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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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