Listening to ‘I Predict a Graceful Expulsion’ is like listening to the absolute ideal conclusion to 100 years of gospel music, 100 years of blues and 60 years of soul. Not to say it’s any one of these things at all, but you can follow your finger along the dusty paths they wove to where Al Spx, aka Cold Specks has taken them now. As touching and full of the weight of cautionary tales of blues ballads come before, the album is a reconciliation of those elements that Al Spx has been much quoted as calling Doom Soul. And joy of joys, she’s bringing her grand culmination to our city…
Your dial code suggests you’re in London at the moment, is that right?
Yes, I’m in London at the moment; I’m staying here until my visa expires.
You split your time quite frequently now, don’t you?
Yeah, I’m gonna be in Toronto in a couple of weeks, after my European tour. I just go back and forth.
Have you gotten used to that nomadic experience?
I’ve sort of had to get used to it because of all the touring that I’ve been doing over the last year – it’s been hectic.
It’s good writing material, I guess though, being immersed in all these different cultures, or has it been airports that you’ve been solely exposed to?
You’d think it would be, but I haven’t really had any time to do anything; I haven’t been able to– I can’t remember the last time I wrote a song. It’s just airports in and out of towns; play a show, pack up, move on to the next one.
So it was Jim Anderson that drew you to London initially – do you remember the night you arrived?
Yeah, it was April 12th 2010; I flew in and got in to Gatwick. I remember taking a cab to my aunt’s house in West London and I think I just slept!
Was it a bright new world when you woke up, or was it still daunting?
Well the cab ride was really terrifying, because I realised very quickly that I was on the edge of the horizon to a very large city, but it was fine!
We’ve really adopted you in this country, I think from the moment we saw you on Jools Holland we were sold. Were you aware, before you went on that show, the momentum it could have on your musical career?
No, I’m not from here originally, so I wasn’t aware of the effect it could have. Before we even played, we hadn’t even mastered the album, we’d only played two or three shows and it was all very new. As you can tell from the video, I’m absolutely terrified! There’s a lot of twiddling of the thumbs and a couple of visible shakes!
It must be quite daunting though, because the show is renowned for putting emerging acts right next to some of the most established names in the industry, on the same platform…
Yeah, I’d heard of people playing in the middle of the stage before, who weren’t really well known and I remember seeing Bon Iver’s video where he played in the same spot, which was fantastic.
I’ve been identifying strongly with the tone of your album, probably because I’m a big soul baby at heart, and I feel great warmth towards gospel music, more towards the commercial end of the spectrum. You took great influence from the American South, but now you’ve had the chance to travel to those areas, have you been able to immerse yourself in that musical heritage?
Erm, as much as I could… I did a tour in May, a 35-day tour on a bus with a band from Toronto called Great Lake Swimmers. We covered a lot of the South and spent a lot of time in Texas and met a lot of interesting characters. We also made a point to go to record stores and pick up some stuff. The Deep Allum part of Dallas is really interesting; they’ve got – I don’t know how to describe them, but they have interesting stuff written on the walls – not plaques, but stuff written about blues legends and all the walls are covered in descriptions on how these people came to be. There were a lot of interesting characters that might have, I dunno, stolen my heart as well.
I imagine that you were bequeathed some of your musical passion or influence from your parents, but a career in music wasn’t the easiest thing for them to stomach, was it?
No, I mean they’re fine now, but it’s been exaggerated a bit and that’s my own fault for just rambling, haha. They’re just like any other parents; when their kid tells them they’ve dropped out of school and moved away to a different country and I’m not coming back ‘til my album’s finished, they’re going to be naturally a bit freaked out! But it’s all good, they’re really supportive now and I just say that initially, they just wanted the best for me and in the beginning they didn’t think what I was doing was the best and they were freaked out. They just had a lot of expectations for me, and dropping out of university and moving to a different country was not one that they expected!
You mentioned Great Lake Swimmers, but there are a wealth of Canadian bands that I really love, and all very different; Metric and Broken Social Scene for that, Feist, Grimes, hip hop artists like K-Os… Is it a very nurturing scene in Canada, or are there success stories come out of something quite disparate?
I think in Canada, not many people expect to make a career out of music. The music industry isn’t very big there; it’s a very big country, but the population is only something like 40 million people, so no one really expects to make a career out of it. People are just very creative and, I guess, not afraid to be different because they don’t expect anyone to sign them so I find that musicians in Toronto just go for it creatively.
One of the other aspects of music that I read you had an affinity with were the old tradition of field recordings. I’ve listened to loads of live sessions of your music, like the Daytrotter session, and they sound not too distant from the album recording. Did you set out to translate that live sound?
I think what happened was that I hadn’t really played that many shows until I recorded the album, so I recorded the album and then figured out how I wanted to sound live and took it from there.
I was reading the write-up on the Daytrotter website actually –
– I haven’t even listened to that yet, I should get around to it.
Oh, I love the Daytrotter site – I’m a paid up member and each new session is a real treat to listen to…
I remember when I did that, I was in Ashville, North Carolina and someone came and picked me up to take me to the studio, and it was amazing. After, when I walked out, I noticed a music shop across the street and said to the guy, “I see loads of vintage amps over there – what are they like?” He said, “I’m not sure, but I know that Jack White was in there last night and spent a fortune!” So I went in there and just plugged my guitar into a bunch of amps and thought if it’s good enough for Jack White, it’s good enough for me! I found this vintage amp from 1956, a Fender Champ and it doesn’t have any tone dials, just a volume dial. I think it was originally meant for harmonica players. I remember doing the Daytrotter session – sorry, I’m just rambling, haha – but I did the session and then picked that up, so I haven’t actually listened to it.
