite a long drive from the Great White North down to the City of Brotherly Love, I had an opportunity to chat on the phone with their frontman Samuel Fry (vocals and guitar) after they arrived ahead of a gig at Union Transfer and got a chance to do some “looking around Philadelphia, it’s really beautiful”.
It’s an exciting time for the band, as they’re gearing up to release their debut album ‘Here It Comes’ on both sides of the Atlantic in under 2 weeks at the time of this interview; Samuel describes the LP’s title as representing “a statement of it [all] coming to fruition”. I feel I also have caught Samuel at a good time, as at this point they’d only played one gig on this side of the pond at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace that he described as “an amazing show”, and everyone was in high spirits and full of energy. And also apparently full of the often maligned, indigenous to Pennsylvania meatloaf scrapple from a local diner where they’d stopped in that morning for breakfast. But rather than digress into a retelling of the band’s varied diet while out on the road here, I went straight into asking Samuel how the band got together.
“Me and the guitar player Ed [Edward Ibbotson], we went to school together. Then we both went to different universities. While at university, I met Dom [bassist Dominic Sennett] and Micky [drummer Osment] because they were at the music college I was at. We [Samuel and Edward] moved back to London after we finished, and Dom and Mick decided to move to London as well. We all got together and decided to play music together.
“But we were kind of just mucking about at first, you know? We all lived together, yeah, and we used to hang out and listen to a lot of music, really. Then we found a little practise room near where we lived, which was underneath a snooker hall. It was a dingy little dungeon, it was really nasty! But it was kind of cool because no-one else really practised there and so we could go whenever we wanted to use it , and we started to put a couple of songs together. Felt good about [them] and went from there, really.”
a still from Life in Film’s performance with Berlin Sessions earlier this year
I tell Samuel that from the longtime Life in Film fan’s perspective, it seems like the debut album has been a long time coming. He agrees. “Yeah, I suppose it does, it’s quite a long process. When you start off [songwriting by] doing just the odd song. You kind of record one song at a time so you can get a feel for it at first, you know? And you’re writing as you go, and you’ve just started out gigging and stuff, and that’s a bit of a process. And then you start working with different people like managers and labels, and all of those things take time. That’s the nature of a debut album, I suppose. The next album, we’d probably record it all as one…we wouldn’t go through so much demoing and kind of early development of our sound. We know where we’re at and what we want to do… So, yeah, it does feel like it’s taken time, but I’m not surprised, really.”
Famed producer Stephen Street was called into work on Life in Film’s ‘Here It Comes’, so I ask him if any or all of their band were fans of his work with the Smiths or Blur. “Very much so. We love the Smiths, and we love Blur. So when originally thought there was the possibility we might be working with him after we managed to get a demo under his nose and he listened to it, he offered to work with us on a couple of tracks, and we were really buzzing about it. It went really well and we got on with him really well, and we managed to get him to agree to do the whole album. So yeah, it was a really exciting experience, to learn from him, from a person with those kind of credentials.”
I asked further if knowing about Street’s storied work history made it harder to work with him in the studio. “I think it was a bit intimidating, initially”, Samuel admits, “because he’s worked with all these amazing musicians. But he’s used to working with so many talented people. But to be honest, as soon as you meet the guy and you chat to him, he immediately puts you at ease completely. He’s a really down to earth bloke. So very quickly, we felt very relaxed in his company, and it was a nice process to go through, basically.”
He then reveals to me he got a super special moment with a super special piece of equipment in Street’s studio: “I got to play Graham Coxon‘s guitar…well, Stephen lent to Graham Coxon [for] the first time he played the telly, a Telecaster apparently. And he let me borrow it for some of the songs. It has a really amazing sound, that Telecaster vintage sound, and I was playing Graham Coxon’s guitar…and I was really chuffed about that!”
I ask Samuel if he has a favourite song off the album. “I personally like ‘Anna’ [‘Anna Please Don’t Go’],a song Ed wrote. I think it’s got such a nice pop song kind of structure, but it’s got so much sentiment. It’s always been a favourite of mine, personally. I think as a band, we all like ‘Forest Fire’ quite a lot because for the recording process for that, we got a lot of different instruments and loaded them up, and it all fell together nicely. I think we achieved something quite atmospheric with that one.”
We touch back on the show in Toronto they played less than 48 hours previously and in a city some 750 kilometres behind them. “That first show in Toronto, the reception was brilliant”, muses Samuel. “We couldn’t have asked for more, really. Everyone’s been really friendly. So now it’s on for tonight in Philadelphia.” Many more shows and many more drives are up ahead for Life in Film during this lengthy stint supporting the Wombats around the continent, and I’m confident our audiences will take to their engaging songwriting.
