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Interview: Bat For Lashes

Natasha KhanFeature for The Skinny

In a music business where female artists are so often forced into pigeonholes – Duffy the doe-eyed kitten, Lily Allen the feisty brat, Kate Nash the kooky every-girl – it’s only the true individuals who stand out over time. The talent of non-conformists like Kate Bush, Bjork and PJ Harvey burns far brighter and longer than the aforementioned chart dwellers, and now we can add another name to that list: Natasha Khan.

The silken voice of Bat For Lashes paints from a palette of influences and inspirations that extends far beyond that of the current crop of pop tarts. Like countless musicians before her, the creative diversity of the half-Pakistani, Brighton-based Khan stems from an art school background. “I did artwork before I ever considered music so I think it couldn’t help but imbue what I do,” she says. “When I was at university I did a 50% music, 50% art degree and it was all about how music and visuals relate to each other. So it’s always been natural for me to express the universal concept rather than just keep to isolated mediums.”

It was this all-encompassing ambition that led to the stylistic panache of her debut album Fur And Gold in 2006, the bookmakers’ favourite to win the Mercury Music Prize of the following year. In the end she lost out to The Klaxons’ music tabloid friendly ‘new rave’ debut. I ask Khan if that was a blessing in disguise. “Definitely,” she replies without pause for thought. “I mean I’d already been touring the album for two years and I was dead on my feet by that time. It was lovely as a little affirmation and to be thrust into the spotlight and give it that final sort of bang before I stopped and went on to make the next record. But I think if I had have won it would have been a good excuse for the record company to send me off on another tour for a year and I probably would have died! I think I was really ripe and ready to move on creatively at that point, it was like the perfect outcome really.”

What the nomination did do was turn heads, and one particularly famous noggin was that of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, who asked Bat For Lashes to support his band on last year’s In Rainbows European tour. And according to Khan they’re not the irritable chin-strokers of Meeting People Is Easy yore. “It was great. We danced a lot every night, drank lots of wine, had lots of fun,” she recalls. “I was quite nervous playing to so many people, like up to 50,000 people, but after a while I realised that the Radiohead fans were being very patient, interested and quiet during my set and that was really cool. So if it was going to be a big band Radiohead was the one. It was a big learning curve but a good one.”

With such endorsements, the pressure was on Khan to follow the rather bare-boned Fur And Gold with a second LP that took Bat For Lashes an artistic step forward. So there was probably no better environment for creative inspiration than the epicentre of indie that is Brooklyn, New York, where Khan lived for a time during the conception of Two Suns, her new album. “I think in Brooklyn and America there’s a lot more interesting stuff coming out than in England,” Khan says. “I’m glad I was there when that was kinda incubating.” But she wasn’t just holed up in one studio the whole time: “The proper recording started in Wales, and then a bit in New York. I also did quite a bit of field recording, like the subway trains in Brooklyn and my friends sitting around a campfire in the forest that comes at the end of Sleep Alone.”

A campfire in the forest? It sounds almost too new-age to stomach, but Khan happily revels in her own brand of 21st century mysticism, an outlook that extends to the primeval cover art and vaguely pagan overtones of Two Suns. I enquire about the duality that the title suggests. “This record is based on a personal relationship I went through. I wanted to call it Two Suns because it’s the analogy of two personalities crashing into each other. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a romance album, that the concepts were quite universal, on a personal and on a big, cosmic level.”

It was this particular approach that drew Khan to another band with a penchant for out-there lyricism and ethnic beats. “When I heard Yeasayer’s album I was really excited because I knew it was along the lines of what I was doing,” Khan says. “I asked if they could enhance that and help me push it even further, which they did. I liked their album because it had that element of spirituality and mysticism but it was quite rootsy and dancey and I love that combination.”

Although the Brooklyn band focussed their energies on the song Pearl’s Dream, their sound permeates the album’s more kinetic moments. Khan elaborates: “I wrote the bassline for Daniel but I had done it on a little bass synth and Ira [Wolf Tuton, Yeasayer bassist] kindly replaced quite a few basslines for me, and added his own to Pearl’s Dream that was really funky and was something I never could have come up with. Chris [Keating, singer] added a lot of African-style drum programming to the second half of Pearl’s Dream that moves it to a really happy, dancey place. We were dancing around the studio being silly, enjoying the pop-ness of it!”

Khan’s hedonistic collaboration with Yeasayer was a world away from her experience of working with Two Suns’ other guest star, the reclusive 60s icon Scott Walker with whom she duets on album closer, The Big Sleep. “It was totally different,” Khan confirms. “And that’s what’s interesting about collaborating if you choose wisely. I knew Scott Walker would be perfect for that kind of brooding song. We emailed each other because he’s so shy but we discussed the song and talked about the characters and the imagery and he sent me his amazing part. So I never met him and I’m not sure I’d want to really. It was nice to write for each other and communicate on that level without all the embarrassment and awkwardness. It was really special.”