So I’ve always wondered if Daytrotter just has the one studio that everybody comes to?
I think when I was on tour with the Swimmers, they did one in Illinois, and I think that’s where their main studio is, but based on times, they do sessions in North Carolina as well.
And do you have to sit for the portrait they illustrate of you?
No, I didn’t know that was going to happen!
Have you seen it?
Yes, I thought it was horrifying, haha! They really emphasised my East African forehead!
The write-up was great, but suggested that the tracks were autobiographical, but equally, they come across as folk narratives that anyone can share – ancient themes that run through all of our lives…
When I write lyrics, well certainly when I was writing them for this album, I tried to write personal lyrics, but still have them be very vague. So I have my own personal meanings that I don’t really want to share, but by writing it that way, I made it so that people could interpret it in their own way.
I do think it’s an album that you have a very intimate, personal experience with. I keep listening to it on my own, through my headphones and it kind of holds your hand through different emotions.
Thanks, I think I agree with that.
You spoke about writing for the new album, but as you said, you also haven’t had much time, so as fans, how long do we have to wait?
No, I haven’t, but I started writing it a couple of months ago and so there are a handful of songs that are written for it. But it’s just gone a bit dry inside of my head; I think just ‘cause of time, and being quite busy. I’m not sure… there are a couple of songs that I might do a live EP with, or might do a record some time down the line, so hopefully it won’t be too long!
Lastly, you’re coming to Norwich as part of the line-up for Norwich Sound and Vision’s John Peel Festival of New Music, which I’m really excited about in its entirety. I read that at one stage you couldn’t afford to take the whole band on the road with you, so what’s the situation for this tour?
The whole band’s coming! That was the American tour in May; we were an opening band and it was very expensive to do that 35 days in America but we’re in the UK now – we’re all based here so we’re all coming.
Does that mean you had any of Great Lake Swimmers join you on stage to play for you on any of the American dates, or did you go up alone?
I went up alone every night! Greg, the drummer, drummed for us for a few shows recently though.
I’m sure you’ll appreciate the company of the band for this tour though – are you looking forward to it?
Yeah, very much; I’m very excited to be able to do this again with all of my buddies. Rob Ellis is going to be drumming with us as well –
No way! I can’t tell you how many albums I own that he’s had something to do with…
Yeah, so I’m really looking forward to doing it!
Cold Specks comes to the Norwich Arts Centre on Friday 12th October, as part of Norwich Sound and Vision, running from 11th-13th Oct. For ticket info go towww.norwichsoundandvision.co.uk.
Stereophonics – ‘Graffiti on the Train’ (Stylus Records)
I’d read that Stereophonics had hinted in the loosest terms that they’d like to be considered for the next Bond song; it’s no wild idea when you think first of how well Chris Cornell’s growling vocal complimented the grittiness of the movie, and how Kelly Jones’ would do and second: they’ve been working with regular Bond composer David Arnold on this, their eighth studio album. Boy, can you tell – the album’s less of the grounded, paint by numbers rock that was only punctuated by Kelly’s inimitable snarl and turn of phrase, that we’ve come to expect in later ‘Phonics releases. This comes in, all strings blazing. Songs like ‘Graffiti on the Train’, the title track, with a few lyrical changes (exchange ‘Graffiti’ for ‘machete’ and ‘Train’ for ‘Nile’) could sonically underscore any Bond classic. It’s with tracks like ‘Take Me’, which has an eerie female backing vocal and melancholic lament and ‘Roll the Dice’ which journeys through fast and slow, hot and cold moments that you are able to appreciate how far this album has moved on from the formulaic fodder the Valleys boys had become known for. ‘Violins and Tambourines’ has a rhythm and blues swagger and careless lead vocal, before ‘Been Caught Cheating’ kicks in as a soulful blues chant. It then flips schizophrenically to the almost INXS-like ‘In a Moment’ before closing out the album. This is so much an album they wanted to make, not explorations of a blueprint set out for them, and it makes an interesting listen.
7/10 Emma Garwood
“We’ve got 15 minutes on the phone with Johnny.” Those were the words that changed everything; this was arguably the biggest interview Outline had ever done. I was trying to argue that point to my mother-in-law, and I put forward two things: one, the number of bands I’ve interviewed over the years that have referenced Johnny as their biggest guitar influence; and two, how much popular culture has adopted from the five active years of The Smiths – Panic! at the Disco owe their name, as do Shakespeare’s Sister; Coupland’s book, ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and Spitz’s ‘How Soon Is Never?’ and more owe their titles to Smiths-penned songs. The more cynical would say they were Morrissey’s words to borrow, but Marr wrote the music that was the vehicle to get those songs out there. I listened to ‘How Soon is Now’, an instrumental version, in prep for my interview with Johnny about his new solo album, ‘The Messenger’ and it was remarkable. It was just as expressive, emotional and resonant as the words would ever have you remember. So, just 15 minutes to ask the man about all that…
I’m aware that you’ve probably got loads of these interviews today, so I’m gonna apologise for possibly repeating something you’ve been asked all day.
Oh, it’s alright; I haven’t spoken to anyone yet today, so you got in under the wire.
Really? That’s great. It’s a big honour to talk to you today Johnny.
