A London-based band ("who looked like they had crawled out of a German squat in the mid-70s") with strong Brighton connections, the five-piece Toy have just released their third album, it’s another great slice of psychedelic rock, indie-pop infused with elements of the cinematic, krautrock and shoegaze. "We’re just shooting a video in our mate’s house for ‘Another Dimension’ which will be the next single off the record," says Tom Dougal, frontman and guitarist.
One of Brighton's best kept secrets, Fujiya & Miyagi's fusion of expansive, experimental and multi-faceted krautrock, electro-pop, Italo-disco, and post-punk music has seen them find fanbases around the globe, particularly in Europe and America. Formed in the late 90s by David Best and Steve Lewis, it wasn't until they released their first record in 2002 that people started to hear about them. Since then they have released five albums, and are currently in the middle of releasing a set of three EPs, which will be put on one record in the spring of 2017. The founder members and core of Fujiya & Miyagi are Steve Lewis and David Best.
The vinyl packaging for the first EP is a custom made triple gatefold sleeve, so that the other two EPs can be slotted in. And in March of next year, the EPs will be released as one, for CD and download.
Steve: The third EP will be out about March, along with the album. At the moment the EPs are only on vinyl, and can be streamed. Not CD or downloading.
David: The idea was to encourage people to collect the records and have all three together, on vinyl, which we both love.
Steve: Similar things are happening in the music technology world that I love. Synthesisers went digital, went VST in computers. There's loads of them. They're all really great. But now loads of manufacturers are doing hardware synths again, doing newer versions of what there was in the 70s. Everyone wants those, because they are tactile. It's the same as vinyl.
David: It makes things a little bit wonky sometimes. You don't want everything to be too precise.
You want your music energetic and embracing both the traditional with the modern, right? Crystal Fighters are a band with a global aesthetic, who learn from some of humanity’s ancient folk traditions, and combine that with modern technology to make music that sounds like the here and now, and that emits an obvious lust for life. They like to party, to give out the good vibes. But recent events dictate that there is sadness and introspection along the way, following the death of their close friend and drummer Andrea Marongiu.
The core trio of singer Sebastian ‘Bast’ Pringle, guitar and txalaparta player Graham Dickson and multi-instrumentalist Gilbert Vierich have spent the last couple of years exploring the planet, reconnecting with nature and learning to play more traditional instruments, and this, along with the sudden passing away of Marongiu, larger informs their third album, Everything Is My Family.
“We travelled a lot more, writing for it (the new album), took time off when we could to go on longer trips,” says Sebastian Pringle, on a break whilst rehearsing for the upcoming tour. “I went to research in the jungles of Central America, and Graham went to live up in a mountain up in Maine, and then Peru.
“We had spent a lot of time together on the road, and we felt we needed some time to experience life a bit, separate from the band, and then come back and record together. Last time (for 2013’s Cave Rave) was quite concentrated writing together. I lived in the Basque Country for six months, and then later that year went to Central America and Mexico for six months. We lived in a tent or little huts and sat around a campfire writing songs, learning traditional songs from many cultures, which was a new approach for me. Normally I would be making beats on computers and adding little riffs. This was more learning this body of work I had never heard before: Bolivian folk songs, Brazilian lambada, African songs. This was very influential in terms of the melodies and singing.
“I had been to Mexico for shows, but I’m a vegan and I’m interested in the fruits and vegetables that are grown out there. Initially that was one of the reasons to go. And I like Spanish the language, and wanted to learn the language. And I like tropical climates! It was definitely worth it, an amazing experience, living in a much simpler way. It feels very complete.”
The French have a word for it. Dilettante. In the past the British would sometimes sneer at the mention of a dilettante. Possibly because it is a French word (there are many here who will never quite understand or see eye-to-eye with our cousins across the water) but also to them, it suggests ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Now, we generally embrace one who has a well-rounded portfolio of skills and abilities, that can often inform and enhance each other. Someone like Joan Wasser. Someone who can not only play a mean violin, but also guitars and piano. She can write songs, too, can sing like a veritable bird, and knows her way around a studio to the extent that she produced Scottish folk band Lau’s album of 2015, The Bell That Never Rang. That part of her CV should tell you everything. Not in the least known for playing folk music, Wasser nevertheless has, throughout her musical life, embraced a keen musical curiosity, that allied to a seemingly insatiable lust for life, has seen her form countless collaborations, try out new things, and test the overlapping waters of musical genres and cross-fertilisations.
