FFS: I’ve read that your name comes from seeing unhappy rich people at a wedding in Rome. Is that true? How did you find yourselves there, if so?
It might be a bit rude to reveal too many details, but we were in a band which played at a wedding for two ultra-rich aristocrats in Rome. I’ll tell you a wee bit.
I guess the first thing I noticed in this refined air was that if you used please and thank you, it was an immediate sign to the waiters that you were in fact not rich or important – the powerful ones just clapped for attention, and had the waiters running right away.
At the pre-wedding party, in an ancient Roman palace, I asked the band-leader of this other band what kind of guys he liked. He is gay, and was single at the time. He said “James, I don’t have a type (I later discovered this wasn’t true, he likes little cute fellas), I just like people who are good with people and full of happiness and life”
The next day, at the wedding proper at the family’s compound an hour from the capital, I noticed all the beautiful women – pretty much guaranteed at the houses of the very rich. The banjo player and I were single, and couldn’t understand why we weren’t excited about all these glamorous ladies.
It reminded me of what the band leader had said – these people didn’t really seem full of happiness and life. Far from it. I started thinking why, and I came to the conclusion that if you can have anything you want all the time, you get used to it – and the only surprise you can have, is disappointment.
This also fitted in with thoughts I’d had about the music of poor countries. When times are hard, people want happy music to entertain them. You listen to the rhythms of African, Brazilian, Cuban music for example. And music from wartime Europe is really perky too – ‘Pack up your troubles in you old kit bag and smile…’ and all that.
Of course, the opposite is true too, and some of the saddest music comes from the richest countries and times. It’s no coincidence that Nirvana became huge from America in the 90’s. Despite the name, we were determined that our music wouldn’t be all misery and weight. We still think there’s a playfulness as well as a passion to what we do.
The Covers EP is amazing. I especially like Shades. What made you decide to do it?
Well, I guess we’re music lovers – just like you guys – and we make our own music, but it’s nice to play with someone else’s toys for a change. When we first started out, we did a cover of Hot Chip’s ‘Over and Over’, which we put about and gave out for free. We thought it went down pretty well, and thought we might do some again. Here it’s a kind of segue to the new album out next year.
Of course, we love creating new songs, nothing beats that – but as a listener, hearing a tune you know and love does something special to you – and it usually puts a smile on your face, provided it’s good and different enough. That smile is valuable
Can you talk us through the four song choices?
Sure. Golden Brown always reminds me of the Dutch Masters in the National Gallery. My folks took me there when I was a kid and the Stranglers were number one. Something about the harpsichord and golden light in the portraits of potato eaters and gentry fused in my brain, and it still takes me back there. I always thought it’d be a good cover for us because of the old instruments we try to play in a modern way– and in this one, the band takes the foreground – my vocals are more of a backdrop to the rhythms of the strings and the claps. Very popular live.
Gigantic is one of my absolute favourite tunes. Kim Deal’s vocal is achingly cool, and this is one of those songs I feel is a part of my personal history. Like we did with Hot Chip, we wanted to do something unexpected – and a string quartet version sung by a straight white male of an indie-punk classic about a big black manhood seemed to tickle us. We decided to make it a kind of high-energy thing, and I thought I’d try a bit of Anthony Hegarty influenced vibrato in the verses, some Beach Boys harmonies at the end. I think they should bring out a chocolate bar called Gigantic and use this as the jingle.
Shades is a little known song by Iggy Pop and Bowie. It comes from the album ‘Blah Blah Blah’, which has dated badly. I just love the idea of this tough guy brought close to tears by someone buying him some sunglasses. The characterisation is faultless. I think this is the one people won’t know – there should always be one of them on a covers EP – and I’m really happy with the kind of 50’s do-wop theme we chose. Probably the band’s favourite.
In all honesty, I wanted to do ‘Love Is A Stranger’ by the Eurythmics, but the band kept jamming this in soundcheck, and it did have a perfect riff for the strings. We recorded it all completely live while staying at Hazelwood Studios while on tour in Germany. It seems to have a Baltic feel to it.
Can you tell us more about this pop career of yours we’ve been hearing about? What name were you recording under? And where can we find some audio examples of this dark past of yours?
There’re two things about that, I guess. One is, if you can’t laugh about yourself, you may be missing the joke of the year. The other is there is precisely zero chance of anything rising to the surface, so I can talk about it with relative impunity.