Aw, that’s OK.
At the moment I’m sat pressed against my radiator at home, ‘cause my heating’s shit. What’s your environment like right now?
Yeah, I know that one, I know that one. Erm, I’m in a really big, huge old room at the top of an old church in Salford, outside of Manchester rehearsing for the tour. I’ll be in Norwich really very soon.
I know, not long at all –
– Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I was there a couple of years ago, 2010 maybe and it was a fun time. There’s a good record shop in Norwich too, isn’t there?
Yeah, there are some brilliant ones actually – the demise of HMV worries us not.
That’s true, yeah. Actually, it was the university that I played when I went there last time but I went record shopping and I visited all the places. There’s not too many towns in the UK that can boast that many record shops, so well done.
Yeah, my Dad came to visit me here once and we literally did a record shop crawl.
Record shop crawl! [LAUGHS] I can believe it, yes, well that’s good news.
Now Johnny, there’s so much I could ask you obviously, but I’m gonna focus on ‘The Messenger’ because I’m one of the lucky buggers who’s been able to listen to it. It comes out a week on Monday, doesn’t it?
Yeah, it seems like a long time coming; the first single came out in December, and that was the title track and I’m getting a lot of love for it. It’s exciting; people seem to like it, which is always nice! [LAUGHS]
I think it’s fair to say you’ve released a fair few records, Johnny – do you still get the same kind of excitement, or apprehension before a release?
You always do, yeah. I think in the case of, say, Modest Mouse, or The The or The Cribs or something, or The Smiths, there’s a shared responsibility and right now, a lot seems to be focused on me, because it’s my record. It’s a little bit different in that regard, it’s a little more intense, but as I say, it’s fun because people seemingly liking it. I think you’re in trouble if you become blasé about the release, although my favourite bit is always the bit when it’s finished, in between when it’s finished and when it’s released. It feels like you’ve got a kinda cool secret that’s about to be disclosed. Once a record is out in the outside world, it seems to me, to belong to the culture, and certainly the fans and everybody has their own experience with it; people are listening to it on a Saturday morning, other people are listening to it on their way to college, some people are listening to it on their way back from school, all of these things and I really like that about pop music and pop culture anyway. You experience it in your own different ways and I think because of that it stops feeling like your own personal property and my mind starts to move on to other things, so once it’s released, it becomes a different thing for me then.
With you talking about it then, it sounds a bit like your losing your virginity; it’s yours and only to give for a while, but once it’s gone… it’s public property. [LAUGHS]
I never thought of it like that; I never thought of either thing like that but I’ll… I’ll meditate on that [LAUGHS]!
It’ll be good if you do, yeah! Now, I read an interview with you on the subject of making this album, and you said that if you hadn’t made it now, you would never have done it. What kind of intersection were you at to be thinking that?
Erm, well I probably would have found another project – I don’t like using the word project, but… OK, I’ll use the word project – to be getting along with but I wrote nearly 30 songs for ‘The Messenger’ and that’s something that doesn’t happen every day. You have to be really enthusiastic about it to roll your sleeves up and do that amount of work, because it’s quite time consuming. Then when I decided I wasn’t gonna go back out with The Cribs, I think that was when I got the notion that I might not always be wanting to actually lock myself away and write 30 songs, because it is a LOT! But I either stopped or got bored at about 27 and I realised that was quite enough, thank you very much. By then, I pretty much had the record in my mind anyway. I didn’t mean that I was gonna retire, or anything – I doubt that’s ever gonna happen. I kind of relate to painters, or sculptors, or people in the visual arts in that regard; whenever I’ve been asked about when I’m going to finish, my mind just turns to people like David Hockney and Lucien Freud and Robert Rauschenberg, who are still painting, and I’m of the same mindset really. If it’s something that you’re good at and it’s a way of you expressing the way you relate to the world, then you do it whether you’re in the charts or not. So I think that’s maybe what I meant when I said that.
One of the things that I love about The Cribs is that I lived in Wakefield for four years and can appreciate that they have this wonderful way of sucking in their environment and projecting it back out again. Now, you came back to the UK to make this album – what was it about the UK environment that you wanted to creep into the record?
Well, the atmosphere of towns and cities, buildings and the way people relate to them, and the way I relate to crowds – I think I relate to the environment as we all do, but maybe I’m a little more aware of it sometimes because I’m a writer – maybe? The very first thing on the album, ‘The Right Thing Right’ is about that and pretty much the whole album is about that, but I was kind of commenting on the fact that I know I’m a target for market forces, say, to certain crass commercialism, but I don’t complain, I just comment. I think it’d bring the music down to complain, but I think the very fact I’m aware of it, gives me the right attitude and that’s why I’m saying ‘I’ve got the right thing right’, you know, I’m not saying I’m beaten down by it, I’m almost saying, ‘Vive le resistance’ and sticking two fingers up to it, really. I think young people are good at that and school kids particularly; people who are in school are really good at it, at knowing the theatre of hypocrisy and recognising bullshit. We tend to over-analyse things and intellectualise things at a certain point in our lives and if we’re lucky, we come back to the same insights that we maybe had when we were teenagers. I’m glorifying teenage years; I’m very happy not to be one, thanks very much and I’m not someone who wishes they were younger, by any means but I’m making these comments about my environment and I’ve always noticed that kind of stuff, since being a little kid growing up in the city. I have a very close relationship and an interest in cities; being a working musician for most of my life, I’ve spent most of my life in cities round the world and been lucky enough to take that environment in. I think it’s just very good subject matter to put together with upbeat, banging new wave stuff, rather than some internalised, wishy washy songs about my feelings, or all that kind of drippy stuff, you know. Songs about being people and cities and being a person around other people seem to fit around the music that I like to sing.