Now that her album has been released and critics are striving to sum up its myriad qualities, Bat For Lashes are on the road again, with a revamped line-up that includes former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. “I loved the last tour because we had all the strings playing and the girls were just so well disciplined,” Khan says. “It was powerful in some areas but there wasn’t much opportunity to dance. This time there’s still all the dark, magical elements but there’s also the drumkit and electronic drumpads and beat machines. The beat’s really big now so you get that real dynamic during the set, up down and all over. And Charlotte’s kick-arse. She’s singing, playing guitar, bass, synth and drums. I like multi-instrumentalists, so we can all move around. She’s very diverse and quite feisty.”

The same could be said about Khan, and although she’s amiable in conversation, she doesn’t like to give too much away. It’s when I ask a dry, non-personal question about the production of Two Suns that she actually hints at a deep-set concern over how she is perceived: “I had a massive say in the production. I like to make that clear because some people think ‘oh she just sings’ but I’m quite proud of my technical abilities.” Unlike your standard-issue chanteuse, it’s safe to say that Khan does more than just sing.

Two Suns is out now via Parlophone.
Bat For Lashes play Latitude Festival, Suffolk on 17 July.

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Interview: Yahweh

Feature for The Skinny


Lewis Cook has a level-headedness that belies his youth. When most teenagers fly the family nest for the boundless freedom of university life, their first year away from home is spent drinking, watching daytime TV, attending the occasional lecture, boiling pasta, and more drinking. But the 18-year-old Cook – whose own nest-exit took him from the quaint Dumfriesshire town of Moffat to the bright lights and rain-sodden streets of Glasgow – actually did something productive with all that freedom: he recorded a debut album under his musical moniker, Yahweh.

[Yahweh – The Wee Ending]

While Cook admits that juggling an academic and musical career “can be hard, especially when we’re busy and there are essays to be handed in”, the musical assignment he produced (titled Tug of Love) is a staggeringly assured debut. I ask him if people were surprised when they found out his age. “It’s one of these things that can either act in your favour or be a hindrance,” he replies. “As much as there are the so-called benefits of youth on my side, there’s always the risk of not being taken seriously. As a result it’s not something I often mention to people… maybe I should be exploiting it more!”

Tug of Love can be read as a literal tug of love between the lively metropolis of his present life and the placid town of his upbringing: the first half of the LP is dedicated to Glasgow, the second to Moffat. “It’s quite an introspective record in a lot of ways and I decided to try and relate its format to the kind of split life I felt I’d spent over the course of writing and recording it,” Cook explains. “Most of the sounds on the first side of the album are immediate, more up-tempo and mostly about experiences in Glasgow, whereas the sounds on the second half are more subtle and are about experiences when I lived in the country.”

Back “in the country” as a youngster, the lack of diversions led to many hours spent in his room “with headphones on playing around with different sounds”. That willingness to try out contrasting styles brought together elements of Mogwai’s minimal soundscapes and Boards of Canada’s tarnished electronica in his songs. But it is that other name-checked Scottish band of the past decade, Arab Strap, who are the closest musical relatives to Yahweh’s gutsy alt-folk. “When I was 14 I sent an e-mail to Aidan Moffat asking if my age would stop me from getting in to see their acoustic request show,” Cook recalls. “It was at Sleazy’s in Glasgow so I couldn’t get in but he sent me a letter with a couple of CDs. I was made up!”

[Yahweh – Laps(e)]

Although Cook recorded almost the entire album alone in his bedroom, on an assortment of (pause for breath) guitars, maracas, drums, synths, sticks, toys, a programmer, harmonium, glockenspiel, banjo, violin, sitar and stapler, Yahweh is a collective that swells in number for live shows. “Tug of Love was definitely a solo project and is to be viewed as a complete piece,” Cook says, “but when we play live, the four of us are all part of Yahweh and everyone contributes to the re-invention of the tracks on the album.”

With two more releases “lined up in his head as concepts” and four years of study to look forward to, it looks certain Cook will have no trouble keeping busy. The only problem might be one or two rather eccentric fans, but that’s inevitable when you name your band after the English version of the Hebrew word for God. “Every so often I’ll get a message opening with ‘shalom’,” Cook says. “There was a woman from America who was literally messaging me every day with pictures of her and her children and quotes from the Bible written below… that was pretty strange.”

Yahweh play Stereo, Glasgow on 11 April and Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh on 20 June.

Tug of Love is out now – available from Yahweh’s MySpace.

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Interview: RBRBR

Feature for The Skinny‘s Mill supplement


XTC, REM, MGMT… and now RBRBR. The world’s latest musical acronym is an Edinburgh electro outfit who refuse to take themselves too seriously, as drummer Paul reveals when I ask what it stands for: “This week, it stands for Robbing Banks Regularly Boosts Revenue, last week it stood for Raging Bull Receives Bad Rash.”

The five-piece have been touring Scotland’s highways and byways for three years, and Paul has enjoyed the ride. “On the whole it’s been a lot of fun and we’ve been getting a good response,” he says. “Visually our live show is a bit different, because we dress up a bit silly and we’re clearly having fun. There’s been a couple of times where we thought we were going to get lynched for that, but it always ends up fine.”

