Interviews

Havana great time on tour

Havana great time on tour

Norwich six-piece and forerunners in the country’s rock scene, Deaf Havana, kicked off their latest UK tour last week. I caught up with drummer Tom Ogden to discuss shows, the music industry and America.

Following their hometown show in Norwich, which kicked off their tour, the band had a day of freedom before embarking upon an 11-date UK schedule. After a trip to Nando’s, Ogden stepped outside to discuss the events of the night before. “It was really cool,” he said. “It was really busy. We’ve been slogging away in different countries for months, so to come home and have that one show – it was really nice.”

With sold-out shows at London Clapham Grand and Brighton Concorde 2 to look forward to, Ogden is optimistic about the rest of the tour. “It’s gonna be really good,” he promised. “We’ve got some quite cool bands out with us [South Wales band The People The Poet, and Arizona rockers The Maine]. We’ll be playing some songs we haven’t played in a long time, and some songs that we wouldn’t normally play. It’s going to be quite a fun, old-and-new set.”

Old Souls dropped last October to really positive critical reception, as well as a great fan response. Following the departure of former frontman and vocalist Ryan Mellor in 2010, Deaf Havana made a stride away from the screamo that Mellor provided, wading comfortably into the rock scene. “I definitely don’t miss the older sound,” Ogden affirmed. “I don’t really listen to any music with screaming in it, because I don’t really like it. The only really ‘heavy’ band I listen to is probably Architects.” Indeed, since they stopped being a screamo band, Deaf Havana have continued to grow in popularity. “I think [the change in genre] has obviously has helped the band get more popular… it’s more accessible,” Ogden mused. “Kids bring their parents to see us now – parents just used to drop their kids off at our gigs, but now they come in and watch too, which is really cool.” However, the drummer was quick to point out that this was not the planned direction for the band. “It wasn’t a conscious decision. When Ryan left, we just said: ‘Well, we can’t replace him, and if we did, the new guy would always be compared to him, so we’ll just go on without him’.”

Since reaching #1 in the UK’s Rock Album chart with both 2011’s Fools and Worthless Liars and 2013’s Old Souls (the latter of which also made the UK’s Album Chart Top 10), Deaf Havana have found their mainstream popularity on the rise. BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe has dubbed both ‘Mildred’ and ‘Boston Square’ his Hottest Record. More recently, Deaf Havana were invited to participate in the station’s ‘Innuendo Bingo’, which has hosted such names as Will Ferrell, Olly Murs and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films). “It was one of the funniest bits of press I’ve ever done,” Ogden recalled. “I was soaking wet by the end of it. It was just so, so funny. James’ [the band’s vocalist and lyricist] laugh was just so funny: when he laughed, I laughed at his laugh as well as the joke. It was really good.”

Although Deaf Havana are well on their way to bigger and better things in the UK, the band’s recent experience of America was not so positive. Old Souls marked the band’s American debut, and the group devoted a large part of their January and February touring the States. The enormity of the tour appeared to have taken its toll on the group, who struggled to draw the crowds that frequent their UK shows. “It was hard, actually – a lot harder than England,” admitted Ogden. “We were in the van, and the drives… some of them were 18 hours, and then the shows weren’t very busy. It was a bit of a disaster really.” Despite this roadblock, the band are taking on the USA again at the end of the month, touring with You Me At Six until the end of May. Things are already looking up: the band’s shows in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and St Louis are already sold out. “The You Me At Six shows are usually like between 500–1000 people, so that’ll be cool!” explained Ogden.

Following this unfortunate American debut, Deaf Havana have been a lot more appreciative of this UK interlude. The band have been on the road for “months and months”, as Ogden put it – they played a few UK dates last autumn, before heading to Europe and America. “Before [Norwich’s show], we were a bit like: ‘Oh, this is getting old now, a bit boring’. But then we went on stage, and it was mental. It was like: ‘Yes, this is why we do it’. I think we needed it. You get more of a buzz when it’s your headline show, when everyone’s there to see you – it definitely makes you feel a lot better.”

Despite preferring to headline their own gigs, Deaf Havana have recently had the chance to act as support bands for some quite prominent music acts – Bruce Springsteen and Muse especially. “Bruce Springsteen was amazing,” Ogden gushed. “Obviously he’s one of our idols, and I got to meet him! It was nice, amazing. We did Muse as well, in Germany – that was really cool.”

As well as Springsteen, Ogden reflected upon other artists that influenced his drumming style. “My first album that I ever drummed along to was Nirvana. My dad bought me that album,” he reminisced. “Blink-182: I drummed along to that – or tried to. And the Foo Fighters, as well… Taylor Hawkins, he’s one of my favourite drummers.” Ogden is certainly allowed to let these influences show when he puts his own mark on the Deaf Havana sound. “James and Matty wrote the majority of the songs on Old Souls. They sent over the demos when they had those, without drums, so I put the drums on. I just added my bit basically – it was quite easy for me!”

I asked Ogden if this creative trust was something he considered important. The response was a very enthusiastic “definitely”: “If we didn’t trust each other, I don’t think we’d be anywhere. We spend 90% of our lives together, so we have to have that kind of trust, or we just won’t get on.” However, with a six-man strong team, it’s likely that these tastes can sometimes pose a difficulty for the group. “It sometimes clashes,” the drummer admitted. “Everyone has different tastes in music, and there’s six of us now. Max [keyboardist] is really into hip-hop and soulful, piano stuff, so he doesn’t really listen to a lot of rock.”

Deaf Havana have shown their versatility, jumping from screamo to softer rock, and Ogden is definitely open minded about the future of the band’s music. “A load of doors are open. We don’t really like staying in a place for long. Our next album will be different, and the next will be different again. We don’t really want to make the same thing twice. We try to keep ourselves – as well as the fans – entertained.”