Yeah, we’re British – we don’t need to know about your feelings, Johnny.
Thank you very much, yeah, yeah, thank you. “Dear diary…”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Jarman [guitarist from The Cribs] and he’d said what an influence you’d been on him forever, and then they were dead chuffed when you joined the band, and similarly, I imagine Modest Mouse felt pretty indepted to have you on board. As much as you’re the older dog, what did they teach you?
Erm, well in the case of Modest Mouse, for example, it was good to be reminded that the stage is not to be taken for granted. They’re almost theatrical when they clamber up onto the stage, whether they realise it or not, and Isaac Brock has a very – well, even when Isaac Brock appears to be doing very little, I think there’s a very cool subtle theatre there and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that. It’s really very interesting. When you’ve played a lot and also when playing the instrument comes fairly naturally and you have a knack for it – and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid – you can be somewhat cavalier about your approach to playing. It’s always intense and I’m always grateful to be a working musician and I’m never blasé on the stage, but it really was like a hydrogen bomb going off sometimes during the Modest Mouse set. The Cribs were that way too, I think; from The Cribs, it was just the excitement they have when they walk on stage – they seem to channel all the excitement from the audience and be charged themselves. It’s the sheer love of it; I never didn’t have that, but it was a very good thing to see. In the case of The Cribs, we both found that we had very fundamental views in common. They’re pretty numerous, but the best one was, that being on a band was being on a mission. They’re probably the best examples of it, and a lot of bands don’t put that across. I’ve always felt like I’m on my mission, whether as a band member or otherwise – I’ve been that way from being 14, 15 – and they are collectively like that. Is it because they’re family that it’s a bit more obvious? I wish more bands gave off that message.
See a music legend up-close as Johnny Marr comes to The Waterfront on March 11th. For tickets, go to www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk.
I didn’t expect to go to Paris on a cold and wet Wednesday evening, but in just shy of two hours, I was delivered there, shown the delights of a bohemian cabaret and safely returned home, via the rouge draped doors of Le Théatre de Decadence. It was an evening combining burlesque performance, racy cabaret and enchanting story-telling, and for this evening, its home was the Maddermarket Theatre.
Burlesque is an artform; those that try to pass it off as ‘just taking your clothes off’ have never tried to seductively get out of a pair of skinny jeans, let me tell you. If hopping around with your ankle shackled by a denim cuff – whilst maintaining a look that wants to say, “take me”, but in fact looks like you’re doing algebra – is tantamount to burlesque, then let me take the stage.
Among the girls proving the magic in the discipline was Sophia St. Villier. She was heart-poundingly sexy. Each subtle flex and pop of her garment-removing burlesque routines caused a mirrored thump in our arteries. She had the mystique and captivation of a timeless diva; a humanised Jessica Rabbit, Lana Del Ray without the Testino-style lens separating us from the action. Her two incarnations, first as a nymph-like (in all senses) wisp, then a sultry deco tease were equally consuming; even as she came out for her applause in demure high waisted trousers, she oozed charisma that you just can’t teach.
Anaspitos was my fully-clothed favourite. From the beginning of his first act, he showed expert physicality, battling with an inert, floating suitcase. No, really. He stretched and squirmed around it, ‘til he unearthed its hidden treasure, bubbles and balls! His crystal ball manipulation was mesmerising and fluid and concluded the act. It was just an appetiser for his second act, however, as Anaspitos took the show to new heights, literally, deftly swinging himself up onto a wiry tightrope. The routine had humour, tension, a unicycle and all the drama you long for in a cabaret act. I once wrote a dissertation on where circus stopped and theatre began: Anaspitos, communicating so much, silently, balanced expertly on that precipice, for sure.
The whole show was given a fluency by our female protagonist and hostess, Natalya Umanska. We picked up her suitcase with her when she took us along the path from her eastern European homeland to the dizzy heights of ‘gay Paree’. She was endearingly naïve, open to adventure – especially when held by the hand by her green fairy, a shot of Absinthe – and delightfully vitriolic in revenge after being taken adventage of by the ‘Man of Lies’. The story, which wove a thread between the disparate acts, was humorously written and performed with sass and spice by our heroine, Natalya.
A note on the other acts: each had enormous merit, from the porcelain burlesque beauty of Miss Dolly Rose to the high energy Miss Bailey Bliss, who played with fire and didn’t get burnt. We were also given a taste of the macabre from Daisy Black and Alex McAleer, whose wincingly cavalier razor eating was enough to put you off your lunch, but evidently, not their metallic repast.
What an enjoyable evening. I can confirm that even without succumbing to the green fairy, I had bohemian dreams, which is just what the artisan ordered.
You can imagine that when Public Enemy’s name was suggested for last year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees, the deciding forces looked deep into their history, analysed the band’s influence, their present social currency, their message, their chemistry, their stage show – and while it would have been a lengthy decision, with all boxes ticked, it would have been a resounding ‘YES’. We had less than an hour to decide whether we wanted to prep and interview Chuck D, the lyrical prophet of the group for our front cover. In the end, it was no difficult decision; when Public Enemy are in the frame, the answer is always going to be yes, yes, yes.
Hey Chuck, are you expecting my call?