Their MySpace site betrays an interest in the French electro of Ed Banger acts Justice and DJ Mehdi, but Paul says that’s only one facet of their inspiration: “Everything from Captain Beefheart to MF Doom to Bonnie Prince Billy is an influence. The cool thing about so much of the French electro scene is that it’s not overly serious. There’s a silliness to it, and it’s fun, but it’s still great music – and that’s definitely something that we try and bring in to our sound.”

One band at the forefront of the electro/rock crossover is Metronomy, who chose RBRBR as support for their Edinburgh show. “The Metronomy gig was great”, Paul says, “definitely a highlight, and it marked the start of a busy period for us. We did a Radio 1 session with Vic Galloway in November, a Fresh Air FM session in December, we played The Mill in Edinburgh and we’re sorting out a tour for spring.”

With an EP also due for the summer, RBRBR might also stand for Rapidly Building Respect By Rocking. Just a thought.

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Interview: The Little Kicks

Feature for The Mill magazine:

The Little Kicks

If Ladbrokes were to offer odds on the next unsigned Scottish band to ‘make it’, one of the favourites would surely be the Little Kicks. The Aberdeen quartet have steadily built their reputation over the past few years, playing to packed tents at the T in the Park and Connect festivals and supporting bands of the calibre of Editors, Glasvegas and Maximo Park.

Having already achieved a certain degree of success, I asked lead singer Steven Milne whether he thought the bookies could be paying out (metaphorically at least) anytime soon. “Maybe, hopefully, but who knows,” he says. “We’re a pretty mainstream act but we’re under no illusions that EMI will start banging on our door, we just play music we enjoy and enjoy playing it live. And I guess it depends on what people judge as success. If we play gigs out of town and put together a CD and people come to shows and buy it – I’ll feel like we are achieving something.”

Unlike the stereotypical unsigned band of mates in it for the adulation of the local pub scene, the Kicks have higher ambitions, and maintain a strong work ethic: “We love playing so we used to say yes to everything but lately we’ve been stricter and turned a lot of things down – sometimes with gritted teeth. I write about three songs a week but sometimes don’t finish those songs quickly. Lately I’ve been taking ideas in earlier and we’re racking them up faster than ever.”

The Little Kicks make – in their own words –”tight, melodic, pop-indie-disco songs that are predominantly about love, life and loss”, although when I put it to Milne that the songs already sound like the finished articles, he’s surprised by this reaction: “Funny you should say that as until recently we have never been satisfied with our recordings. I have a constant cold so I often have a nightmare with vocals. We put a lot of pressure on each other to play well on the takes – sometimes too much pressure and you need to take a break before tensions get high. It’s good to be like that though – it means you all care.”

But creative tensions are unlikely to cause this tight-knit group any problems. Milne sums up their motivation simply: “The day we stop enjoying it is when we stop, and I think that’s a long time away.”

With a debut album and single planned for 2009, now’s the time to place your bets.

The Little Kicks play Limbo @ The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh on 26 March and the ABC2, Glasgow on 27 May

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Interview: Asobi Seksu

A feature for The Skinny:

Asobi Seksu

Without knowing Asobi Seksu’s back-story you could make an informed guess. Perhaps they are a Japanese band inspired by hearing Kevin Shields’ distorted guitar soundtrack Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s prolonged cinematic flirtation in a Tokyo hotel?

No, ‘Asobi Seksu’ means ‘playful sex’, not ‘cross-generational platonic romance’. But it is Japanese, and one half of the band does hail from that part of the world, and they certainly do owe a debt to the My Bloody Valentine guitarist. To dispel that myth entirely though, Asobi Seksu are in fact one of countless buzz bands to have flown the Brooklyn indie nest in the past few years, and this month they release their third full album, Hush.

The duo of James Hanna and Yuki Chikudate caused a shallow but sustained ripple of hype with their 2006 LP Citrus, a record that combined Hanna’s tremolo-bending shoegaze guitar with Chikudate’s crystalline vocal style. In the time between the two albums they drafted a whole new set of backing musicians, but this new line-up wasn’t borne of any creative tension, according to Hanna: “Yuki and I made a decision that this band was going to be the two of us and that we would hire people to play live. We were always the songwriters so it seemed a natural decision. Coming out and saying we are the band has really clarified things in a positive way.”

A renewed clarity also happens to be the most noticeable change in the Asobi sound on Hush. Whereas Citrus relied on looming walls of feedback and murky clouds of noise, Hush is a much more accessible, focused record. “On Hush we set out to make something highly textured without relying on the same things that hopefully worked on Citrus,” Hanna says. “We knew we wanted something glassier and the layers to be a bit more transparent this time around. It took us a lot of trial and error to find textures that we found new and exciting that were also a bit more subtle and didn’t clog up every inch of audio space.”

But Hush could have turned out very differently had Hanna’s dream producer returned his call: “We tried to contact Brian Eno to work on Hush, though I think people thought I was joking when I said it. He’s obviously out of our range but I figured there was no harm in giving it a try. For the next record I think we are going to ask Phil Spector.”

