Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sheffield's finest

An interview with Richard Hawley

In the 80s and 90s Sheffield gained a reputation as the birthplace of some some truly amazing bands. The Human League, Def Leppard (ok, maybe NOT quite them), Cabaret Voltaire, ABC and Pulp were for a time able to give bigger and more celebrated cities a run for their money.

Today's torchbearer is by far my new favourite artist, Richard Hawley. He stands out from today's crop of bands. People have been talking about a renaissance of indie and guitar music but, since the Noughties, I've personally been left a bit cold. Except, that is, for Richard Hawley.

His records sleeves alone can tell a story like perhaps only The Smiths' could. And the music...well, that's another thing altogether. Sparse piano, shy, shimmering, beautiful guitars, stunning arrangements and a wink and a half of the atmosphere of 50s rockabilly. After attending his fantastic gig at Sala Apolo, Barcelona, I decided to ask him a few questions. He politely agreed and here's what he said.

- I'm one of those people who believe artwork and record sleeves can be as significant a factor in making you fall in love with a band. Your imagery seems really meaningful - which is fascinating. Not many current bands can boast the same. Have you always been into records layouts and sleeve designs?

I agree. I don't think it's quite as important as the music, as you can listen to music and fall in love with it without the artwork, but it helps define and artist/band and helps to separate them from the pack if they are brave enough. I have, since my earliest bands, been very much interested in the artwork to covers of singles and albums, as well as all the poster, etc. I like things to have continuity if and wherever possible. I have no formal training at all, but this isn’t important if you have a definite idea of how you want things to look. I have always liked a more journalistic approach to most of my sleeves. Almost like a snapshot rather than something posed, although the newer stuff was more thought out. In the past I would just choose a location I liked and then just fire away.

- Can you think of any sleeves that had a certain impact on you in the past?

I like sleeves from the 50's and 60's, no surprises there, I suppose. I also like a lot of graphic design of the early 20th century. I like hand set lettering and simple but effective design. No clutter, just to the point.

- Do you think the age of internet and downloading can put an end to all that? Records are quickly giving way to 'invisible' MP3 tracks?

Well, it's hard to say, isn't it? But I think it's odd that everyone assumes that the entire world is glued to the internet. They aren’t. At a time when record companies are panicking and using the internet more, which to me makes music more unreal and remote, I think it's MORE important than ever to be real and available as an artist. Especially live; that's the real test. A lot of stuff that's available won't translate to a live audience. I don’t think the internet will be the death of music or indeed record companies. It will be the death of the performer because it takes years to learn that craft.

- You once said your political views are "Jurassic Labour". What do you make of 10 years of Tony Blair? And can we expect any change at all now with Gordon Brown at the helm, or is it just unnecessary delusion?

My views are from the perspective of being a steel worker's son from a generation of men who were abandoned by ALL their leaders. I have never trusted politicians and trust them even less now. They only care about their own careers, they don’t give a shit about the consequences of their actions, no matter what they say. Blair and Brown are just another pair of lying monkeys on the vine.

- Do you ever look back and miss being "just" the member, however significant, of a band, instead of chief singer/songwriter/lyricist and the one carrying the torch?

All members of a band are important. I used to carry a lot in Pulp; I handled a lot of the dynamics, but it was all done quietly at the back, no problem to me. In my situation now I had to be the singer…although I did try and find someone to sing the songs but couldn’t…cos no-one else wanted to, or could actually sing them the way I heard them in my head. All ways of making music are valid and I have enjoyed all past and hopefully future ways I have and will play music. It's not an issue to me.

- The Barcelona gig. I heard a few guys shouting "Roy Orbison!" Flattered, or does it piss you off a bit?

They are at the wrong gig. I don’t really mind. It's better than them shouting "George Michael", innit?

- You're one of the few artists I can listen to without literally skipping a track. Each of your records is remarkably consistent from start to finish. The last two albums though are just in a league of their own. Which songs are you most proud of?

That’s very nice of you to say, so thanks. I don’t have favourites really… I like the ones I haven’t written yet.

- 'Tonight The Streets Are Ours'. There's a line in which you sing: "Those people they got nothing in their souls/ And they make our TVs blind us/ From our visions and our goals". Are you referring to, by any chance, the current state of UK telly, megasaturated, as it is with celebrity pap and' realities'? In any case, what's your take on them?

That’s exactly what I am referring to. It's so depressing! I have decided to just disengage with it all. I would rather read a book or go for a drive than even look at the TV when it's off. It's the lunatics' lantern, my friend…

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Living the American Dream

New York, New York….let me be a part of it….