Yes ma’am, I am. I’m driving; I’ve got you on my hands-free.
Well keep your eyes on the road as well – I don’t want to be the cause of any major losses in hip hop royalty.
That’s alright, that’s what I do!
So where are you on your way to today?
Down in L.A. I’ve got a bunch of meetings, one with Quincy Jones and one with the House of Blues where we had our Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame bash, the night before our induction.
That’s amazing, going for an interview with Quincy Jones – you know you’re in good company then, don’t you?
Yeah, I’ve just got to have my eyes and my ears open.
Why’s that? Is he a wily man?
I’ve just got to have my mind open so that he can give me some good advice. Lot of things are happening right now, so you know… Usually I’d be a lot more verbal and honest in interviews, but there’s a lot going on. There’s so much to do that I’ve just got to get it done, but I’m not really great and saying what’s gonna happen right now, ‘cause I’m in the middle. It’s in progress, you know.
That’s OK, I understand completely; we can talk about things that have passed though. Last year was 25 years in the game for you guys, and no sign of slowing down…
Well you have to manage your time well, you know, especially when people have families. We live in eight different parts of the United States as a group, so when you’re together, managing your time is a little more difficult but you have to work on that and you have a pattern for when you’re working together and when you’re not. You don’t wanna be consumed by any one thing; you don’t want to be consumed by business or art – it has to be a joy, you can’t be pressured by it.
As I said, you haven’t slowed pace at all though, releasing two albums last year. People digest music differently nowadays, don’t they, so it was a strong statement releasing two albums in the same year…
Yeah, it wasn’t like we just didn’t have the ideas to release one in 2011, but we thought the time was right in 2012 to actually put out two albums as a statement to digital distribution and to let people know that they can make art on their terms, and release it to the masses with new technology.
I was reading a little about SpitDigital, your aggregator company, and when I went on the site, it was members only. You’ve created something with a feeling of intrigue and exclusivity…
Yeah, there’ve been other aggregators before, and others that I’ve helped launch; I helped TuneCore and The Orchard in their beginnings, in 2007 and 2004 respectively, but we feel that what we’re trying to do as an aggregate system is be more helpful to a person in knowing what to do with their art, and encourage them to have their own label and really trying to explain that virtual is a good way of delivering art on the artist’s own terms.
What are your biggest dreams for SpitDigital?
Oh, the biggest dream is to make everybody use your service! And especially classic hip hop artists who might feel that they’re lost in the digital era, but we’re trying to tell them that they have a better chance than ever to remodel their recording career with a delivery system that enables classic artists to realise that their art lasts forever. People will always come to see them and become really detailed in that effort.
You just mentioned classic hip hop artists, and it’s been a strange thing that over the last few years, I’ve suddenly been classed as a veteran hip hop fan because I fly the flag for artists of your era. I certainly don’t feel like a veteran. It’s like classic hip hop has to come with this caveat of ‘old school’ now. How do you perceive that kind of terminology?
Yeah, it’s as different as explaining the difference between The Beatles vs. Britney Spears. The Beatles have two deceased members but it doesn’t matter; their music and their art is very relevant right now, right here. We feel that hip hop has similar leanings as far as art forms are concerned, towards its fan base; it has to be worked on.
I’m jealous of anyone across the pond right now, as you’ve announced the King of the Mic Tour [with LL Cool J, Ice Cube and De La Soul], which you’ll tour for a tonne of dates over May, June and July. How did that come together?
It came together with LL wanting to tour and all of the agencies involved in the booking coming together. I think you need a super headliner, you need some other people who also used to headline and… [Laughs] it’s funny because initially they put De La Soul – their name – in a smaller font! I was like, “that’s disrespectful to De La Soul, you know”, not the artist, but the booking agency, the management, and I said, “that’s a glaring mistake because De La Soul is one of the longest-running, greatest groups in the world and you can’t throw that American disrespect on them. It’s really a pleasure to be on the tour with these guys; De La Soul, LL and Ice Cube.
Do you think you’ll have a whole load of fun on tour with those guys?
Yeah, I have fun every day of my life. That’s my motto whether I’m on tour or not. Why? If you was on the tour, how much fun would you have?
A metric shit tonne.
[Laughs] There you go! Exactly.
I read a quote that said, “Public Enemy deliver their signature style with an angst and tenacity typical of men half their age”. Now you hit the big 5-0 recently Chuck – do you take it as an insult that they would make note of your advancing years?
No, it’s a wonderful thing. Age is a gift; God doesn’t give it out free. Every time he gives you another year, you count your blessings. I’d rather have years than money! [Laughs] You can always get that, but when God gives you another year of health, and health is all around you, you can’t get better than that.
Indeed, if you have your health, you can overcome anything, which was an important message last summer as we were all gripped to the Paralympic Games. ‘Harder than You Think’ was used to soundtrack the games, which was amazing. The soundtrack to our summer was this anthem for strength over adversity, which I’m sure you’re more than pleased to be associated with.
Yeah, it was mind-boggling and it was the UK’s gift back to us. We set out to explore other places to be our home, other than the United States, as far as physically, and I think that was the United Kingdom’s gift back to Public Enemy. Yeah, when the head producers of the Paralympics and Channel 4 TV – it was mind-boggling that the UK, and those particular powers that be would consider Public Enemy for that, and we thank you for that.