That was a very weird, but very interesting experience indeed. I recorded with a pop producer who had worked everyone from Pink Floyd to Zucchero, Tine Turner to Julie Andrews. I remember him listening to the indie-electronica I’d been doing, and turning to me and saying ‘Stock car racing is a fine hobby, but when you’re old and grey, don’t you want to be able to say you tried Formula 1?’ That line really got me. So I gave it a go.
We spent about 10 months recording, talking strategy, doing videos. I was terrified about the end result, but he was a very interesting man, and it was a very colourful period of my life. In the end, I injured my vocal cords and had to have an operation. Couldn’t sing for a year, and the pop juggernaut moved on without me.
Glad to have had a peek into that world though.
You’ve also recorded with Bonobo, and you play in Shoreline. Do you like working in lots of different genres? Is it something you intend to continue?
Well, as I said we love music – and not just the stuff that’s paradoxically ‘hot’ and ‘cool’. I’m honoured to be involved in anything of quality – and those two were just a case of knowing the people concerned and being asked. I had some fantastic experiences with both.
Shoreline, which I’m still in, has a special place in my heart. It’s the Willkommen motherband, and full of now long-tem friends. Because everyone is in other bands, we don’t get together very often, but it’s like a club we all belong too. The album’s great, and we just did a tour with Mumford and Sons, who are absolute gents. We played about 6 gigs, which is like two year’s work for Shoreline.
The other members of the band have other projects too. How does that work out with getting together to practice, record and tour?
It can be tricky, but I can’t blame anyone for wanting to live their lives as fully as possible. We’re lucky in this band because there is a very strong band feel. It may have started as a band for my songs, but the writing is much more team-led now. Every one of the 5 of us is important in making the sound that we do. We’re very aware of what our sound is, too, so we can get things done pretty quickly. And we really enjoy getting together – which isn’t always the case with bands, I can tell you.
Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming album?
I guess this album is more of an album, if that makes any sense. The first one was about defining a sound for the band, as we formed that band. It had something like 18 players on it, including guests, cause I wanted to get all my friends together on it. This one, ‘Of Flight and Fury’, has just the 5 of us playing on it, having played extensively together over the last two years. It feels whole. You never know what’s going to come out when people get together, but it’s turned out like we’ve produced a rock album. It’s a bit like a lost Love album, although it has some strong English psychedelic influences too. Very excited.
Do you all have musical backgrounds/qualifications? Did you play instruments in your school bands and stuff?
I grew up around jazz musicians – my father was a professional drummer – but have the least qualifications. Mike (violin) and Rhys (double bass) did degrees in music. Will is a mad scientist really, but has played cello and piano for years, and Jim’s been in upward of 20 bands as a guitarist.
You’re part of the wonderful Willkommen collective, have you got any favourites amongst the acts (other than yourselves). Any good dirt to dish on any of the members?
There have been fights and affairs among the members over the years, but I think I’ll leave that to your imagination. I really love Sons of Noel and Adrian live. We all think Shoreline have made the most complete album. The Leisure Society are obviously on their way to great things. There’s a song by Moonshine~Moonshine that is one of my favourites of the last few years. That’s the thing really, there’s a lot of great stuff there, and more bands coming through. They tell me the Laish Quartet and Climbers albums will be top too.
We’ve noticed that it says on your myspace that you’re one of the founder members of the collective. Does that mean you’ve accepted new bands into the fold? What would a band have to do to join? Is there a test?
Originally there was just Shoreline, ourselves, Sons and The Leisure Society. We decided to do some gigs together, and I promoted them with much help from the others. Jacob from Sons and I came up with the name – because we all had Will in common.
As the years have gone by, more friends’ bands have joined, while Marcus and Tom have started the label. I’ve been a bit too busy, so I’m afraid I’m not up too speed with all the bands – or any initiation or hazing ceremonies. I believe someone did suggest the girls shaving the boys, and the boys shaving the girls, but I think that got vetoed.
We’ll all happily put a good word in for anyone who buys us a pint though.
What are your favourite albums of all time?
That’s just too big a question, so I’m gonna limit it to the first one that pops into my head. And the winner is ‘You Forgot It In People’ by Broken Social Scene.
And are their any little-known bands you’ve discovered on your travels that you think we should check out?
Dennis Jones, if you haven’t seen him live, is amazing. We played with Vadoinmessico the other day, and I really enjoyed their set. We also played a few shows with Babel from Bristol – I love their murder ballad ‘Police Car’ – and their drummer has the best groove around.
Interview: Lynn Roberts