That may be a joke on Hanna’s part, given Spector’s current predicament, but it’s also another clue to the kind of musical heritage Asobi Seksu revel in. Not merely introspective shoegazers, they also distil the symphonic pop pioneered by Spector on his 1960s recordings of The Ronettes and The Crystals.

The one element of their sound, however, that critics always latch on to is shoegaze. Does Hanna tire of this? “I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I obviously love a lot of the music from that era, it was a huge influence on the way I learned to play guitar and helped me to learn how to think texturally as well as linearly. On the other hand I think the comparisons are out of hand and I think there are a lot of misconceptions of what we are and what we are trying to do.”

Whatever wayward guesses are made about Asobi Seksu this time round, with its tight pop aesthetic, Hush will surely open their music up to a wider audience. Hanna, for his part, is ambivalent on that score: “Hopefully Hush represents us challenging ourselves to not just repeat the things that people seem to like about us. As far as our appeal goes, that remains to be seen. I really do hope people enjoy the record but past that I have no say in the matter.”

Asobi Seksu play ABC2, Glasgow on 14 Feb.

Hush is released on 16 Feb.

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Interview: The James Orr Complex

The James Orr Complex

After reviewing his album last month, I offered to interview the man behind the James Orr Complex – Christopher Mack – for a feature in The Skinny

If you had to stick a pin on a map of the world and then emigrate to that point, you might well find your hand drawn to Brazil. For Scot Christopher Mack, there was the added incentive of appeasing his homesick other half: “My wife is Brazilian. She had itchy feet and after eight cold, dark and unforgiving Scottish winters she was ready for a change. She wanted to go to Spain. In the end I convinced her that if we were to move, then we should go the whole hog. Three years later and we’re still surviving in São Paulo.”

Mack, better known in musical circles as the James Orr Complex, is quick to stress that the reality of life for a non-native in the world’s fourth most populous city is less like a holiday than one might imagine: “I came here with no guarantee of finding work, nowhere to stay and no Portuguese whatsoever. I was already a qualified English teacher, so finding work wasn’t difficult. Getting to grips with the language and overcoming absurd levels of bureaucracy to obtain a permanent visa demanded much more patience. Now, thankfully, I can say that all those really tough moments were worthwhile.”

It was in São Paulo that Mack wrote and recorded Com Favo, his recent second album as the James Orr Complex. It’s a multi-tonal brew of folk, blues and much more, shifting between moods as effortlessly as Mack’s fingers navigate the fretboard of his steel-strung acoustic guitar. “I’ve been playing for almost 20 years,” Mack says, explaining his elaborate technique. “I reached that plateau that everyone who picks up an instrument knows, when I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere anymore. But for some reason I kept playing. Most people get bored up on that plateau and give up.”

Unsurprisingly, a strong Latin flavour pervades Com Favo, due in no small part to Mack’s accomplices: “Two friends of mine play on the record. Thomas Rohrer is Swiss but has lived here for about 12 years. He plays rabeca, which is a kind of primitive violin cut from a single piece of wood. Mauricio Takara is from São Paulo and plays drums and percussion.” But, Mack says, the effect wasn’t artful intention: “I didn’t for a minute sit down and think about how I could inject a Brazilian sound into the record. It came out the way it did naturally.”

Rather than sign to a local label, Mack settled on Mogwai’s Glasgow-based Rock Action – a decision based on auld alliances: “I’ve known the Mogwai chaps since the pre-Mogwai era. Stuart drummed for a while in a band I was in. They approached me shortly after they launched the label. I had already started to become quite cynical about the music business so for me it was perfect – people who I was already friends with wanted to put my record out.”

Which only leaves the obvious question: Why the James Orr Complex and not the Christopher Mack Complex? “I thought that if there was a chance that I might go on to commit some serious musical crimes, then it would be better to commit them in someone else’s name rather than my own.”

James Orr, if you’re reading, you might have a few fans out there. Especially in Brazil.

Com Favo is out now

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Interview: Late of the Pier

Late of the Pier hang in the woods

A feature for The Skinny

Late of the Pier’s introduction to the mainstream in September was likely to have caused one of two reactions. Either ‘rush out and buy the album’ excitement (if you’re under 21, easily swayed by hype and still possess an open mind) or dismissal along the lines of ‘not another bunch of Klaxons clones’ (if you’re over 21, averse to hype and bullishly cynical).

That’s because the introduction came courtesy of an NME cover, which pictured the youthful Leicestershire band in the midst of a messy tribute to Jackson Pollock (sound familiar?), above a strapline that shouted: “What new rave did next”. But, dear readers (of all ages), please try to forget that image for now. After all, it had nothing to do with the band, according to bassist Andrew “Faley” Faley: “You don’t get any say with the NME. They use and abuse you, but at the end of the day they can do a lot of good, even if they’re using you. The new rave tagline was something that was bound to happen with them and there was nothing we could really do about it.”

Late of the Pier's NME cover appearanceWell, they could have said ‘no thanks’, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, because Late of the Pier have conceived one of the most imaginative, ambitious debut albums of the year so far. Fantasy Black Channel is a glorious mess; an unrestrained, unclassifiable, unexpectedly triumphant romp through blaring influences and genres, from the 70s camp rock of Queen and Bowie to the primitive electronics of Gary Numan, with echoes of 90s computer games and snatches of modern house.