It fitted the footage perfectly…
It was one of those rare tracks, in 2006, that we recorded and it was brilliant from the first take [laughs] – not because of us, not because of me, but the track had a life of its own and the lyric had a life of its own and it was one of those rare instances where it was automatic from the recording. We enjoyed playing it, it was on our 2007 album and it became fun to play that song and it became a mainstay in our show before it became a record of note in the UK. Like the lyric says, we’re “Rolling Stones of the rap game, not braggin’. Lips bigger than Jagger, not saggin’!” We’re the Rolling Stones of the rap game and I felt that song was where we were at; it just fitted our 20th year, and it’s fitting that it came back to celebrate our 25th.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but about almost three years ago, the UK set fire to itself in a series of anti-political riots – some mindless, and directionless, but it was a definite example of fighting the power. Did you think we’d be still fighting the same fight against the powers that be all these years on? And where do you think the progression is?
The progression has been that I know that there’s an artist community and a hip hop community in the UK that understands that they can’t be the same way that American artists have been, because you’re dealing with a smaller concentration, so you have to be true to the art, and true to the people a little more. They can’t be escapists, like the big artists in the United States are still escapists; they don’t talk to the causes, they don’t talk to the people. You’ve got to be straight up, right and correct if you’re living in the smaller boundaries of the United Kingdom, and you’re living in a city like London, or Birmingham, or Manchester. You’re really gonna be there with each other, so you really can’t be fake, you know. You can’t really launch a big distance between you and them, I mean really, from London, to Brighton, to Manchester, to Norwich, to Glasgow in Scotland – it’s a lot of distance for the UK, it’s relative, but really it’s not a long distance ‘cause you can get there kinda quick. You can’t really get away from each other. In the United States, you can get away from people, you can go to places that are really far, that people never come to and you’re still within the United States. That kind of escapism has really buffered the artists from reality.
But the world felt so small when the Occupy London, Occupy Wall Street and all the other Occupy movements were happening at the same time, The world was tiny and united then; we were all interconnected, I guess by social media…
Oh yeah, ‘cause what has changed over the last few years especially is the advent of phones, pads, y’know, all these technical devices have changed the world. With this in mind, it’s like to be on top of technology, instead of it be on top of you, it’s been a major, major push in terms of people being webbed together. I mean before, it was like phones didn’t web people together in the best way; people were waiting to get their laptops, or they might be portable with their laptops, or at home with their desktops. The phones, and the pads, and the applications, Androids, iPhones have just sky rocketed the connectivity between human beings like never before. It’s also a landmark in the transferring of goods and recording; it’s been created by the world, but we mustn’t let it overtake us – don’t be overwhelmed by it, be aware of it. When you throw a social revolution at it, like Occupy, people can gather really, really fast with the same intent. That kind of instills a lot of fear in a lot of different people, for different reasons.
Do you think Public Enemy would have operated in the same way, would have come into our attention if you had the technology we had now, back then? Or would you have done it grass roots, the exact same way?
Well, we ushered in this century of revolution because we felt it was the necessary way for us to get out. We came in, revolutionising our outlet to the people, because the old ways would now allow us to, not on our own terms. We had to compromise our message, our music and our art, because the old way stifled our communication. Nowadays you have to accept that you’ve got to communicate with your base, but your base isn’t going to be millions – it might be hundreds of thousands – but the bigger difference is that you’ll be glued directly to them. I’m not saying you can’t do something that’s gonna touch millions of people, but that’s gonna come because of other things – television, radio, traditional media, traditional outlets. If you reach enough people, other apparatus will come along to enable you to reach more.
Public Enemy bring the noise to the UEA on April 24th. For tickets, go to www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk.
Somewhere along the journey of the PR juggernaut that ascended three girls from Watford to headline touring status, something seems to have been forgotten. Bewitched by the alchemy that their three harmonised voices procure, those in charge of The Staves lost sight of the fact that the girls – whilst worthy of support slots with Bon Iver, and Tom Jones, were not heaven-sent nymphs, or celestial bursts of sound – these are real girls, with their own sisterly humour, genuine and entertaining. Although as soon as you press play on the album again, you see how hard that was to convey, can it be true that such a sound comes out of… Watford?
How are you today Emily?
Jolly good thanks, jolly good. A bit cold…
Yes, it’s vile, isn’t it? We very much appreciate your time today, especially as you must be right in the middle of packing for SXSW.
I have just gone and bought lots of miniature deodorants and shampoos and all those things, which is the most fun part of packing to go anywhere, I think. Just having miniatures, it’s the best feeling!
I know what you mean; I never even wear nail varnish but I feel the need to buy nail varnish remover if I see a mini one, just for that very reason.
[LAUGHS] Completely! I’m completely the same; all this stuff I don’t need. Oh dear…
Are you quite a clinical packer now, because you’ve done your fair share of touring, haven’t you?
Yeah, there were a couple of times last year where I literally didn’t unpack between tours because we were only home for about five days, then we were off on the next one, so I was like, ‘Oh sod it, I’ll just leave it all’, then it comes to picking it back up again, I stick my toothbrush in it and leave.
You’ve been to SXSW before Emily – is it as amazing as it always sounds?
It is, but it’s bloody hard work, I have to say. It’s really like, chaos; the whole city is full of people and everyone’s carrying guitars and trying to shift gear around, so it can be really intense, but it’s really good fun as well. There’s great beer, great BBQ, Mexican food and music everywhere, everyone’s in party mode; you can’t move for music, there’s just music everywhere.
