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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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Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Album review for The Skinny

Bat For Lashes

Anyone acquainted with Bat For Lashes’ highly regarded debut Fur and Gold will know that the Brighton singer-songwriter (real name Natasha Khan) is something of a New Age siren. On this highly anticipated follow-up, she ups the mystic ante, harnessing the tribal energy of kindred spirits Yeasayer (most noticeably on thrilling opener Glass) and poses on the cover in body paint against a desert-at-night backdrop. So far, so cosmic. But there are also less predictable developments: Peace of Mind boasts an “all-black, all-gay” gospel choir, and legendary crooner Scott Walker makes a rare guest appearance on the vaudevillian finale that is The Big Sleep.

Conceptually, Two Suns is an album of opposites, an exploration of contrasting perspectives that Khan takes as far as the alter-ego ‘Pearl’, a character who acts as her more brazen, provocative self. While this can lead to occasional moments of lyrical indulgence, of more import is the fact that it only furthers her chameleon ability to flit between styles, from the menacing electro of Sleep Alone to the polyphonic vocals of Pearl’s Dream to the synth-pop gloss of current single Daniel. In less able hands such divergent ambitions would clash horribly; in Khan’s they gel to form another measured, consistently excellent album.

Rating: 4/5

Out 6 April on Parlophone
Bat For Lashes play QMU, Glasgow on 8 Apr

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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?

Yeah.

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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T in the Park: Sunday roving report

So much for Saturday. Sunday was all set to be the great day, with the clouds clearing and a glut of exciting bands to enjoy. The only problem was how to take it all in…

After a brief sojourn in the Media Village that proved uneventful (no ‘celebs’ to watch being slobbered over by the Daily Record), we take a walk in the sun to hear one of the more promising of the early starters in the Pet Sounds tent. Don’t be fooled by the name: 1990s are all about the 60s. There is a pre-LSD innocence to their guitar-bass-drums pop simplicity – and even in the way Jackie McKeown shakes his head like a young Paul McCartney. The fans at the front love every fresh-faced second of it, but some neutrals are left checking their watches.

An early afternoon lull in the programme allows refreshments and time to draw breath before the line-up really holds sway. Fed and watered, I follow the muso gang to Battles in the Pet Sounds. I thought Mirrored was an interesting record, but it didn’t completely win me over. That same effect of admiring indifference prevails today. They are all jaw-droppingly talented musicians, and the songs build and build like a gathering storm, but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking it’s just all a bit pretentious.

YeasayerAnyone barred entry to Vampire Weekend’s stowed-out show could have done a lot worse than take a walk to the Futures Tent for fellow New Yorkers Yeasayer. Singer Chris Keating endears himself by saying that the few hundred fans present are worth a 10,000-strong Main Stage crowd, and despite a few disparaging whisperings about their live reputation, Yeasayer are phenomenal. ‘2080’ and ‘Sunrise’ are spine-tingling at such close quarters.

Straight over to the infamous Slam Tent, and after 15 minutes of filler techno and a further ten minutes of uncharacteristically mellow pop tunes, the crowd welcomes French dance wizards Justice, the DJs with the rock band image. The twin banks of fake Marshall amps and the illuminated cross all feed into the image: imagine if Daft Punk took off their space helmets and upped the glitch factor.  “Got any eccies mate?” asks a bug-eyed face in passing. Justice bang out highlights from last year’s Cross album, meshing ‘Genesis’ into ‘Phantom Pt I’, followed by crowdpleasers ‘DVNO’ and ‘D.A.N.C.E’. The answer to the preceding question was ‘no’ by the way, and judging by the fact that I seem to be alone in my lack, I decide it’s time to move on.

Stumbling through the masses outside the Slam Tent, I pass a motorbike display show. They’re jumping up ramps and then landing on the other side, and people are actually missing bands to watch this. I keep moving, as the sun disappears behind a bank of grey and the Pet Sounds Tent beckons once again, with its promise of some passionate American indie.

Justice, somewhere behind that pillarUp on stage Matt Berninger, in his usual black shirt/black jeans combo, is leading The National through a beguiling set of their world-weary, heart-broken paeans. It takes a good three songs for them to get into gear, but once they let loose with the eerie majesty of ‘Mistaken For Strangers’, the set takes a steep trajectory towards the sublime, with ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Squalor Victoria’ the highlights. As he waves goodbye to the T crowd, Berninger looks genuinely moved by the experience.

By this point it had been a long weekend, but a further dilemma remained, the oldest dilemma in the history of festival going: which headliner? REM? Saw them headline here five years ago. Primal Scream? Tempting, but their recent output has been so-so. Aphex Twin? Love to, but can’t handle any more Slam Tent insanity tonight.

So I decided to sample the most talked-about band of the day (in our circle at least): the Brian Jonestown Massacre. A last-minute realisation that a Formula One boss and his misguided rock dream might not be the best headliner for the Pet Sounds Arena resulted in a promotion from the early afternoon for the BJM. And while their heady sonic brew is intoxicating, the small crowd shrinks further during the set. We are asked four times who the band on stage are by curious passers-by. Not that BJM particularly care, especially tambourine man Joel Gion, who resorts to a hissy tirade after being drenched by a thrown pint. As we leave for the bus, he’s still at it: “Is that all you got? Can you spit that far you fucking fag?” Nothing like a bit of aggro to round off a summer festival.

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