I always wanted to be a part of it, so when I finally got the chance to live The Manhattan Dream, I said good bye to ole Europe, to my friends and family, packed my two suitcases, and took off from Roissy Airport in Paris on a cold and rainy Saturday morning about two months ago.
I landed in JFK International Airport seven hours later, filled with that feeling that certainly all new immigrants get whenever they arrive somewhere: excitement, fear of the unknown, and the “what the fuck am I doing here???” feeling.

Anything to declare?

Even if Ellis Island was shut down 50 years ago, the immigration process in the US has not changed much really, merely has it become more modern nowadays. You still need to stand in line for hours together with other would-be immigrants, and instead of checking for head lice and infectious diseases, you would be submitted to full background check by the Immigration Authorities. After cross-checking your VISA information with FBI and Immigration Services databases, you finally get a “Welcome to the US!” from the Immigration Officer, and you are finally ready to move on with your new life…or at least that’s what you would think…

What’s your SSN?

I heard that question a dozen times a day upon my arrival, and quickly understood that without your holy social security number, basically you are just a ghost in this country. No SSN, coupled with the fact that you have no credit history in the US means that no one will trust you: you cannot open a bank account, you cannot rent an apartment, even subscribing a cell phone contract is impossible.

Your broker is your best friend.

First thing to do when you want to settle into a new place is obviously finding somewhere to live. Luckily enough, my firm offered me one month free housing to give me time to find my own place. Should not be too hard, I thought, I am in New York, housing situation cannot be worse than London or Paris…how naïve I was…

I have met all types of brokers the city has to offer: the charming American guy that is REALLY interested in what’s happening in Europe (yeah, right!), the Philippine broker that understands PERFECTLY what you are going through (been there done that sort of), the aggressive one (I’m telling you this is really great value, a steal, you should really go for it….and I’m like, yeah but still it’s $2,000 for a basement studio….with no windows!!!), and also the one that couldn’t care less (oh no SSN, sorry can’t help you then, but call me when you finally have your number! Good luck!).

After having met with five or six brokers and visited about twenty apartments, I finally understood that it would be difficult to find an apartment that was bigger than a closet, not in a dodgy part of the city and not infested with mice, cockroaches or other unwelcome guests. The 30th apartment didn’t look too bad, so tired of searching, I finally decided to go for that one. Just to hear that without a SSN, they couldn’t give me the apartment…unless I was willing to pay 12 months rent upfront! I could go on with four more stories like this one.

I’m not a part of it yet, but I’m getting there.

Once I was able to sort out my housing situation (I consider myself lucky with a 6th floor no elevator 1-bedroom in a nice area of the city) things started becoming much easier. 4 weeks after my arrival I finally received the Holy Grail SSN in my mail. I was finally a legal alien! Here, small things like that really can make your day!

I have started becoming a true New Yorker:

I am walking much faster, I understand that one NY minute is much more valuable than a minute anywhere else.

Tourists annoy me, coz they don’t walk fast enough.

I am not shocked by the 1-800-COPSHOT stickers anymore (it‘s the number you are supposed to call when you have been witness to a cop being shot).

I am not afraid of heights anymore.

I am starting to think that NY is the center of the universe.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Daft Punk is Playing at My House

Three reasons why electronic music is not just a load of old noise.

Justice "The Cross"; Simian Mobile Disco "Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release"; Soulwax "Remixes"

Annoying, repetitive, chavvy. That's what I used to think of electronic music until someone recommended a new track she'd just downloaded. The song was by a bald man from Paris who called himself Vitalic and was called 'My Friend Dario'. It started with the noise of a person undoing a car door, slamming it, and followed with a rather creepy disembodied voice rhythmically chatting about a bloke who downs bottles of drink before he drives his 'super make of car'. At first, my initial reaction was one of confusion, but the more I listened to it the more I grew strangely intrigued. After the fifth listen, I was hooked. This was the start of my fascination with electronic music.