Since forming in 2005, it’s certainly been an interesting nine years for the group. Starting at The College of West Anglia, the success the band went on to have was in no way predicted by its members. “I don’t know how I feel about it,” Ogden put bluntly. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, since I was a kid, and now that it’s happening, it’s different to how I thought it would be. It’s mental to think about the stuff that I’ve achieved – and, like, I’m a guy from a little village just outside of Norwich, so to sell out shows and play with Springsteen and Muse… that just doesn’t happen to people like me.”

It’s not a very financially rewarding career path yet, though. “There’s no money involved in it – we’re all skint!” Ogden joked, when asked what he wished he’d known before getting into music. “The music industry is a very fickle place to work. You get stabbed in the back a few times, and it’s not very nice. But, as a unit, as a band, we all stick together; we’re all on the same page. If anyone pisses us off, we’ll all stick together as one, and that’s good. Especially nowadays, it’s a difficult place to start a career.”

The future of Deaf Havana definitely looks promising, with an even busier year ahead than last. “I just want to take the music all over the world,” Ogden commented. “You get to see all these places for free, so that’s all right! I just want to keep going, and going up levels – to keep getting bigger slots, bigger shows and more fans, really.”

Deaf Havana certainly look to be creating their own tradition. The band have played Reading and Leeds for the last three years and will be making their fourth appearance this summer. The band are taking to the Main Stage this summer: “The slot we’ve got is really good. Jimmy Eat World are on after us… we’re playing with some great bands. I really want to see Arctic Monkeys, as I haven’t seen them before,” an excited Ogden told me.

Following America, and what is likely to be a busy festival season, Ogden is not entirely sure what the plans are. “We’re going to head to Europe, do a headline tour there. There’ll be another UK headline tour, too. I don’t know if it’ll be this year or next, but there’ll be one to finish off the album. Eventually, we’ll go off and eventually do another [album]. After that, I don’t know… go work in McDonald’s or something?” Ogden hypothesised. “… I’m joking, I’m joking!”

Deaf Havana played Oxford’s O2 Academy on Sunday 13th April.

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Who’s that girl? Harleighblu chats to OxStu

Who’s that girl? Harleighblu chats to OxStu

I’m waiting to interview Harleighblu when I get a text saying we will have to postpone – her car has broken down just outside of Oxford. A couple of hours later, and she’s made it to The Cellar, looking comfortable in a checked jumpsuit and trainers. Despite her eventful journey, she’s ready to perform. Having been lauded by Radio 1Xtra’s Mistajam as the “new queen of hip hop and soul”, and with Rodney P and Trevor Nelson as huge fans, Nottingham-based Harleighblu is clearly an artist with her feet firmly on the ground.

Catching up with her over the phone a few days after her Oxford gig, I ask how she’s feeling about her recent successes. “I didn’t expect it,” she laughs, referring to her first record ‘Enough Now’ having been certified as “Jam Hot” by 1Xtra’s MistaJam before there was even an official video. “It’s been amazing,” she says; “I like to be busy.” And she’s certainly that: less than a week after the end of this particular tour, which culminated in a Saturday headline spot at KOKO, London’s 3,000 capacity club, Harleighblu was already looking forward to performing in Paris for the first time the following weekend. She’s recently been to the US to work on some unannounced projects and has gigs coming up all over the continent, including Romania, Turkey and a festival in Croatia this summer. And all this whilst studying for the third year of her degree at Nottingham Trent.

Despite her packed schedule, she still performs with the same band of fellow Nottingham residents that she was with before she was signed. I ask her if she’s ever felt pressured to take on band members suggested by people in the industry. “Yes, and I really had to put my foot down,” she says. “But I had amazing musicians on my doorstep and it’s about saying: this is who I want to work with. You have to be very sure of your direction.”The people that Harleighblu performs with are her friends as well as her musicians. The importance she places on being surrounded by people she “genuinely likes and respects” reflects her decision to remain based in Nottingham, where all of her friends and family are based.

She reveals to me that she has been confirmed to play at Glastonbury this year, fulfilling what she confesses to be her “geeky goal” of getting booked to play on her first trip to the festival. She will, of course, be bringing her usual bandmates with her. Though her ambitions are big, she remains down-to-earth and, on a rare day off, likes to relax in her hometown and “catch up on soaps with a cup of tea”. She also admits to being a huge fan girl around artists whose music she loves – such as Jake Bugg or Bonobo – but less fussed about those she isn’t such a fan of, joking that if she ever met Cheryl Cole, she would just say “yeah, I’ve heard of you”, and leave it at that.

Though she modestly claims that being picked up by 1Xtra was a fluke, the determination and hard work behind her record tells a different story. Harleighblu is a combination of the names that the her mother had planned for her twin daughters before she sadly lost one during pregnancy. ‘Blu’ was chosen as a nod to jazz singer Peggy Blu, and it seems fitting that Harleighblu has lived up to her name’s musical connotations. A lot of gigging and songwriting came before her signing by independent Brighton-based record label Tru Thoughts, who also represent Bonobo. Did she ever worry that she might not get a signing? “If you don’t have a label, it’s really difficult,” she muses. “When I was younger I was tempted by competitions [such as The X Factor, etc.], but you only get fifteen minutes before it’s on to the next person. Social media can make things more difficult for an artist – you have to really stand out amongst a sea of crap.” You only have to get slightly sidetracked on YouTube to see her point. “I’ve seen some real shockers!” she laughs. “I am so happy that I took the independent, credible record label route. They let me get on with making music and are passionate about their artists. It’s about the music and not just making money. I don’t want to be the next Rita Ora!”