I was wondering whether some of your songs feel at home in the States, because you’ve definitely got a sympathy towards US musical heritage, in terms of music. Do the songs settle in well to the environment over there?
Yeah, I mean, we’ve had a really good reaction each time we’ve played in the States, which is lovely. I guess because we grew up listening to so much American music, you know – as most people do, because so much amazing music has come out of there – so obviously it’s influenced our writing. So I guess yeah, some of it might come across as an easy fit for America. Especially with harmonies, people tend to associate that very strongly with country music, or Americana at least, thinking from the 60s and 70s at least, with the Eagles and that kind of stuff. But I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference in reaction between there and the UK, but it’s definitely not an alien sound to them, so it’s cool.
You must settle in nicely, but you are obviously British girls – however, your songs don’t seem to fit the imagined landscape of urban Watford, or am I completely wrong there? Have I got the completely wrong impression of Watford?
[LAUGHS] Well actually I’m in Watford town centre at the moment and it’s beautiful… no, no, it’s definitely not beautiful! I don’t know, it’s a strange thing – where you come from – we’re just normal people; we didn’t grow up on a farm, singing on the porch or anything like that! But there is actually quite a creative scene here, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Daughter? We went to school with her, and Kyla La Grange, we went to school with her and Young Husband – they’re all over Radio 1 at the moment and we know those boys, so there’s quite a lot of music going on, and theatre and things like that as well, although you wouldn’t know it to walk through Watford ‘cause there’s just like, Yates and Lloyds Bars and Wetherspoons everywhere, McDonalds and all of that stuff. But there’s an undercurrent of real creativity, I think, going on in Watford and we were lucky enough to be part of that when we were growing up.
That’s good then, that’s all you need – an undercurrent is strong enough…
Yeah it is, although I don’t think there are enough venues here where you can play, in fact I think there’s one, so maybe the council need to sit up and take notice and give people more of a platform in Watford. But no, it’s a good place.
We’re very proud of the venue you’re coming to in Norwich this April, the Norwich Arts Centre, which you’ve played at before, I think –
– Yeah, I was just trying to remember who we were there with –
I think it was Joshua Radin –
– That’s right, yeah. That was our first ever tour and I remember the venue; it was beautiful – we had a really good show there. The acoustics are amazing; I remember we barely used the mics at all, we backed way off and for the room, it’s lovely.
Do you remember much of that show, or that tour? I imagine it seems like a distant memory nowadays.
God, it really does, yeah. I guess I remember snippets of it, but last year was such a haze of touring; I think we did 6 or 7 maybe. But I think the first one, we’ll always remember it. We were just sort of shoved into our mate’s car [laughs]… with nothing and we really didn’t know what we were doing, but it was great fun.
So those early tours, are they learning curves or is touring something that comes instinctively to a musician?
Well, I think that you definitely learn as you go. You learn that you can’t get hammered every night if you want to be at your best on the last show as well as you were on your first show, so you definitely learn to pace yourself – that’s definitely something that we learnt, although I wouldn’t say that we’re masters at it quite yet.
Yeah, none of us ever really learn that, do we? We’re intelligent creatures, but we never really evolve beyond that.
[Laughs] No! Know your limits! But er, I don’t know, it’s a wonderful thing; some bands feel very at home on the road and then some bands are more about being in the studio and I think we’re trying to find a healthy balance really. We’ve always lived for playing live; you finish a song and the first thing you want to do is take it out on the road and play it in front of an audience and see how it works with the other songs in the set and that kind of stuff. We absolutely love travelling around and I think even travelling in itself is a very inspiring thing to do… I dunno, just eating up the miles and travelling hours and hours in the van and changing landscapes, even if it’s the most dreary landscape you can possibly imagine, you still get into this sort of trance and start thinking about things. And the band that you’re with, you end up having these crazy relationships where you’re in each other’s pockets for three weeks, then never see each other again… All of these things are kind of our life now and it’s wonderful; I wouldn’t have it any other way now.
You have a real sensory overload when you go somewhere you’ve never been before as well – all your senses are heightened…
You’ve put in your time as support acts, and you’re so deserving of the headline tours now, but there’s been a couple of invaluable support slots you’ve had along the way. To me, as a Welsh girl, Tom Jones is a god – what did the silver fox teach you, do you think, about being on the road, or the industry?
Well, our Mum’s Welsh, so we’re happy to share that connection with him too, I have to say. He’s wonderful; his energy is incredible for anyone, let alone someone of his age, so I’d have to say that the joy of singing surrounds him. I think sometimes you can forget the joy of what you do when it all gets a bit business-y and you have to do accounting and all that crap, but he’s like a shining light, saying ‘it’s all about the music.’ Yeah, that’s what keeps him going, I mean, I’ve seen him do 13-hour straight singing, pretty much. I guess that’s what he’s taught us – just to enjoy it and enjoy it while you’re on stage and everything about it with the whole weight of your being behind it. Find the truth in what you’re singing.
It was fantastic to see that his musical integrity was still in tact, coming out with the ‘Praise and Blame’ album. It was a joy to see him come out with something of that quality…
Yeah, to still find something fresh, to still be excited about it after having sung for so many years, it’s inspiring, I think.
Your mum must have been beside herself with excitement…
She was, yeah [laughs]! We took her to this little showcase that we were doing with him and he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to meet your mother,’ so we introduced them afterwards and she was like, ‘oh my God!’, which was cool!