Three albums that have made an enormous impression this year are from three rather fantastic DJ ensembles. Belgian remixers and ex-indie kids Soulwax (Soulwax Remixes), the magnifique French duo Justice (The Cross) and last but by no means least, lunatic acid house revivalists Simian Mobile Disco (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release)

Very personally, Justice's The Cross reminded me exactly why you can fall in love with electronic music in the first place. Probably one of the most eagerly anticipated debut albums of all time, it's packed with gems such as the single 'D.A.N.C.E', and addictive disco-strings-and-bass laced anthem 'Dvno'. Whereas weaker tracks such as 'Phantom Pt.2' sometimes remind you of your little brother pissing about with a set of decks whilst gargling Listerine into a microphone, it still is a classic album. Whilst The Cross is a good choice for electro-virgins, Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release by Simian Mobile Disco is probably best left to hardened fans. Nonetheless, it's an interesting example of the new direction of dance music at the moment. It begins with absorbing, terrifying track 'Sleep Deprivation', which sets the tone for the rest of this brilliantly unapproachable album. Even so, there are a few gentler tracks such as 'Wooden', while 'Tits & Acid' should please the old-school-house crowd with it's squidgy bass and throbbing beats.

Finally, Soulwax's admirable remix album (with its title nothing less than an 104-word paragraph, so forgive me for rebranding it as such) is a cd-rack-essential for any self-respecting electro fan. Boasting two CDs, one mixed, one unmixed for your pleasure, it contains the very best of their B-side-mixes. Standout tracks include their exceptional remix of Klaxon's 'Gravity's Rainbow' and their unusual rework of Muse's 'Muscle Museum' (so weird it works) although I doubt any Ladytron fan will ever be able to forgive them for the foul mess that is their mix of Seventeen. If it ain't broke don't fix it, as they say.

Ten essential electro tracks to download:

1. Shit Disco: OK (Acid Girls Remx)
2. Justice: Dvno
3. Daft Punk: Technologic (Vitalic Remx)
4. Justice vs. Simian: Never Be Alone
5. SebastiAn: Ross Ross Ross
6. Simian Mobile Disco: Sleep Deprivation
7. Vitalic: La Rock 01
8. Mason: Exceeder
9. LCD Soundsystem: Daft Punk is Playing at My House
10. M.I.A: 10 Dollar

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Living the dream?

Good or damaged goods, they just won't go away.

I wonder if this is what she wanted. It's been two years since she became the self-appointed spokeswoman for the generation of wannabe-celebs-for-the-sake-of-it desperados. She literally exploded onto our TV screens in a flurry of "Oh My Gawd!" and never ending blonde hair, becoming a gossip mag favourite ever since. Chantelle Preston (nee Houghton) was the unlikely winner of Celebrity Big Brother 2006. Not a celebrity herself on entering the house, with the assistance of Max Clifford she had to pretend that she was a member of imaginary girl-band Kandy Floss and fool the other celebrity housemates (including Pete Burns, George Galloway, Jodie Marsh and singer Preston from The Ordinary Boys, who she later went on to marry) that she was one of them.

A healthy, happy-go-lucky Essex-girl, her 'career' went from strength to strength soon after. In succession, she harvested a publishing deal for a biography, her own TV programme (both entitled 'Chantelle: Living the Dream') and also a regular column for monthly gossip rag Closer. Meanwhile, six months was all Chantelle and Preston's marriage lasted. Their separation was announced in a flood of publicity and 'are they or aren't they together?' headlines.
Clearly a trying time for any person, celeb magazines went on to pummel down our throats shocking photos of Chantelle looking emaciated and skeletal while doing her shopping, scandalising her close friendship with ex-anorexic and BB '07 housemate Nikki Grahame and henceforth hinting on Bulimia and vomiting sessions.
It seems that these days of Celebmania, no matter if you're a successful star or one who's hit rock bottom, you'll snatch headlines and front pages (even more so for the latter. Take Amy Winehouse for example). A recent issue of More! magazine quite pathetically cheated their readers by marketing their Chantelle 'rock bottom' story as an exclusive. You would expect to read first hand accounts off the disgraced celebrity herself or her closest pals. Instead, this was simply a rehash of read-it-all-before comments from 'friends' of hers ("She's my friend and I love her but she really needs to sort her life out, innit...") and photos that had been printed numerous times beforehand, ad nauseam.

The Venus De Milo of Z-list 'celebrity' Kerry "Mum's-gone-to-Iceland" Katona is another fine example of 15-minutes-of-fame gone claustrophobically wrong. The one time Atomic Kitten singer was once the darling of the non-entity magazines. She married vacuum-packed good boy Bryan McFadden, spawned two kids and was all the time praised for coming through her care home background to find happiness and success. Instantly, she turned into the evil smoking-whilst-pregnant-coke-snorting-Warrington-Chav-divorcee. She married again, amongst more revelations, this time that her new husband was once a drug-dealer. Next, she was held a knifepoint whilst her house was burgled and, overnight, brave Kerry was hurled back on the gossip-mag circus and handed her own column in OK! magazine. No week goes by without a 'shocking- exclusive' feature about her.