You get the sense that she is determined not to compromise creatively and be moulded; packing up a suitcase and performing her own songs live to a crowd that is “getting down” is the biggest buzz for her. I ask her how she feels about the pressures placed on young female artists to a look certain way, and if this has affected her so far. “Definitely,” she says, “it is there. I was approached by a well-known label – I won’t say which – and they asked me whether I would get rid of my dreads and if I worked out. They said to me: ‘don’t get any bigger’. The sad thing is that the artist is lost in the process of being changed to fit a certain ‘look’, and, you know, trends come and go.” Tru Thoughts seem to provide a different environment, and she confirms that, to them, looks are not relevant. You only have to watch the video for second single ‘Let Me Be’ to see that Harleighblu has a striking look that is all her own. With her dreaded hair, ’60s flicked cat-eyes, and alternating between a headscarf and a jewelled Indian-style headpiece, her image lives up to her soul-diva voice. “I felt like I really came into my own with that record,” she says, “both in terms of image and as an artist.”

The record is an addictive listen, and it shows off the depth of her vocals, as well as her ability to write catchy riffs. The resulting Amy Winehouse comparisons have taken her by surprise. “It’s strange,” she notes, “because I actually only started listening to her after she passed away, but I have had a few people compare me to her. Especially Americans, they hear British jazz or soul and immediately think Amy Winehouse. But she was an incredible artist, so it’s flattering.”

The strong sense of self that she shows in her decisions as an artist is reflected in her lyrics, which are often about getting out of a difficult relationship. She laughs when I ask her if she’s going to write more happy songs in future: “I write about where I’m at in my life at that time!” Harleighblu’s blunt honesty and strong-mindedness make her a unique and refreshing young female voice in the industry. Do her bittersweet lyrics reflect any musical influences? “Yes definitely! Women like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu are my biggest idols. I idolise women that don’t take any shit!”

And with that, she’s off. Probably to enjoy a cup of tea and some soaps on her well-earned day off.

Interview with Annie Nightingale

Interview with Annie Nightingale

This interview was originally published by The Oxford Student in November 2013.

Annie Nightingale always wanted to be “cool”. After 43 years on BBC Radio 1, its longest serving and its first female DJ, she remains the epitome of the concept with her Friday night show championing “dubstep, urban and all things bassotronic”.

Annie’s passion for discovering and promoting new sounds has fuelled her radio career and meant that she has remained at the cutting edge of the British music scene for more than four decades. “I haven’t grown up very much. Most people listen to pop music and they grow out of it. I didn’t”. Raised in Twickenham, south west London, Annie fell in love with the blues at the Eel Pie Club. At the same time she became interested in pursuing a career in journalism, “I used to watch movies and thought journalism seemed exciting, they travelled to all these exotic locations on the hunt for a story”. After honing her craft at the Brighton Argus Annie combined her passion for music with her writing and began freelancing appearing in Cosmopolitan, the Daily Express and on national TV.

Annie’s passion for searching out and sharing new sounds still excites her today: “You want to put stuff on the radio people haven’t heard before. But it has to be good. There is trust between the audience and me as a DJ. I have to deliver the best.” Annie’s obsession with finding new sounds has meant that she often shunned the mainstream. Although she was a daytime DJ when she first joined Radio 1 her ambition was to be on at late nights because “that is when all the cool sounds were on. As a nighttime DJ you aren’t obliged to play the playlist. You don’t have to be an entertainer. You have to really know your music but you can also experiment”. Annie championed the British urban revolution years before it started making an impact in the top 40. Tinnie Tempah, Wiley, Professor Green all owe her a debt. Modestly Annie views her task as introducing the audience to new acts before handing them over to daytime DJs when they became popular. Having championed prog rock in the 70s, house in the 1990s and now base and trap Annie has not allowed herself to become an anachronism: “You have to stay relevant or else why should you be on Radio 1?”

Why Annie should be on Radio 1 at all was a question asked by bosses when she first joined the station in 1970. Their opposition was not based on Annie’s ability. The issue was her gender. “In the early days Radio 1 said ‘there would never be a woman on the station’ and I would think ‘why?’” I had never encountered this attitude when working on newspapers or in magazines. I would attack Radio 1 in the press. I was a music journalist and I didn’t want to just describe music in print! I wanted to play the tunes! It seemed insane that I wasn’t allowed to play on them the radio”. Even more shocking to Annie was the reason bosses gave, “they said radio DJs were husband substitutes. I found that ridiculous”. In the end bosses relented but the welcome was far from warm “I was branded the ‘token woman’”.

As the ‘token women’ who had no experience of the exclusively male pirate radio ships Annie was plunged into the deep end from her first day. “Nobody showed me the technical side. All the men had learnt on the pirate ships. It was terrifying. I was scarred out of my mind. I had a lot to prove”. In an internal BBC report in 1973 the head of light entertainment wrote that women didn’t have the aptitude or the interest to present music. Yet Annie was proving her detractors wrong and because of this she thought once the door had been kicked down there would be “loads” more female DJ’s at the station. It was another twelve years before Janice Long arrived at Radio 1. “I thought maybe they wanted to be TV newsreaders?”

