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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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Will someone make Mark Ronson disappear, please?

Mark Ronson and Lily Allen out shopping for a new necktie and skinny suit combo

The first time I heard the name ‘Mark Ronson’, I think it was a radio play of his cover of Radiohead’s ‘Just’. It was one of those times when you take a mental note of the name and check their MySpace later.

Ronson’s funked-up version of ‘Just’ may be a stoke of genius, but his current determination to become a popstar is just getting annoying.

There’s really no need for Mark Ronson to go out and sell ‘Mark Ronson’ to the world. He’s already established himself as a heavyweight producer, performing mixing-desk duties for two of the most, erm, commercial female artists of today: Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse.

His solo debut Versions proves the point. It’s not the work of a popstar. It’s a producer having a bit of fun, interpreting his favourite English bands and singers. With the exception of ‘Valerie’, it was underwhelming.

But now here is… MARK RONSON, ALL OVER THE TV.

Last weekend he was doing his usual, half-arsed rhythm guitar thing at Glastonbury, and tonight he was doing his usual, half-arsed rhythm guitar thing at O2 Wireless. Except this time it was during Wiley’s hit ‘Wearing My Rolex’. Listen carefully: what part of this synth-laden, electro-grime composition was the skinny-suited one actually playing? Hmmm.

If that wasn’t enough to send the nausea scale off the limit, Ronson sounds like a boring, pretentious, narcissistic, mid-Atlantic tosser whenever he deigns to be interviewed.

The man is a gifted producer, and he may look cool and all that, but he’s a shit popstar. He needs to get back to the studio and stay there.

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‘Rain down, rain down…’ – Radiohead @ Glasgow Green, 27 Jun

The 'eco-friendly' Radiohead lightshow

Everything was conspiring against me enjoying Radiohead last night.

1. We arrived too late to see support act Bat For Lashes.

2. Touts (evil scum that they are) were selling tickets outside for a tenner, tickets we’d paid £40 for.

3. The bar queue was ridiculous: no beer.

4. It rained almost continually – that especially wet, West Coast, pishy rain.

5. There was a high percentage of fucking idiots amongst the fans. The type of fuckers who barge past you to the front and then again when they want to take a piss during a song they don’t know.

6. The mood was hardly one of festival camaraderie: we saw three ‘square-gos’ come to nothing within a few feet of where we were standing.

BUT…

Radiohead were predictably awesome; awesome enough to render all of the above irrelevant. I was standing too far back to be able to block out all the elbowing numpties completely, but songs like Nude, Reckoner, Paranoid Android, Karma Police, Just, Bodysnatchers (etc, etc) added weight to the argument that Radiohead may just be the best live band in the world.

7. The train back to Edinburgh was overcrowded and half an hour late.

Here are a couple more really bad photos…

You can just about make them out in this one

Not bad for low energy lightbulbs

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New song from Radiohead… well, Thom Yorke anyway

Geeks might know ‘Super Collider’ as “an environment and programming language originally released in 1996 by James McCartney for real time audio synthesis and algorithmic composition”, but, to the rest of us, it’s the title of the new Radiohead song, currently receiving its premiere on their world tour.

Here’s a video, recorded by some over-enthusiastic fans in Dublin.

It sounds fairly simple, compared to a lot of In Rainbows, but still has that emotive power that Radiohead seem to harness so effortlessly.

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Radiohead – In Rainbows (another review)

 

(Self-released)

First impressions of a record are notoriously unreliable. It makes the whole practice of writing about music seem (even more) futile (than it actually is) when you dismiss an album outright and find it growing on you steadily in the following months. This doesn’t happen too often, fortunately, but it does happen.

So as one of the 1.2 million who downloaded In Rainbows on the first day of its release (perhaps ‘availability’ is a better word), I was tempted to throw in my tuppence along with the thousands of other reviews that appeared that week. But there was a problem: I couldn’t decide if I really liked it or was just being an annoyingly blinkered fan.