Thanks very much to Samuel for chatting with me, and Anna and Jonny for helping sort out this interview.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 10th April 2015 at 11:00 am
This past Monday night, Oxford, Mississippi rock band Young Buffalo played a show in Washington DC just prior to them joining up with Matt Pond PA as support for a 6-week long tour of North America, their longest outing in their band’s history. Prior to their set at Black Cat Backstage, I chatted out back with the band’s primary songwriters Ben Yarbrough and Jim Barrett, who also share lead vocal duties in the group. They were excited to chat about the upcoming tour around our large continent with the New York City-based band, as well as their debut album ‘House’ that was released at the start of March on Votiv Recordings.
Like myself and Carrie, the band were in Austin for SXSW 2015, but despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes with a week of heavy festival-ing, Jim tells me that between the end of SXSW and this gig in DC, they’d done several shows including “spring music festivals in the Southeast…but this is the first show on tour that will get us up and running, we’re joining up with Matt Pond tomorrow in Boston, and we’ll do a loop around our great country.”
Young Buffalo seemed to me a strange name for a band from Mississippi, so I asked them where their got their unusual moniker. Ben explains: “I started recording some solo stuff after when I’d worked with Ben in high school bands and stuff. I had just some solo stuff I’d been working on for a couple months in about 2008, 2009, and I started calling him (Ben) ‘young buffalo’. I would text him and ask him if he wanted to meet up…”
He looks over at Ben and says, “I didn’t even call you that to your face.” Ben nods. “Yeah, you’d say, ‘hey, wanna meet up, young buffalo?’ Kind of a weird nickname!” “It kind of became the name of my solo project”, explains Jim. “We tried to change it, but we couldn’t come up with anything else”, Ben interjects. Jim agrees. “Yeah, for our first couple of shows, we said okay, we’re just going to keep it, and that was that.”
Because TGTF has written a lot about Oxford, England bands Glass Animals and Stornoway in the last year and that Oxford is famous for being a knowledge base and university town, I was curious what Oxford, Mississippi’s claim to fame was. “The university!” both of them shout with a laugh. “That was the whole intention behind naming the town Oxford”, says Ben. Jim adds, “it was to get the state university, and it worked! We have a double-decker bus and an old telephone box” that Ben says was donated somehow through the two cities’ ambassadorial relationship. (I suggested that us here at TGTF should hook them up with bands from the other Oxford for a UK tour in the future, so if any Oxford band reading this is keen, hit me up.) “We’re also known for a bunch of writers: William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin, and a bunch of musicians. We’re on the up and up, I think.”
Speaking of musicians, I ask Ben about the current scene in Oxford. “It’s great. It’s nice because it’s a college town, every 4 years you get new bands to pop up. Like right now there are 10 to 20 new bands that have just popped up in the last few months that are constantly playing shows out there.” Jim adds, “there were a lot of established bands and everyone has either gone on tour or moved off, the kind of bands we were coming up with, 4, 5, 6 years ago. But now there are a bunch of new kids coming to school starting their own bands left and right. It’s like every time we get home, there are more and more bands, and that’s great. It’s a creative hub.”
Next, we discussed their new album ‘House’ and the making of it. “It was a long process, from writing and getting everything together in the time just so we could get lined up for getting in the studio with (producer) Dave Schiffman”, explains Jim, “it was a super long process, about 2 years. There was a lot of waiting and a lot of writing…there was a lot of demoing and redemoing and figuring stuff out. Once we got out to LA with (Dave) Schiffman, we laid the tracks down and we did the album exactly the way we wanted…it was very intense patches of work and long spans of inactivity. It’s been a couple of weird years, but I think we’re better for it. I think the album came out great and we’re super pumped about it.”
I ask Jim about the origin of album standout ‘Sykia’, and if it’s named after someone. “It’s named after a beach village in Greece…I was over there studying as a freshman in college, and I went on a weekend excursion. Everyone else had planned stuff and the school I was with, they told me and my friends, ‘hey, you all should go do this, since you’re not busy’. So we did the holy wine thing, and it was a really special place. For me, it was completely self-sufficient and they didn’t need anybody else. I’d never really seen a community like that, working together like that. I also got really, really drunk with a Greek couple and this other guy. No-one could understand each other…but basically we got to the point where we got so drunk, we could finally understand each other. That was a special spot, so I wrote a song about it.” What a nice story.
We then switched gears to chat about SXSW 2015 and their experience this year in Austin. “It was the best one that we’ve done, for sure”, insists Ben. “There was pretty much a good crowd at every show and at the last one at the UPROXX House (Saturday night), it was really packed out and we got a lot of good feedback from that one. All and all, it was really fun time.” He was stoked that “Danny Trejo and Bill Murray were apparently were at that show”, although only their drummer Tim Burkhead saw Murray. We all know Radio 1’s Huw Stephens met the American comic a while back, so it’s not so far-fetched to imagine we might see a Tweet from Murray bigging up Young Buffalo. We now wait for the inevitability with bated breath…
Many thanks to Ben and Jim for this great chat. Best wishes to you guys!
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