Even in 2013 British radio still has a distinct gender imbalance. The campaign group Sound Women reported in August that only one in five solo voices on British radio were female. Female participation in specialist and dance radio shows is even sparser. Fellow Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac has made calls for more females to be included in specialist programming. There are just two dance specialists on Kiss FM, Hannah Wants and Charlie Hedges, the latter of whom also co-hosts the breakfast show. According to their website, Rinse FM has seven female-led shows. Yet this pales in comparison to 43 shows hosted by men. Over the last year Radio 1 has recruited a raft of new specialist female talents including Éclair Fifi, B Traits and Monki. “Radio 1 is by no means crammed with women but we have a lot of good new women on board,” reflects Radio 1’s leading lady. Yet Annie is quick to point out that at sister station Radio 2 from Vanessa Feltz, whose weekday early breakfast show finishes at 6.30am, there isn’t another female DJ on air until ex Radio 1 colleague Jo Whiley hits the waves at 8pm. “The Today Programme on Radio 4 made headlines over the summer because they recruited a second woman to their presenting team, so maybe it is working. But then if you look at the comments on articles it’s all ‘shut up you winging feminists’”.

Annie has defied two of the ugliest attitudes often found in broadcast media: sexism and ageism. Never letting her gender or age to define her Annie has always wanted to be judged by the quality of her work. “Whenever you get an opportunity you should work at it and know your subject, it should be done for love. I still am still on Radio 1 not because of I’m a woman or my age but because I love it.”

St. Vincent: a witness to a digital age

St. Vincent: a witness to a digital age

When I arranged to interview St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), her new album was just about to be released. She’s been touring for months, last year taking to the stage with indie icon David Byrne (Talking Heads) to tour the album they’d made together, Love This Giant. She started writing the solo album released this month during her tour with David, so she really hasn’t stopped in a very long time. When I asked her if she’d been doing a lot of interviews, she said “I have done so many”, succinct yet idiosyncratic, which would be good words to describe the whole interview

“At my funeral, I would like someone to make a jello mould of my body and serve it to the guests.” Annie Clark, sporting a white mad-scientist haircut, doesn’t shy away from the ‘quirky’, but as many critics have pointed out, she’s got more than just a few witty turns-of-phrase. Her music is highly personal and unusual, and she cites influences from Sonic Youth and Pavement to Charles Mingus, Yes, and Kanye West. When I ask her about them, she’s reticent – “Well, y’know, influences are one thing, and influences are great, and you have to have listened to so much music in your life to be able to make your own music, but ultimately it’s about having your own voice – it’s not about referencing this, that and the other and checking off some cool boxes or something, it’s about ‘what do you wanna say and how do you say it?’ And is your voice unmistakable, or do you sound like a million other things out there? The goal is to just sound like yourself.” Despite that, Annie’s willing to admit that “everything I hear anywhere somehow makes its way into my work”.

The new album doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there today. “I wanted to make a record that had the feel of human beings but the sound of machines. So everything is a real instrument, it’s just been distorted to the point where it sounds inorganic.” Nevertheless, I point out that the move to a digital sound has been quite popular recently, but Annie doesn’t seem to consider herself part of any wider movements in pop culture right now. It’s true that Annie’s projects seem to make a splash regardless of fashion recently – she and David Byrne worked with almost solely brass instruments on Love This Giant, and yet they still managed to court the critics – the Independent called it a “skewed and funky instant classic”. Annie and I talked about her time with David Byrne. “I’d worked with woodwinds and things before, and strings, but never with a full brass band.” Would she consider working with him again? “Well, we certainly had a wonderful time, and never say never, but I don’t think either of us are people who look back, so I think maybe it’s done.”

One era over, another era beginning – St. Vincent’s new self-titled release has already been lauded by hundreds of critics. It’s a bold and experimental record, and I asked how she went about writing it. “I come from the Nick Cave school of songwriting, where, if it’s time to write a record I just put on a suit and tie and go to work every day and write a record, and treat it like I have a day job… With a song like ‘Prince Johnny’, I wrote the lyrics first. I don’t usually work like that, I just had this fully formed short story. And then there are songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, which grew from a jam I was working on, and then I got bitten by a rattlesnake and had something to actually write about.” I asked Annie about her favourite lyrics on the album. “I like “Remember the time we went and snorted that piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted and we had such a laugh of it?” and that’s because ‘snorted’ and ‘extorted’ are such ugly words. They’re ugly words in a pretty song. It’s just a challenge. How do you put the word ‘snorted’ in a song? How does that not sound just like a glaring mistake?”

St. Vincent seems like a more personal record than her others, partly because she looks particularly stately and individual on the cover art and partly because the lyrics give the album a confessional atmosphere. “Well, every record I’ve made has been in some cases really about my life, so I wouldn’t call this more confessional than others, but I would say that this is a more extroverted record than other records I’ve made.” Does she think that this approach to songwriting is a symptom of the culture she highlights on ‘Digital Witness’? “I think that we are obsessed with documenting our lives, and sometimes at the expense of actually experiencing our lives. But I’m also a fish swimming in the sea, and I have a Twitter account and I have Instagram and everything. My main rule for myself is just not do anything on social media that makes me feel empty inside. Like taking a selfie.”

Being a “fish swimming in the sea” in this internet age can be really beneficial for artist and fans, and Annie recognises that. “To me it’s all about the fans, and my fans are awesome, and I meet people after the shows, and everybody’s super-sweet, and that’s my favourite part of it. That’s the whole point of having all the social media stuff, it’s not just being a voice of propaganda for your interests, but to actually get that feedback, to be able to reach out.” Since Annie’s rise to prominence, she’s collected a fanbase which is increasingly diverse. “I feel lucky that it seems somewhat diverse. Y’know, it’s diverse in age, gender and race, and all that. That makes me very happy. I’m glad I’m making music that appeals to more than one kind of person.”