As such, it isn’t particularly coherent – the tracks jostle for attention rather than recline together easily – but it’s a statement of huge musical intent from such an inexperienced band. So just how did it happen? “Em… accidents,” Faley sheepishly answers. “None of us have ever really had any training. I think Sam had drum lessons for two hours once. I used to play piano a bit but I was never really passionate about it. But apart from that none of us have done anything. Sam just sat in his room from the age of 12 making music and he slowly learnt his craft that way, and with the instruments it’s just been a case of teaching ourselves. It’s always about trying something new. The music’s just a big array of everything, literally everything. In music pretty much everything’s been done at some point but for us, since we didn’t live through those eras, there’s still something new and magical and fresh. It’s reusing old ideas with newer influences. It’s just accidents a lot of the time.”

The band weren’t just relying on their own sponge-like musical tastes and sheer chance though; they also had the input of Erol Alkan, the much-feted London DJ turned record producer. Alkan came to one of their gigs and promptly declared them “not just the most exciting new band out there at the moment, but THE most exciting band around.”

The flattery obviously seduced the band, because Faley reveals that they’re already working on a new EP with Alkan for a January release: “We’re taking bedroom recordings into the studio and refining it and tweaking it with Erol, turning it into a more presentable package. I think we’ll be working with him for a long time.”

Why another release so soon after the album? “We’ve just got a lot of ideas,” Faley says. “Most of the album was old songs that we were getting sick of, so we’ve been waiting to work on new songs. And there is that second album syndrome when a band comes out so exciting and the second album comes out a year and a half later and there’s just not the same excitement. We’re still excited about what we’re doing at the moment so hopefully other people will be.” And with an evident habit of naming their music in cryptic, wordy fashion, have they got any title ideas yet? “No, but I’m sure I could think of 20 bad ones though. We’re really bad at names – really, really bad at it, and so we end up just picking one at random or just picking one up. Even the band name just fell together because there wasn’t anything else that sounded that good. It does have a reference but it doesn’t really make any sense. One idea we had for the album was Peggy Patch and her Sequenced Dress.”

OK, so it’s probably best that they don’t make all their ideas public. With half the music-loving nation still grimacing at the unfortunate new rave reference, dodgy album-naming could be the equivalent of career suicide for Late of the Pier. All that remains to be said is this: just listen to the music.

Fantasy Black Channel is out now.

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Interview: Neon Neon

Neon Neon

Neon Neon may not have won the Mercury Music Prize, but arriving for the event in a pair of time-travelling cars (if Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown had his way) with lego-brick medallions hanging from their necks, the eccentric duo could not be missed…

Interview feature for The Skinny

Boom Bip and Gruff Rhys have differing memories of the DeLorean DMC-12, the fabled supercar that moonlighted as a time machine in Back to the Future. Bip (real name Bryan Hollon) recalls that, in the American Mid-West of his youth, “it was always like every town would have about one. It was very rare to spot them, but you did.” But in 1980s Bethesda, a Welsh quarry town on the edge of Snowdonia, Rhys was not so lucky: “I didn’t actually see one till this year. I remember there was one TR7, which was the cheapest car that looked vaguely like a sports car.”

Over the past few years, however, the duo who call themselves Neon Neon have centred their combined creative energies on the car’s creator, John DeLorean, and capped their obsession by rolling up at last month’s Mercury Music Prize ceremony in two surviving examples of the gull-winged vehicle. It wasn’t enough to sway the judges, but Rhys and Hollon couldn’t have been too disappointed that their album Stainless Style lost out. After all, it had been listed as 20/1 outsiders by bookmaker William Hill, its profile had already been boosted by the nomination, and, considering the Mercury rewards British and Irish talent, they were lucky to qualify, given that Hollon hails from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Despite missing out on the £20,000 cheque, the pairing of Rhys, the revered pied piper of Cardiff’s evergreen psych-pop troupe Super Furry Animals, with Hollon, the respected LA-based electronic producer signed to Warp Records in his own right, still stands as one of the most intriguing collaborations of recent times. Coincidentally, the seed of Neon Neon was sown way back during the tour for Rhys’ only other Mercury-nominated album, 2001’s Rings Around the World, with Boom Bip opening for the Super Furries on some of their North American dates. After the tour, Hollon agreed to contribute to the Super Furries’ remix album Phantom Phorce, in exchange for Rhys singing on a track from Boom Bip’s 2005 album Blue Eyed in the Red Room. Down a phone line from Los Angeles, Hollon recalls that “it was kind of a barter system and it seemed to work out really well.”

A couple of days after my chat with Hollon, I call Rhys in Cardiff, and ask him if throwing himself headfirst into Neon Neon was a risk. “I don’t think it was a risk but it was fun doing something completely different,” he says. “Bryan asked me two or three years ago about making a whole album, and his brief was that it would have to be completely unlike any Boom Bip record or any Super Furry record. We had this policy of going where our instincts told us not to go.”