When I got round to putting it on my MP3 player, I’d listen to it on the walk to work, really love the first three tracks and tire of the rest. Or I’d be awake late at night, give it another listen and find new worth in the tracks I’d previously skipped. Any new Radiohead album is especially susceptible to this kind of oscillation of opinion. They’ve scaled such heights in the past that it’s impossible to listen to it as you would an album by an unknown – you want it to be good so much that you lose your critical distance.

But now, after a few dozen listens, I think I’m in a position to place In Rainbows in the grander scheme of things. It isn’t uniformly excellent, but I believe it’s their finest album since OK Computer. That doesn’t mean I was one of the bleep-haters who turned against Radiohead when they went a bit Aphex Twin on Kid A and Amnesiac. Admittedly, some of Kid A just didn’t work for me, but Pyramid Song is my favourite Radiohead song full-stop, and I loved Eraser, Thom Yorke’s glitchy solo album.

Anyway, here’s my slightly overdue review of In Rainbows, in a track-by-track format with ratings out of ten, because they’re one of the rare bands that deserve such geek-like scrutiny…

1 – 15 Step.(9) The perfect opener. Quintessential Radiohead: an inventive Phil Selway beat, a multi-layered guitar line, a menacing bass and Yorke at his sardonic best: “You used to be alright / What happened? / Etcetera, etcetera…”

2 – Bodysnatchers (8) Keeps the standard high, and then some. A scuzzy, syncopated guitar line is developed with Kid A-esque effects, but ‘the moment’ arrives with that unexpected, minor-key turning point, where Yorke sings, “Has the light gone out for you? / ‘Cos the light’s gone out for me / This is the 21st century.” Sounds like it was probably conceived not long after Hail to the Thief.

3 – Nude (9) Sure to join No Surprises and Fake Plastic Trees as a live favourite. Perhaps Thom Yorke’s finest moment as a vocalist – his voice has never sounded so ethereal. The sentiment is classic Radiohead: “Don’t get any big ideas / They’re not gonna happen.” Never has mundane realism seemed so transcendent.

4 – Weird Fishes (6) I like it, but it saps some of the album’s early momentum. It’s fairly uninteresting for the first three and a half minutes before that echoey drumbeat kicks in, followed by a foreboding bassline and token eerie electronics. Anyone who has the guts to write a song about being eaten by fishes deserves a bonus point.

5 – All I Need (7) Another that follows the familiar but oh-so-effective Radiohead song structure: moody, steady intro > fucking huge, spine-tingling climax > melodic come-down. Except this one stops abruptly after the fucking huge climax, in which the prevailing synth motif is drenched in pianos and cymbals.

6 – Faust Arp (5) With its irregular rhythm and strings, this is reminiscent of Amnesiac. On its own it’s pretty nondescript, but it serves a purpose within the album as a quick pause for breath.

7 – Reckoner (10) My personal favourite. That metallic cymbal beat, with a clean, minor guitar riff and Yorke at his most emotive. The bridge with the hummed harmonies reminded me a lot of the ‘Gregorian chant’ section of Paranoid Android. When the percussion strikes up again it’s just brilliant. A song I’ll never tire of.

8 – House of Cards (7) An upbeat song by Radiohead standards, with that unlikeliest of opening lines: “I don’t wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover.” It does rise occasionally from its repetitive base, but one of the more conventional efforts here.

9 – Jigsaw Falling Into Place (4) I’ve heard people call this their favourite track on In Rainbows but it doesn’t work for me. It’s probably the sharpest song lyrically, but I listen to Radiohead for the sounds first and foremost. Unlike most of the other songs, it didn’t really surprise me at any point.

10 – Videotape (4) The final song suffers from the complaint that afflicted Radiohead post-OK Computer and turned many off: if you want to be wilfully experimental, you damned well need a strong song to support it. And in this case, an unchanging piano sequence isn’t interesting enough to support that backward-taped drumloop. A disappointing closer, given that Radiohead used to save some of their best till last (Blow Out, Street Spirit, Tourist…).

So, by the law of averages, In Rainbows receives a rating of 6.9. How very Pitchfork.

I actually thought I liked it more. If you judge it against other new music of 2007 I think it deserves a higher rating, but within the Radiohead oevre perhaps 6.9 is fair. In true Radiohead tradition, there are some amazing moments, but there some undeniably average tracks here too.

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