From Devonshire to the dreaming spires

From Devonshire to the dreaming spires

“I’d say it’s the more Eva Cassidy end of folk… for want of a better way to describe it!” laughs Devonshire singer-songwriter Jess Hall about her upcoming debut album Bookshelves. Though this is perhaps not the most current of comparisons, Jess’ naturally stunning vocals have been attracting a lot of attention on the Oxford music scene and Bookshelves is all about the voice. “My main skill is singing, so Barney, the producer, and I wanted to focus on that. It’s very simple and pared down; there are some bigger arrangements but the instrumentation is there to compliment the vocals really.” Thematically, Bookshelves is less steeped in the history and storytelling of conventional folk, with Jess instead drawing inspiration from the beauty of her coastal home town and wistful memories of experiences growing up there. “I was listening to Seth Lakeman, Cara Dillon and Katherine Roberts when I was starting to get back into folk and they were all singing about people getting murdered and really horrific sexual violence stories. It’s just quite depressing and probably not what you want to sing about all day or have stuck in your head; I think sometimes life’s hard enough on its own! So for my songs I’ve stuck to more personal experience… or if not personal, other people’s experiences and then cleverly hidden it so they don’t know I’m talking about them!

“Lyrically there’s a lot of romance and also a lot of beach references, as a literal thing and as a metaphor. I love the sea; whenever I see it anywhere it makes me glad inside.”

With such a deep emotional connection to the coast, moving to the land-locked spires of Oxford for her work with Christian Aid could have had a detrimental impact on Jess’ music. Not surprisingly though for someone with such natural talent, Jess has blossomed, with a number of high-profile local musicians falling for the clarity and purity of her voice. “It was something that I really wasn’t expecting actually, I didn’t realise fully that there was such a thriving scene here, and I’d only really just started to get into open mic stuff in Devon. It’s a hard place to move to if you’re not a student I think and getting involved in music has put me in touch with a lot of lovely people. It’s been really exciting, I think particularly working with Barney, I’ve been playing with him on and off over the last three years now.” Producer of Bookshelves, Barney Morse-Brown is a local folk-roots cellist with an impressive back-catalogue of session work, performing with the likes of Eliza Carthy, Birdy, The Imagined Village and Chris Wood, as well as garnering critical acclaim with his own work in Duotone.

“I’d seen him supporting Stornoway at the A1 Pool Hall gigs when they launched their debut album, and I was really intrigued by him and his beautiful cello playing. So I wrote him a message saying that I was interested in his lyrics and if it wasn’t too personal, could he tell me about them? A few days later he sent me a message back and I just thought it was really sweet he’d taken the time to do that. From there, I asked him if he’d play at a charity gig I was putting on and we ended up playing together. He’s worked with some big, big names so from the start I was very excited. He’s a very generous player; he’s not there to steal the show.”

As well as Morse-Brown’s production and cello accompaniment, Bookshelves also features input from Stornoway’s Jon Ouin who was keen to get involved with the project after seeing Jess perform at Wilderness festival. “I was singing with a local band called Flights of Helios, they’d asked me to do some folk songs with them. Jon came over afterwards and said he really enjoyed my singing which was just so cool. Jon met Barney at some point and expressed that he would be interested in being involved with the album too. He’s got a lot of respect for what Barney does. When Barney told me I was just running round the room going ‘Jon Ouin!’ like a massive geek, it’s so embarrassing, but I was a huge fan so it’s quite funny now that he’s a friend. I remember being quite nervous when I first met him. He’s an amazing musician as well and really accomplished, and my guitar playing… well obviously I’m a singer and the guitar is a back up to that, but Jon’s got an incredible knack for picking up instruments and being able to play them to a real degree of excellence.”

Such an encouraging experience from the creation of Bookshelves may have come as a surprise to Jess, who was quite reluctant to record when first starting out as an artist. “I had done a little bit randomly and I think it’s quite easy when you’re recording and you don’t know much about the process to end up with something that you think doesn’t really sound like you, and it put me off a bit. Actually it was trying to get gigs that really spurred on the recording because promoters if they’ve not heard of you need convincing sometimes.” After sending out a very basic, single track MP3 sung into a friend’s Tascam recorder and receiving a number of rejections, Jess decided she needed something stronger to send to the venues, and with the help of her uncle’s home-made studio, put together EP Red Jumper, released in 2011.

Now, having successfully produced a full-length album through a largely collaborative recording process, her confidence has grown and Jess hopes the album launch will bring further gigs and festival appearances, with Green Man and a return to Wilderness high on her wish list. Due to her full time job, there hasn’t been much time for planning an extensive tour but Jess has some tentative plans should her debut meet with favourable reception, including a return to the Netherlands. “I did a tour there a couple of years ago and they have these little house concerts which are quite intimate. Vez (PR manager) and I were also talking about touring around bookshops, so we’ll see what happens with that, that might be quite fun.”

For future work, Jess also hopes to finally bring in another voice. “On this album there was a song I wrote called ‘Duet’ and as the title would suggest it was initially intended to be a duet. So I think I would love to find particularly a male singer to sing with, that would compliment my voice. It’s quite low for a girl, I can reach higher registers but it’s more of an alto range so it would have to be someone with quite a deep voice”. Given the interest sparked by her initial endeavours, it seems unlikely that this search will remain fruitless for much longer, although as Jess proves beyond all doubt with Bookshelves, a voice as strong and technically flawless as her own really needs no addition.

Jess Hall’s debut album, Bookshelves, is available now.

Cory Gray: a man with A Plan to Tell The Future

Cory Gray: a man with A Plan to Tell The Future

I first encountered Carcrashlander in 2009 when they released Mountains on our Backs. It was a dark, impressive album that kept me company through my teenage years, making me feel older, cooler and infinitely more sophisticated than I ever had before. Carcrashlander is the project of Cory Gray, a Portland-based songwriter, who works with an ever-evolving team to produce moody experimental rock. In January 2014, Carcrashlander released A Plan to Tell the Future, their fourth or fifth major release (depending if you count their 2010 EP You Were Born in a Hospital). I had a chat with Cory about the record.