Hollon and Rhys with Har Mar Superstar (right) at the Mercury Award ceremonyThis transatlantic treaty would eventually suit the subject matter very nicely, but the idea to make a concept album about John DeLorean – the chaotic, womanising, engineering genius – actually came about during the recording, as Hollon reveals: “We never thought of Back to the Future once as we were making this. It was more that the music I made in the demos inspired the theme.” Rhys continues the story: “We borrowed a house from someone at Lex Records and set up the studio there for a couple of weeks. Will from Lex has a lot of amazing books – the 1980s are his specialist period – and he’s got a lot of synths, so we were sitting around all day playing with these synths and replica guns and reading glossy books about cars. Bryan was doing all these demos and the ones I was excited about sounded really glossy. I picked them up and built the basic tracks for songs like Raquel. I had to come up with lyrics that would sit with that kind of music and I couldn’t find anything with my own life that fitted in with that level of glamour, so within two or three days I had become obsessed with John DeLorean. His life story is so inspiring. Not necessarily in a good way.”

Indeed, De Lorean’s biography is a classic tale of the American Dream turned sour; a rags-to-riches story of stunning cars, stunning women, the Rat Pack, drug trafficking, an FBI sting, and even the Northern Irish troubles. I mention to Hollon that it sounds like prime biopic fodder, and, if it does make it to celluloid, that it now has a readymade soundtrack. “It’s funny because a good friend of mine is a video editor here in Los Angeles,” he says. “He works with this director and he gave him a copy of the record and the director loved it and was like, ‘why hasn’t anyone done a film on this guy?’ So he went into some talent agencies and talked to them about it and strangely enough there is a script around Hollywood right now being discussed, about a DeLorean film. The name George Clooney was being thrown around for being DeLorean himself. “But can you imagine that film?” an enthused Hollon continues. “You know, make it really good and grimy. Starting in Detroit and getting wrapped up in the Hollywood scene, and then the disco scene, going to Studio 54, and then becoming this hustler, and travelling around the world on a private jet, and hustling from South American druglords, to Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and all these people he hustled money from. Then eventually going over to Britain, talking to the Thatcher administration and building the Belfast plant and showing his rise, with the car getting ready to come out – and then it just completely flops. He bombs his own factory and blames it on the IRA. It would be the best movie ever, right?”

I feel compelled to agree. And in inadvertently creating the soundtrack for the best movie ever Hollon and Rhys had to radically rethink their whole approach to music-making. For Hollon, this meant rewinding his studio skills 25 years, for that 1983 effect: “That proved to be really difficult, to dumb myself down and strip it back. I couldn’t use a lot of tricky MIDI programming like I’m used to, so instead I tried to use a lot more step sequencers, more presets and different patches on older synthesizers and keyboards, which was really difficult for me because I really steer away from that with the Boom Bip stuff. There were certain clichés that I was hitting with the music, like with space-toms and really cheesy synths.”

For Rhys, it meant betraying his adolescent self and embracing 80s cheese: “The stuff I listened to as a teenager in the 80s was independent guitar pop and American hardcore and some hip hop, and what I hated was glossy pop music with saxophones and backing vocals. So in a way this record was revisiting music I hated and coming to terms with it,” he laughs. “I can listen to a Rick Astley track now and appreciate the innocence of it, whereas at the time it would make me feel nauseous.”

Rhys and Hollon were wise to ignore their inner taste monitors, because aside from the Mercury nomination, Stainless Style has not just received glowing reviews but has added another dimension to both artists’ careers. So is it the start of a beautifully neon-lit friendship? Hollon: “We definitely have plans to carry on with this. It’s not a one-off, but I think we’ve exhausted the playboy engineer genre.” Rhys agrees: “We’ve set up a way of working now so we just need the spark of an idea in the future. I think it would have to be extremely different. We’ve milked John DeLorean for all he’s got.”

Neon Neon play Oran Mor, Glasgow on 6 Nov.
Stainless Style is out now via Lex Records.

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Interview: Yeasayer’s Chris Keating on Beck, Barack Obama and the second album

Yeasayer, with Chris Keating far right

Yeasayer have been touring their debut album All Hour Cymbals relentlessly for the past year, so have Brooklyn’s finest experimentalists had time to even contemplate the follow-up? I tracked down singer Chris Keating to find out the latest for The Skinny.

It’s not long since you returned from your European tour. Did you enjoy that?

It was great!

You supported Beck recently too, good times?

It was definitely a dream come true. When I was 12 I really loved him, from the ages 12 to 18 I bought all his records.

Did you hang out much?

Yeah, we did actually. I wasn’t sure if we were gonna get to see him, or if he was gonna be a dick, but he was really nice, like extremely nice, a really cool guy to hang out with.

A bunch of us half drunken Skinny writers saw you at T in the Park, one of our highlights of the weekend. Did you enjoy playing the gig? People didn’t really come out in full force for that one did they?

It was probably just the competition in the line-up. That’s why I don’t really like going to those festivals. There’s too much going on.

So you prefer your own tours?

Definitely, I think everyone does. Maybe the headliner wouldn’t, but everyone else only gets to play for half an hour.