Indeed, she started out as a classical performer, picking up the piano and violin at an early age, eventually going to Boston University to study music, and performing with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. “I was very interested in studying classically”, explains Wasser. "I love the music and needed to see if I could really excel. Excel I did but I wasn’t interested in making classical music all my life. I learned that while in school. It felt very limiting. I was never the student who wanted to learn the Beethoven concerto, I was the one who wanted to play the chamber music that had just been written by the composition students at my school; I wanted to play the new stuff, not pieces that have, in my opinion, already been perfected by the masters. When I was in school I took every gig I could and began making pop music, playing with all kinds of ensembles, improvising. I started playing in bands and with artists that I would learn so much from and play with for years like Mary Timony (who now fronts Ex-Hex) and The Dambuilders.” In short, Wasser wanted to “bridge the gap between the guitar and the bass and play the violin really loud.”
One of the most remarkable music stories of the last few years has been the exponential rise of the Nottingham-based duo Sleaford Mods. You may have seen them. There’s Jason Williamson spitting rhymes and raps while Andrew Fearn stands there, pint in hand, head-nodding to the beats he has made on his laptop. He doesn’t do anything except click the next song. He’s done all his work. It’s Williamson though who gives it 110% live on stage. A force of nature, with a fine line in footwear, it’s a miracle his voice isn’t shot such is the near-shouting vitriol, sarcasm, wit and anger in his heavily-accented outpourings. Not only are the lyrics by turns acerbic, sarcastic, rude and poetic, like a more angry and less dry John Cooper Clarke, they are utterly contemporary in their personal dissections of the socio-political-cultural English landscape. They have also ‘made’ it in their 40s, a rare feat in the youth focussed world of rock'n'roll; whereby if you haven't already made it by the time you're 30, then it is extremely unlikely you ever will. But Sleaford Mods aren't your normal rock'n'roll act and these aren't normal times. “Yeah, it is a bit weird,” says Jason. “It still winds people up. Which is good, I suppose. People rubbish it or look down their noses at it, you know. Because we’ve tied it in with this political thing, it gets people’s backs up if they think you’re giving out half-educated information in your songs. It can wind people up to say the least. It’s a tough one. What do you do? Some people are never fucking happy.”
Drawing upon a rich heritage of British spoken word music that includes legends such as The Fall, John Cooper-Clarke, Shaun Ryder, Ian Dury, The Streets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and bearing more than a passing affinity with another contemporary socio-politico poetess, Kate Tempest; Sleaford Mod's hard, fuck you, minimalist electro-funk has energised and excited old punks, new punks and music lovers in general. They sum it up well by calling what they do ‘electronic munt minimalist punk-hop rants for the working class’, with Williamson rapping about unemployment, criticism of modern working life, criticism of celebrities and pop culture, capitalism and society in general.
And like the aforementioned Mark E. Smith (The Fall) et al the words and messages are given more life and meaning by virtue of the accent of Williamson. In this case it’s a profanity strewn, decidedly working class, East Midland's voice. You can't imagine a Middle Englander having anywhere near the same impact. It's all in the delivery and the sound: a razor-sharp vocal dissection that amplifies the meaning; the subject matter therein, Williamson’s grimly hilarious lyrics exploring the dark underbelly of austerity-hit Britain, often via the medium of random abuse launched at politicians and celebrities including Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, Russell Brand, Noel Gallagher, Blur and David Cameron. As he sings on ‘Rupert Trousers’, off the Key Markets album of last year: “Idiots visit submerged villages in 200 pound wellies, spitting out fine cheese made by the tool from Blur. Even the drummer’s a fucking MP. Fuck off you cunt, sir.” As Williamson has said, his lyrics reflect the rage that goes on in his head. “That's why Sleaford Mods is. Definitely."
But although the likes of contemporary urban punk poets act as reference points, Sleaford’s are in no way copyists, despite the minimalist repetitious nature of the music, a feature of bands like The Fall. Fearn’s music is sometimes stripped down to the basics of just very simple looped drum and bass, often relentless, but usually imbibed with a foot-tapping rhythm, somehow underscoring the venomous outpourings that come from Williamson’s mouth, these oscillate between direct rages against the cold realities of surviving (“I worked my dreams off for two bits of ravioli and a warm bottle of Smirnoff”), the stream-of consciousness outbursts that talk of shitty consumerism, shitty people and shitty lives, and some angry politics here and there. “The loneliness of life, the alienation, the concrete is being more and more drawn in. There isn't a lot of fresh air,” says Williamson about his general feelings on life for the many. “There's not a lot of blue skies. People assume that you are political, but all we are doing is sounding off. You've got a responsibility to be intelligent, and to think about things, be thoughtful and compassionate.”