It felt like long time between the last EP and the current release. I asked Cory what he’s been doing in the interim. I spent much of 2011/12 in a residency at a recording studio called Scenic Burrows, and began cutting my teeth producing records for other folks. I’ve also enjoyed doing some scoring for a few films and documentaries. And a bit of touring in other bands here and there.”

Carcrashlander’s music has always been fairly filmic – every release so far has been deeply atmospheric, weaving together lyrical and melodic themes. A Plan to Tell the Future is particularly complex in this way, repeatedly returning to the idea of entrapment and enclosure, though Cory reckons that not all of the mentions of ‘walls’ and darkness are downbeat. “There are plenty of dark elements on this record, although I’d like to think that ‘Walls of the World’ is not necessarily one of them. It’s more of an explorative mission into the unknown.”

‘Walls of the World’ is A Plan to Tell the Future‘s opening track, which launches us into the album’s sinister but laid-back atmosphere with breathy orchestration and dual vocals. The most notable departure from earlier albums is in the use of drum tracks and experimentation with synthesised sounds. “There is a lot of re-amping going on here.” (Reamping is a process in which a recorded sound is run through a reverb chamber or other sound-altering device.)

“And there’s a bunch of processed drums. I think I was drawn to them because they were something new for me, and also because many of the tracks were started by myself, and there were plenty of toys around to mess with that had beats to start foundations for songs.”

A Plan to Tell the Future is unmistakably a Carcrashlander record, thanks to both Cory Gray’s breathily-sung, intriguing lyrics and the eeriness of the melodies and harmonies; yet the increase in processed and synthesised sounds has allowed for new and interesting creations such as ‘Interstate Prelude’, in which slightly off-tune guitar sounds are broken by trip-hop beats and echoey background noises.

I asked Cory how this evolution came about. “I think this record is particularly different to the others because it was written, at least the music, in the studio, and because instead of having a week to finish the project, I had no real timeline. That made it possible to try anything and to have anyone who was around play something on it, whereas before making records had usually been a rehearsed and time-constrained process.”

As a result of this more relaxed approach to recording, there are 12 named musicians on this record, far more than in an average band line-up. “I am always being influenced by my peers and friends, it’s part of the process of documenting life with music, and on this record I was fortunate to have a lot of talented folks stop by for an evening here or there. It was not so much a planned team as a circumstantial one.”

At the moment, Cory’s favourite from the album is ‘One Shot Charlie’, one of the jauntiest and most accessible songs in Carcrashlander’s new material. “It’s named after a bar in the mountains of northern Idaho, where Carcrashlander spent a few days one summer between shows. It was the classic “music stops and the regulars turn and stare” type of place, but after a few rounds we ended up making a bunch of new friends and jamming them a few tunes out on the bar piano. I learned that the name One Shot Charlie refers not to the lone bullet hole in the ceiling as you would expect, but to the founder of the place, who had the shakes so bad that when he poured one shot it would fill up a bucket by the time he was done, and you would only need that one shot of booze.”

Cory Gray

Unfortunately, U.K. residents haven’t had much chance to experience Carcrashlander’s intense live shows. Cory has played plenty of gigs in mainland Europe though, and he remembers them fondly. I ask Cory what his favourite musical memories are. “My old band played in every state in the US before I ever travelled abroad, and those poverty-stricken, cheap-beer-drinking, floor-sleeping days are undoubtedly some of the best memories I have. Also playing shows in Portugal has surely earned a place on that list. And this summer playing with The Dandy Warhols in Brittany we had a slot between Sinead O’Connor and Snoop Whatever, which was pretty surreal, as well as a slot in Brussels going on before Madness, who are still totally amazing. Playing with a variety of groups and touring has just been one way to see the world and meet its different sorts. I feel very lucky to have visited so many places I probably never would have otherwise.”

Music seems always to have been a part of Cory’s life, and he’s still attached to formats which more fairweather music listeners have long-since abandoned. As a result, Carcrashlander have released A Plan to Tell the Future on cassette and record as well as the usual formats. I questioned Cory’s decision to release the record like this because it seemed like a niche market to pursue.

“I am a record collector for sure, I love the act of dropping a needle, flipping over the disc. I also much prefer the template for art that is an LP, as well as the opportunity for setting the flow of each side of a record. Jealous Butcher has been making beautiful records for years and I am honoured to be on their roster. Also, tape cassettes are an interesting fidelity because of their dark degeneration. I have found some amazing music on tape cassettes that sounds completely different from their newer digitally remastered versions. And in releasing this record on Curly Cassettes, a tape label that is the home to many of my favourite Portland bands, I was also able to make an alternate version of the record with some different material that is not included on the digital or vinyl release.”

So there it is – Portland retains its reputation for producing quirky musical items – and  I encourage you to listen to some of Carcrashlander’s material in whatever format you can find it.

A Plan to Tell the Future is out now, and can be bought from Carcrashlander’s Bandcamp for just £3, or on vinyl or cassette from Jealous Butcher or Curly Cassettes.

Mayday Parade: Monsters make their mark Overseas.

Mayday Parade: Monsters make their mark Overseas.

It was to a sea of young teenagers clad in black denim, band shirts, Doc Martens and heavily applied kohl eyeliner that Mayday Parade played their penultimate UK tour date in Oxford’s 02 Academy. I caught up with the Florida-based alternative-rock band’s lead singer, Derek Sanders, and rhythm-guitarist, Brooks Betts, prior to their sold out ‘Meet-and-Greet’ to discuss their tour, albums and musical influences.