And you have another string of shows lined up?

Yeah, definitely. I’m not really sure about Europe because we’ve already played so many shows there. We’re looking to wind it down a little bit because we want to start working on some new stuff. [Yeasayer are ‘winding down’ with a 25-date tour of Australia, New Zealand and America from October to December]

Have you had any time to work on the first stages of the follow-up to All Hour Cymbals?

Absolutely. We’re fortunate that we recorded the entire first record by ourselves with very little outside help. We spent a couple of days in a studio where we mixed it but other than that we did everything ourselves. So every time I’m home I’m working on something, and I have a laptop that I take on the road. We have a lot of ideas.

How do you see it shaping up?

It’s gonna be a lot more realised than the last record.

Will it be a move forward? Your first record was already very ambitious, so do you think it will be hard to follow?

No, I don’t think so. I think it will give us a chance to push any tendencies we had on the first record even further. We’re a lot more comfortable now, sonically and as songwriters. On the last record I feel like we made a lot of mistakes, but I’m happy with the way it came out. There are a lot of different sounds we want to explore. We don’t want to remake that record, but we don’t want to start from scratch either.

Are you conscious of your niche fanbase, and would you like to open it out a bit more?

I would like to open up and appeal to as many people as possible, but at the same time I’m not willing to compromise in any way to do that. To reach more people I wouldn’t want to sign to a much larger label and compromise what we do. People who have supported us so far will like the next record better.

I read that you’re Cyndi Lauper fans, so you do have that pop sensibility…

Yeah I love Cyndi Lauper. I knew her records obviously, but we put it on one time on tour and we kept listening to it over and over again. It’s the way the songs are put together, and the textures of all the synthesizers and her voice. Money Changes Everything is an amazing song.

And as well as pop, the more credible music from that early 80s era is coming full circle again. Would you see yourselves as part of that?

I dunno, I find myself really enjoying a lot of that music, for nostalgia’s sake, and also I think it was a great era when people were really figuring out sequencers, when they were really figuring out the electronics behind rock bands. It was experimental in the 70s and then more realised in a pop way, and it’s really appealing music. And culturally I think music is cyclical, it goes through 15 or 20 year cycles, especially at this point, this confluating point. And bands today are referencing music from the past 40 years, from all of it.

And the internet has played a part in this?

That’s what we think. That’s the kinda postmodern idea. I’ve had to grapple with the music I’ve been exposed to, which is five generations of pop music, so I don’t really know where to start.

Are you familiar with the video for Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, with the dancing?

Oh the Toni Basil thing. Yeah I have seen that.

The reason I ask is that I saw your performance on the Jools Holland show and it reminded me of David Byrne in that video.

People have said that. Maybe it’s this awkward white guy style of dancing. I’m trying to picture David Byrne dancing. I imagine him being more stoic, but there’s maybe something to the wanky white man thing!

Someone else who has already finished his European tour is Barack Obama. As a band you’ve come out in support of him, right?


Do you think he can live up to all the hope that’s been placed upon his shoulders?

No, I don’t think he can. But at the same time, no-one could. He’s not going to completely turn around all the problems of this country, but as far as I’m concerned we’re standing at a complete zero point, getting rid of this corrupt, backward-thinking government. He’d be the ideal guy to come in and try to change that. At least we’ll get him in there and then I can be disappointed. I don’t actually agree with some of his politics, and I’m looking forward to him getting to a point where he can actually talk about issues.

In the run-up to the election will you do anything else to aid his cause?

We’re gonna do a voter registration thing on our US tour. It’s the most important election of the last 50 years, so I don’t have a problem with coming out in support of Obama, or more importantly, against McCain.

Songs like 2080 are projecting a future that’s gone beyond the reach of politics, like a rejection of what politics has inflicted on the world. Do you see yourselves as a political band?

I’m not sure, but I don’t know how someone could write about what they see around them and not reference politics. I’ve always been interested in politics, but I’m not in a band to be political, I’m not Black Flag. But at the same time, in this day and age, how can you not be affected by the issues around you? As an American, I have higher hopes of what an American Government could be, and what an American culture could be, and that’s reflected in the music. Sometimes. Sometimes I write songs about love and flowers!

And have you started writing songs for the next album?

Yeah, a little bit here and there. We have a lot of demos we need to work on. But, seriously, I think we’ll be working in winter – fall or winter.

For a spring release?

It really depends on what happens. We’re not really sure what label to put it out with. It might be more of a summer thing.


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Interview: Hot Chip

the world's most unlikeliest pop group?

This is a feature I wrote back in February for The Skinny, the week before Hot Chip released their third album. It all came together too late to tie in with the album release, so here it is on the eve of their T in the Park set…

Interviews with Hot Chip often begin with the writer grappling with the futile task of defining this most indefinable of bands. They will often indulge in a stream of made-up micro-genres: ‘lo-fi disco’, ‘future-pop’, ‘Fisher Price funk’, even. I realise I have just unwittingly perpetuated this trend, but for Hot Chip’s Felix Martin, all it means is that “people haven’t really been listening to the music, they’re too ready to just try and sum it up in one word.” But, he hastens to add, “I don’t get upset about it.”