When I was a gig promoter, attempting to carve out a little patch of territory in this most trying and financially ill-rewarding of careers. I had the pleasure of 'entertaining' Damien Rice, who was the tour support for Kathyrn Williams in 2001. A young singer songwriter who was developing a buzz in the still print and radio dominated pre-internet days, Rice was with Lisa Hannigan, his girlfriend and singing partner at the time. Having only hooked up earlier that year, and looking like they had just walked off a photoshoot for a bohemian fashion spread, they were inseparable that night, totally in-step with each other, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, like lovers in the glow of a new relationship. I initially mistook Hannigan for just his girlfriend. But when they did their short set, to an audience largely unaware of them (after all, they were here to see Kathyrn Wiliams), it was plain to hear that she had a wonderful, soulful and angelic voice all her own. I remind Lisa that she and Damien received the princely sum of £50 for their supporting role that night. "I'm sure we were very grateful for that £50!" she laughs.
Their relationship proved to be both fruitful and tumultuous. Rice's stock went through the roof with his debut album of 2002, which Hannigan appeared on, as she did on his follow up 9, singing lead vocals on '9 Crimes'. But on March 26, 2007, Damien Rice fired Hannigan from his band just as they were about to go on stage in Munich, Germany. Rice announced that his professional relationship with Lisa Hannigan had ended, saying it, "has run its creative course." "It wasn’t altogether pleasant," Lisa has said. "I wasn’t very happy. I’m sure people can relate to that, but you mightn’t actually resign. You don’t realise how hot the water is until you get out and so being fired ended up just being the best thing.”
One of my strongest musical memories when I lived in London was going to the University of London Union (ULU) to see Swans. I had heard some of their music via early albums such as Creep, Filth, Cop, Holy Money and Children of God. There was something disturbingly alluring about their albums and their artwork. But that did not prepare me for the seismic wall-shattering, chest pounding music that emanated from the stage, by a band that didn’t look concerned or indeed particularly excited by the almighty racket they were making, such was their mean and moody demeanour. The packed audience, minus those who could not take it and left (which legend has it, many have done over the years), took it in; swaying and nodding to the heavy, ponderous and loud rhythms, many eventually finding their own inner ‘bliss’. Founder and frontman Michael Gira calls Swans’ music, “soul-lifting and body-destroying”. For me, it was deeply primal and not a little uncomfortable. It was quite unlike any other musical experience I had had up to that point, and indeed ever since.
Fast forward to 2014, and Swans are gracing The Old Market stage in Hove, a fitting finale to the Drill:Festival, a moveable city-orientated festival organised by post-punk legends Wire, who joined Swans on stage at the end of their set for Wire’s ‘Drill’ song. Could the sound system cope? Would some of the notoriously fussy local residents complain? 25-years on from that ULU gig, Swans were still delivering their music at ear-splitting levels. Sole survivor of the original Swans formation, Michael Gira, was still stalking the stage, subtly orchestrating the band, and coming across like a deeply immersed and less bug-eyed Iggy Pop. Not bad for a 60-year-old, “I was a huge fan of Wire,” says Gira. “I must have listened to those first three records hundreds of times. That was a great honour. It's not something I would want to make a habit of (appearing on stage with another band), but just because them being who they are, and they requested it, of course! I was a bit ambivalent about it while we were doing it, I wasn’t sure it was translating.” I tell him that in my opinion, it did. “I’m happy it did,” he responds in that deep, and measured baritone of his.
Even 25-years later, many in the audience, perhaps not used to a Swans performance, could not take it and drifted off, to rest their ears and ponder what the hell was that they just saw and heard. If you are not prepared or open to this kind of aural onslaught, it can be a little overwhelming to say the least.
The Wytches' furious, hair-flinging psych-rock has seen the band rise from the ranks, from their beginnings in Peterborough back in 2011. Their debut single ‘Beehive Queen’ set the template; a creeping malevolence via their turned up, raw and reverb-heavy amps, buzzing riffs, crashing drums and shouty, almost painful sounding vocals from the mouth of songwriter Kristian Bell. And it was released on the small Hate Hate Hate label…
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a band with such a dark, black magic kind of name could be one of those doom metal merchants that forever surprises in its popularity and reach. But The Wytches are a different cup of tea entirely. They are a nice and friendly bunch of lads who like to make a psyche-inspired racket. They're not interested in the huge pendulums or long, dank hair, facial tattoos and ZZ Top-type beards. They are fresh faced music fans who aren’t averse to having a little bit of fun with their image and perceived sound. As Kristian has previously said; “We called it surf-doom as it was a really obscure genre and I found it funny. I think people thought I was being serious. The stuff before the (first) album was a lot more thrash. Now, it is songs played in a disgusting way; hard, loud and unlistenable.”