After spending time exploring the rainy city, Sanders was definitely excited for the night’s performance. “I woke up this morning and thought ‘There’s only two shows left in the UK, that’s wild! I’m looking forward to tonight, and obviously London’ll be the biggest night of the tour, so it’ll be good.” Two days before their sold-out show at London’s KOKO, the band certainly haven’t let the traditional British weather deter them from enjoying the tour – “Minus the rain, it’s been pretty awesome,” Betts laughed, “But one really cool thing about the tour was doing Dublin for the first time, that was awesome.”

After their London show, the band have been travelling across mainland Europe playing a string of sold-out shows, but they still greatly enjoyed their 2014 UK dates. Betts particularly enjoyed the familiarity of the country this time around: “It’s interesting because when I get off the bus, I may forget what certain cities look like, or what the venues looked like last time. However, this whole tour I wake up and look out, and it’s like yeah – I know where I am”. It appears that this has been the case for Sanders also, declaring that Monsters Overseas is “One of my favourite tours that we’ve done over here”. Mayday Parade picked Divided By Friday, Decade and Man Overboard as their support acts, and the bands certainly seem to get on – from watching the Superbowl together in Liverpool to enjoying Guinness in Ireland, their collective Instagram accounts have been very active the past few weeks. Sanders is especially enthusiastic about the other touring bands – “Sharing a bus with Man Overboard is great! They’re awesome dudes to be able to hang out with all the time. The rest of the bands on tour are great too, such nice people.”

Although the tour title directly references the band’s fourth studio album, Monsters in the Closet, the band’s set list included songs from their other albums. Sanders feels like the band’s latest offering is “a culmination of everything we’ve done before, with a step forward as well. It’s what we’ve tried to do with each album – and what we’ll probably keep trying to do.” Betts added that he feels it is “one of the most diverse records we’ve done”, before correcting himself, “No – it is the most diverse record we’ve done, and that’s pretty cool to me”. This diversity has made it the current favourite release of the group, although they admit that “generally it is the newer stuff that you like more”. This time, however, the band feel as though they have found their own sound – what Sanders has named “a Mayday Parade sound. I feel like we’ve accomplished that for this album, and it’ll keep moving that way in the future.”

The albums are definitely a collaborative effort from all five band members, with a Florida beach house being the hub of activity for the last two album writing periods. “Everyone brings material they’ve been working on over the last year or so of touring, and we just take it all and put it together.” The material apparently ranges from basic ideas to almost complete songs. “Once everyone adds their flavour, it becomes a Mayday Parade song,” Sanders explained. “Yeah, its interesting,” Betts added, “so if Derek has the idea, it’ll sound like a Derek song, and if someone else has an idea it sounds different – I think it comes from older influences we had growing up as kids, so I think its interesting how it works together.” This collaboration means once neglected songs can make a return – ‘Girls’, Betts favourite song on the newest album, was brought back by the band whilst in the beach house.

Keeping up with pop-punk tradition, Mayday Parade enjoy long song titles – ‘The Torment of Existence Weighed Against the Horror of Nonbeing and You Be the Anchor That Keeps My Feet On the Ground’, ‘I’ll Be the Wings That Let Your Heart Soar in the Clouds’ demonstrating this nicely. “I feel that for a lot of songs, if they’re gonna be a radio single, people like simple titles because then someone can go out and find what the song is, and purchase it easily,” explains Betts. “I like to think that we’re more of an album orientated band, so its more important to have an album title thats catchy and easier to remember than the actual song titles.” Sanders sees song-naming as an opportunity that the band like to “just have fun and do whatever we want with”. He also looks to other bands of the genre -”It was partly inspired by other bands, like Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy.”

Indeed, these bands were part of a collection that shaped and inspired the musical preferences of the band members during their late-teens. “Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, Brand New, Jimmy Eat World – all those bands at that time influenced us and are a big part of why we play that music that we play.” Jimmy Eat World are a band that Sanders is clearly a big fan of – he’s especially excited that they’ll be playing Australia’s Soundwave Festival alongside Mayday Parade in late-February and early March. A lot of big names are lined up for this festival, with Betts being particularly excited about seeing Stone Temple Pilots, System of a Down and Korn. He was even looking forward to Blink 182 being there, until Sanders gently corrected him – Green Day are playing instead. “It’s gonna be amazing,” he then continued, “We’ve done it once before and its such an incredible tour. They really do take care of you! There’s a lot of flying involved but there are also days off. It’s just a good time.”

Post-Soundwave the band are jetting off to South East Asia for four shows before returning to the USA, where, after a short time-off, they are playing Warped Tour from June to August. Sanders hopes that in the future the band’s touring schedule will be less intense – a sentiment most likely connected to his young daughter, who turns three this year. “We’ve been going at the same speed for a long time and doing amazing stuff all around the world. If we can keep doing this, but maybe slow down the touring part, that’d be great,” he mused. “We’ve been pretty full throttle for a while. So, maybe tour for six months out of the year, as opposed to eight. We want to just keep going out and making albums, going out and then supporting them – we love doing it, so that’d be amazing.”

Following the end of Warped Tour at the beginning of August, the band’s schedules are relatively clear. “We would love to do some big festivals in the UK,” Sanders confessed, “but we don’t know anything yet”. Fans of the band will certainly be hoping for appearances by the band across the festival scene, but it looks like only time will tell if Mayday Parade will be returning to the UK this summer.

We Are Scientists: parlez-vouz Français?

We Are Scientists: parlez-vouz Français?