When you have nothing to offer the general public, no talent, no skills other than marrying another talentless Z-list celebrities and taking the odd decent photo, the press that nurtured you at first will slowly, painfully devour you at the first signs of distress. When you're no longer part of The Golden Couple or the sweet, slightly simple girl-next-door image wears off, the flap simply opens up to darker, more malicious types of publicity that have potentially destructive effects. How else are the hordes of those vacant, shallow magazines supposed to survive otherwise?

Is turning into one of these self-induced wrecks really living the dream?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rule Britannia

Berlin after 3 months. An update.

My first three months here have been less dramatic than one would have expected, considering I have been experiencing a deep rooted angst about moving abroad for the past 3 years. A fear that lay buried until the prospect of moving to Frankfurt reared its ugly head. Anyone who knows me knows that I denied Frankfurt my presence for the next academic year, instead deciding to hold out for the Holy Grail of German cities: Berlin. My feelings at the start of my German degree revolved around the musings that after spending two years away from home in Birmingham (and I use 'away from home' loosely), I would be ready for the next step in the adventure known as life - doing one accross the channel to Bonny Deutschland.

In reality however,I was only ever 20 minutes away from my family, and about 10 minutes away from my brother and nephews. I have never been further, nor did I want to be. That was how I liked it. I found myself comfy and settled and totally content in Birmingham - those sentiments only securing my doubts & resentment of leaving British soil. But then, after 2 years of Grammar-based turmoil I finally took the plunge and signed my 12 month legally-binding contract with an aloof, long-haired, wiry looking German man, for a 2 bedroomed flat in the heart of Berlins art scene.

In theory this all sounds perfect, and it really is. But I have come to a certain conclusion that places can be incredible and amazing and inspiring and life-fulfilling. But for me, the place is not charachterised by the monuments or the shopping districts (although I am partial to the latter!), it's solely about the people you surround yourself with. In short, I miss England. Not for its pathetic excuse for public transport. Not for the BullRing or Topshop. Not for the £1.99 fry ups in Asda. I miss the god blessed people!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Death of a ´60s bridge. In Brum.

In his excellent book Ghosts of Spain (Faber and Faber, 2006), Guardian correspondent Giles Tremlett argues that Spain's obsession with modernity entails "a certain disrespect, even contempt, for the old". And so, the story goes, a remarkable heritage of old buildings, churches and fortresses are being neglected or even pulled down for the benefit of office blocks and contemporary architecture. Tremlett adds that, from Madrid to Valencia, Seville to Bilbao, even the 'old new', that is to say modernist buildings, are being swept away.

His work is distinctly part of that family tree of books penned by Brits abroad as they dissect Dark Hearts, Merdes and Ghosts crowding their adoptive countries. All have one thing in common, that is stoical failure to keep hold of old sayings like "pot calling kettle black" or "look who's talking". And, just perhaps, Tremlett could do with a quick trip to Birmingham, the epitome of a city ransacked by office blocks and battery apartments. Throughout the 50s and 60s, stunning old buildings like 1861's Wycliffe Baptist Church on Bristol Street, the old Central library (1863), the Woodman pub on Easy Row and dozens more were all criminally torn down, paving the way for 'gems' like Paradise Forum and Lee Bank. The result is a Birmingham that earned its fame as the capital of concrete and distinct lack of pre-WWII heritage.

You'd have thought the lesson's been learnt. If anything, one could argue, Brum's vast collection of 60s architecture is testament to a specific architectural drive. Although debatable, it still harbours a certain charm. Yet, look at today's never-ending slew of demolition sites dotted around the city. I understand the need to improve and modernise and few would doubt Birmingham was in need of a bit of slap. But it's difficult to discern any notion of communal improvement when the old, glorious Museum of Science and Industry turned into fertile land for yet another urban splash apartment block. Or think of John Madin's Birmingham Post & Mail modernist jewel ending up worse for wear in last year's encounter with the planners' wrecking ball. Not least, there are increasing rumours that the Central Library is to go - yet again- pledging a legacy of a massive building site right in the middle of the city.

They don't restore in Birmingham, they bulldoze. Eddies no.8 mysteriously self-combusted and the strategically-located Flapper too may soon make way for more overpriced city-centre-living. The victims of Brum's knock-down frenzy are, simply, too many to mention. But it broke my heart to see (and film) my favourite pedestrian bridge- the unique 60s flyover that used to spiral across the two sides of Smallbrook Queensway-from Snobs to the Mailbox, ending up in a pile of rubble.

You may need Quicktime to view the video.