And the name The Wytches? “When we first started we were just called The Witches. I just thought it was quite funny that it was so average. I liked the idea that there were probably a million bands called The Witches. We knew we weren’t significant to anyone back then, as we had just started and we weren’t trying to come into the music industry with a big bang. We were just up for making music and having a really simple name.”
Unsurprisingly, the band had to change thier name, if only so that when people searched online they wouldn’t keep coming up with images of gnarly old women with large, wart-infected noises, pointy black hats, and sitting on a broomstick. "We got management and they said if we wanted to get things going a bit more, it might be easier. I liked how it was written down when it was spelt with a Y,” Kristian says. “We recorded about three EPs under the name The Witches but we didn’t do too much with them. We hadn’t amassed a following so we didn’t feel it was going to harm us to change it.”
Meanwhile, Dan Rumsey, bassist and singer with the group, has got his provisions ready for the long trip away with the band, as they embark on extensive touring in support of the new album, All Your Happy Life. Not for him, but his rabbits. “I’m away for a month, so my housemate, Tim (who also used be the band’s Tour Manager – “I think he got sick of us”) is having to look after them. I’m stocking up, so he can feed them”, he laughs.
Keeping the mystique. How does one do that in this over-saturated, over-hyped, and overwhelming world of media? Is it just another, albeit a road less well travelled, way of increasing attention, getting your head above the crowded parapet?
"Media saturation is probably very destructive to art," opines author Joyce Johnson, and one-time girlfriend of Jack Kerouac. "New movements get overexposed and exhausted before they have a chance to grow, and they turn to ashes in a short time. Some degree of time and obscurity is often very necessary to artists."
In the short history of rock’n'roll, there was a time that a band could develop over at least two or three albums. Rarely did they strike gold from the very beginning, or fully locate their creative mojo. But, the seeds had been sown, and it was then a matter of careful nurturing. Hundreds, probably thousands, of famous or respected bands and artists would have been dropped if they were forced to operate in the 'get results first, ask questions later' environment of the mainstream music industry these last few years; where rapacious profit-making and extreme competitiveness have clearly dented risk-taking, to the detriment of music as art.
But thankfully, with the major labels becoming less and less important, and with the concurrent development of the DIY and independent sectors, there has been a slow return to the idea of artist development. Just like the 'slow revolution' that has infiltrated all aspects of creative life – from cooking to journalism – there is a maturer, less frenzied approach to artist development. As always, the cream eventually does rise to the top or is at least given a chance to.
Taking the idea of mystique a step further are Sweden's Goat. Indeed, they are possibly the most well-known 'faceless' act to have graced the music scene in recent years. Acts such as Burial, Neutral Milk Hotel, Daft Punk, Swedish heavy metallers Ghost, and the avant garde music collective The Residents are just some of a handful of relatively successful acts who have eschewed their identity and/or publicity altogether. But, have any gone as far as Goat in not only hiding their physical identity but also shrouding their history in one of possible legend and myth?
Who are these masked musicians? Does their home village of Korpilombolo actually exist? Are they really a part of a voodoo tradition? Is their music one that has been been passed down through the generations? Or, are they really just bullshit media manipulators?
Despite their enigmatic, vaguely ludicrous qualities, there is one thing we can be pretty sure of, the music. Goat’s music is by turns intoxicating, tribal, psychedelic and sonically adventurous. With Requiem, their third album, Goat again show off their credentials as internationalist groovers, coming from the unlikely isolated northern Sweden, very close to the border with Finland. "It’s a beautiful and at the same time very grim place," says Lill-Benny of Goat, via email, of Korpilombolo. Whether or not this is true is made fuzzier by the fact that a few years back Goat’s Wikipedia entry misspelled the village name, and there seemed to be no information at all about this place. Unsurprisingly, both omissions have been amended. As it transpired, Korpilombolo was a real place. Also, Lill-Benney is not his/her real name and they don't do interviews any other way it seems. You just have to roll with it. You have to believe, in Goat.
One More Time With Feeling (a line from one of the songs featured, and a playful musical clique often invoked by musicians in trying to capture the essence of a song) has at its centre the death of Arthur Cave, with Nick Cave airing his raw grief, sometimes in the back of a cab, sometimes off-camera, and at other times sitting at his desk, whilst there are studio-based performances of almost all the tracks on Skeleton Tree, an album that inevitably became to mean something very different from the original premise.