Now much is spoken of your voices, obviously, and how well they intertwine with each other, but I’ve had the album a while now and what I’ve been trying to do is pick apart your voices because I think it’s interesting that where you can, each of your voices has its own character. That’s something that you must recognise in yourselves, and how do you use that?
Yeah, that’s a really strange one because when we sing together, they’re so similar, like when we’re recording I find it difficult to tell who’s singing what – like the other day, we were recording for this demo or something and I was like, ‘oh no, I’m singing the wrong note there’, so went back and re-recorded it and it still sounded wrong, then I was like, ‘oh, that’s not me!’ I was listening to it so convinced that it was, then I was like, ‘ah, Milly, you were wrong!’ So that’s really weird; when we do sing on our own, like you say, I do think we have really different voices. We tend to sit in the same place, like Milly and Jess tend to do the higher harmonies and I do the lowest – that’s where our ranges are at – but then when we swap that around, like on ‘Gone Tomorrow’ I sing the highest harmony, I dunno… it seems to bring a different quality to it, somehow. We did try it with Milly singing the highest one and it just sounded different, I mean, neither one is better, but I think it’s really interesting to play around with that and play with where we wouldn’t naturally go to, to create something interesting. The vocal arrangements are something that we’re always working on, and we try not to go for the easiest, trying to push ourselves to do something interesting and I think the important thing is trying to ration the harmonies; you don’t want them to be overkill. You want those moments where they come together to be special, to highlight something particular, like a lyrical moment in the song, or… We try and just use them as instruments. I think when we started out, just doing covers, we’d break them down to either just a capella, or with very minimal guitar, so we’d have to sing the guitar section, or string section and we’ve always seen our voices as instruments. It’s just another kind of arrangement to go in with everything else.
I’m sure you girls have got a real back catalogue of covers that you’ve done over the years that your family say, ‘oh, do that one for us –
Are there old favourites that you like to revisit with the family?
Oh yeah; our parents used to sing with some of their friends, and they used to sing ‘Helplessly Hoping’ by Crosby, Stills and Nash and we all sing that and the guitar comes out if we’re at home together. And Joni Mitchell, what did we sing of hers? ‘Carey’ and ‘Case of You’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and all of that stuff; Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and oh, Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’, but the trio version that Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt used to do, on the piano. Oh God, loads!
I bet it’s quite indulgent, singing those songs after you’ve been singing your own for some time –
– It’s great, great fun, yeah.
Now I do mean this in the nicest possible way: I’ve had trouble sleeping recently, and your album has become the album I put on to get myself into a sleep-like state, very quickly –
– You phrased that very well, thank you!
I do mean it as a compliment though, I really do!! It’s a silencer, it silences the brain and draws you in to the narrative. Did you ever imagine the album being listened to in different environments, and was there a particular place that it would resonate best?
Well, good question; I don’t know if I did think about that really but I suppose that everyone’s a music fan, and listens to music in different ways. Most music I listen to is through my headphones, quite a personal experience of music, but not always, obviously. I don’t know; I think it’s quite a driving album somehow, particularly songs like ‘Eagle Song’ and ‘In the Long Run’ remind me of being on the road and things like that. But quite a few people say they listen to it to kind of – I don’t know – relax them, and at first it’s like ‘Oh, our album sends you to sleep – fine!’ but then I think it’s really nice, there’s something very primal about being read to as a child, or lullabies, being sung to, is a deeply comforting experience and I think you can get that from an album. There are certain albums that I love, like getting ready for bed, that – I dunno, transport you somewhere, to a safe place and put you to rest from the cares of the day, so I am glad…!
Oh good! I think it’s because if you take a song like, ‘Facing West’, it’s taking you somewhere else, away from your day. There’s a good sense of travelling to it, but I can do the travelling from my own bed.
Exactly, travel in your mind!
I better not drive with it on now, because it might have become a sonic indicator for bedtime, like a sleep trigger!
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t want to be responsible for any crashes!
Now we’re very much looking forward to having you in Norwich. You’ve become famous for your almost deathly silent audiences, but actually what makes the perfect audience for you? What can we bring to the party?
Oh blimey, well we’ve been so lucky with the audiences who’ve come to see us and they’ve generally been a goof balance between vocal, and up for having a bit of a laugh, then very respectful and quiet when we’re performing… Oh, what would I wish for? More of the same! Although, we played in a church once and that can be, I don’t know… people are so quiet that it’s kind of unnerving, you know. So I hope people enjoy it, and do whatever they need to do to enjoy music. I go to gigs on my own whenever I can, because I hate being with people; I think it’s such a personal experience, to watch live music, so even if I’m with people, I just sort of move away! So whatever people need to do to enjoy it, they are free to do.
It’s a very reverent building, being a former church, but I read that you sometimes put little curiosities of your own around the space… something to do with Jesus riding a T-Rex? I hope that makes its way to Norwich.
Yeah, erm, yeah… we have quite a childish sense of humour and when you’re on tour it becomes this weird school trip vibe and you pick up these jokes that you think are hilarious; you pick up oddities and you kind of create your own living room on stage every night, so by the end of the tour, you’ve got lamps and telephones and all sorts of things on stage with you. We just try and inject a bit of fun into it for ourselves.
Good, I like that! Maybe we could bring some curiosities of our own to the gig, see what we’ve got lying around Norwich…
Oh! That would be more than welcome! Anything weird would be great. Get Steve Coogan along.
The Staves come to the Norwich Arts Centre on April 20th. Read the uncut version of this interview on Outlineonline.co.uk.