After a four year break from album releases, New York-based (despite web searches that say otherwise) indie-rock band We Are Scientists are back with their fifth studio release, TV en Français. Following the release of their E.P. Business Casual at the latter end of last year, I caught up with lead singer Keith Murray to speak to him about the impending tour.

We Are Scientists kick off their largest tour for four years at Oxford’s O2 Academy on March the 6th; “there are worse places to start a tour” said Keith. TV en Français, although due to be released March 4th, has been completed for a year. “There’s a part of me that sometimes forgets that TV en Français isn’t out yet, but now it feels like a really awesome holiday got announced that I didn’t know was coming. It’s like ‘Oh, also now tomorrow’s Christmas! That’s so awesome!’. The reason for the delay was a change in band management once the album had been completed, and the administrative processes that came along with the change. “Hiring new management took a long time, although weirdly we ended up hiring the very first guy we interviewed”. It was this waiting-period that encouraged the band to release Business Casual.

Although the top-40 success of six of their singles between 2005 and 2008 meant that the band were well known on the UK indie scene, the gap between their last album and TV en Français has enabled We Are Scientists to experiment with their musical sound. “It’s funny,” Keith reminisced, “part of the reason why the gap between the albums is so long is that we started out with a preconceived idea of what we wanted it [TV en Français] to sound like”. The sound the group was trying to recreate was that of 1980s band The Lemonheads, who Keith and Andy (We Are Scientist’s drummer, formerly of Razorlight) were “really obsessed with” when the band did a UK tour about three years ago. “We just decided we wanted to make a Lemonhead 90′s college rock album. We wrote about half an album’s worth of that kinda stuff – then we realised that we couldn’t put out this album that really sounds like Lemonheads, even if we really like the songs, that’d be too weird.” This change in tune lead the band to eventually take a break from the album. “We just threw all those songs out and started over”. When asked what effect this had on TV en Français, Keith said that the new album feels “more natural than earlier. It’s funny, because at the time I was still really kinda frustrated that we wasted all that time, but I think we needed to get that out of our system before we had a clean slate.”

Despite this initial set back, Keith feels that TV en Français is the band’s best offering to date. “I think it’s the best balance of immediately appealing and slightly ambitious. I’m sorta proudest of Brain Thrust Mastery. Of the first three, it was the first one where we really just rolled up our sleeves and did the arrangements ourselves. The other two are fun and jaunty albums,” laughed Keith, “and I’m still less proud of those despite the fact writing songs like that is still really difficult”

We Are Scientists are kicking off their five month-long tour in the UK, before heading off to mainland Europe, back across the pond to the USA and Canada, before finishing up in Australia. I asked Keith how he was feeling ahead of the three-continent tour. ” It’s highly tempting to just give up my apartment in NY so I’m not paying rent for the months it’s on,” he joked, “but there’s nothing worse than coming home from five months of touring and not having a place to live. But it would make financial sense.”

Despite the unfortunate rent payments, the band are excited for their longest tour in four years. “Right now, it’s only exciting. I feel this kind of touring only becomes daunting when you look up two and a half months into it and you realise you’re not even quite half done. You just think ‘what did we get ourselves in to? I’m already exhausted’. But, right now, it’s all just appealing. In my mind by the time we get to Australia at the end of May I’m still gonna be raring to go, but, hell, I know even after the flight I’m gonna be ruined. But right now its nothing but anticipation.”

The band signed their first record deal in the UK, and singer Keith feels that this is why they keep coming back. “The UK always feels like…not the business base, but definitely the home base of the band. Even though we live in New York, the hub of our activity is in the UK…We have as many friends in London as we do in New York, and it just kinda feels like we’re in a different neighbourhood in New York.”

“Although the UK feels familiar and comforting, it lacks the exotic excitement of going to Japan, where we’ve played three or four times. It’s most exciting to be in places we haven’t been, and we’ve done shows in places like Colombia and Indonesia, which is exciting on the basis of being the most exotic. The UK isn’t gruelling though, because it is familiar.”

Keith shared a story of one of his most memorable gigs, in Indonesia. Between a festival in Jakarta and one in Singapore the following weekend, the band were booked to play at what Keith described as a “motorcycle-surfshop-restaurant-art gallery” in Bali. “It was run by some guys from Sydney, they put us up, so we just hung out in Bali for like a week, and the show was just in the courtyard of their shop. It felt really right, kinda like playing a university show when we were in university, and we’d just play outside of our dorms just drinking beer out of Red Solo Cups…but it was in Bali.” After a few moments of contemplation, Keith concluded that it was “super memorable, just surreal, because the venue was slightly familiar and it felt like a college show, but it was foreign because we were in Bali”.

Despite preferring smaller shows, Keith is looking forward to “a full summer of festivals, maybe have a couple of weeks off after Australia but hopefully we’ll be doing a bunch of festivals”. Claiming that his performances at festivals feel “a little too instant to get fully invested in”, Keith still loves the atmosphere at festivals – “its always amazing to stand up in front of 40,000 people and play, but I think that’s what it is, when we play festivals I always think about the show, rather than losing myself in it”.

After a more quiet couple of years, We Are Scientists are definitely coming back with a storm. Their five-month tour ends in May, and after the summer festival season, Keith is toying with making new material. With a few newly written songs under his belt already, Keith thinks that “wriggling free” from the “weirdly regimented cyclical way” that the band has always produced music (writing songs, recording them, releasing the album then touring), would be good. Coming back to the Lemonheads discussion of before, Keith feels that the band should “put those songs out there – there were some pretty good songs!”

We Are Scientists come to Oxford on March 6th, following the release of TV en Français.

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