What does concern Martin – whose role in Hot Chip is to “run the drum machines and laptops that contain the beats that drive the band forward” – is that it’s likely his band’s divergent sound probably lessens their impact on the charts: “We’re quite confusing. And it’s not particularly intentional on our behalf. It probably makes it harder for us to sell records! That’s just how we are.”

Despite Martin’s reservations, Hot Chip have already tasted crossover success with ‘Over and Over’, the eccentric groove that many declared the song of 2006. With major label backing on both sides of the Atlantic, could this quintet of late-20s, intellectual, studious record collectors by day / prolific remixers, in-demand DJs and synth rockers by night, become the most unlikely pop success of the year?

We’re talking a week before the release of the album that looks set to do it, Made In The Dark. It’s probably their most “confusing” record to date, but only in the sense that it takes several listens before the Pollock-esque sensory-splatter of sounds, beats and styles coalesces into their best collection of songs to date. “We never sit down and try and make an indie-pop record or a hip-hop track,” Martin explains. “We wouldn’t trust ourselves to do that, it wouldn’t be possible for us to do that. It’s not a really considered thing the way we go about putting music together, it’s on an off-the-cuff basis.”

This blind-sightedly experimental approach is exemplified in the title Made In The Dark. “It’s quite an ambiguous title isn’t it?” Martin ventures. “The song was written before the album came along and we just decided that the phrase was open-ended enough to not become irritating in a few years. I like it. The more I’ve heard it and thought about it the better I think it is.”

The embryonic form of Hot Chip began through the teenage affinity between vocalists/noisemongers Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, who met at the same London comprehensive that gave the world Four Tet and Burial. What we now know as Hot Chip was kick-started in 2000 with the additions of Owen Clarke, Al Doyle and Felix Martin into the unconventional, synth-heavy collective. After numerous self-financed EPs they released their debut long-player Coming On Strong on the indie label Moshi Moshi in 2004 to muted critical acclaim. But their evident talent soon attracted bigger fish, and they signed deals with the DFA in America and EMI in Britain. Two years on, follow-up The Warning was stronger and more ambitious, mixing an ear for the dancefloor with a real soul sensibility.

Despite their international profile, Hot Chip still favour a lo-tech approach, scouring charity shops for old percussive junk and using Goddard’s bedroom for recording. With Made In The Dark they did book some studio time, but only for a handful of tracks, as Martin recalls: “It wasn’t a glamourous studio with lots of posh, snobby people coming in. It was just a room in East London where we got our sound engineer to help us set up our equipment as we would when we play live and tried to capture the sound of that. The songs ‘One Pure Thought’, ‘Out At the Pictures’ and ‘Hold On’ were recorded in that way. A lot of the other ones were just recorded in Joe’s bedroom.”

And is Joe’s bedroom spacious enough to accommodate his sleeping arrangements and a multi-instrumental recording set-up? “He’s got an average-sized bedroom actually,” Martin laughs. “I’m not sure how long his girlfriend’s gonna put up with it. He used to have a very small bedroom that was a bit of a broom cupboard really but that was a few years ago. We’ve moved on since then.”

With both Made In The Dark and the single ‘Ready For The Floor’ hitting the UK top ten in the past month, Hot Chip certainly have moved on, continuing their mastery of the commercial/critical tightrope. Is this important to Martin and his bandmates? “The most important thing for me is that we can come to Scotland or Australia or Brazil and have a crowd of people that want to come and see us play. That’s the thing that makes me happiest. It’s always nice to have a nice review or be offered an award but for me it’s always better to have people directly responding to the music and getting excited.”

While the band themselves may be soaking up the adulation, their employers EMI have been mired in financial crisis, culminating in 2,000 staff redundancies the week before we speak. What does Martin think of the record industry’s current strife? “I think they’ll have to do something, whether they just become a smaller industry that doesn’t make as much money. The revenue that you make from music has changed so much, it’s more focused on live music and record sales have obviously gone down. There’s not as much money to be made for the record labels, but as an artist you can still make a living out of touring, but it’s pretty tough for people like EMI.”

Hot Chip live in New YorkAnd in such rapidly changing times would Hot Chip consider following Radiohead’s lead and offering a pay-what-you-choose download? “Yeah I think we would think about doing something like that but we’re not particularly technically or commercially minded people so we wouldn’t be able to set anything like that up ourselves. We’d need someone from outside to help us do that. We want to concentrate on making music really and not think too much about selling records.”

If touring is where the money’s at, then the festival season is a lucrative time of year. Since I spoke to Martin, Hot Chip have been confirmed as one of the highlights of a stellar T in the Park line-up, which will delight those who have witnessed their hypnotic live shows, where their recordings undergo radical transformation. And Martin can promise that your frantic scrabbling for a ticket will be amply rewarded: “We definitely work really hard at it. It’s really important to us because a lot of the musicians that we like and respect have also been excellent live musicians and we’d never want it to be a small part of what we do. It’s always central to our musical development.”

Hot Chip play the Pet Sounds Arena at T in the Park on Sunday 13 July

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