The doors are early. At 6.30pm, I’m normally finishing up the day’s work and arranging to go for a drink before we head to the venue in a couple of hours’ time. Tonight’s different though, different crowd, different part of town. Tonight there will be no support act. Tonight, Sir Tom Jones plays a headline London show, so I find myself on a (very) early evening tube with a lot of people in their 50s and 60s, heading west to review the show. And tonight, I have an assistant. Accompanying me is my mum Denise, who will be providing tonight’s commentary from the perspective of a 55 year old fan, to somewhat balance out the cynical opinion of myself, a 25 year old music critic. She’s well qualified, her last major concert was the Foo Fighters back in 2001, and since then she’s been to a few local hardcore shows in support of her drummer son. And she watched every episode of The Voice.
The venue this evening is the Hammersmith Apollo, a 1930s theatre that I’ve only once before visited, around 15 years ago to see Phillip Schofield perform in Dr. Doolittle, complete with animatronics. That was a great day, so we’re hoping tonight will shape up to be of a similar standard. Hammersmith Apollo, or Hammersmith Odeon as both my co-reviewer and Sir Tom would refer to it throughout the night, is a 3’600 seat concert hall. “It could do with a lick of paint,” Denise comments of the tatty walls and threadbare seats upon arriving, but there’s something quite poetic about seeing Tom Jones, a man whose career is enjoying a form of renaissance, in a venue which, recently inducted into that soulless chain of concert venues now referred to as the HMV ‘whatever’, has also been given a second chance. For all of its weariness though, there’s no debate that this is a venue steeped in history, from that historic Blondie performance of 1980, to a fracas after a Public Enemy show leading the venue to ban rap music performances for the next few years.
Tonight shall be no ordinary Tom Jones concert. Denise has been forewarned of the fact that this show is part of 2012’s Blues Fest, a series of events which has brought the likes of Van Morrison, George Benson and Ronnie Wood back to the London stage. As such, we’re prepared for the fact that this might not be a concert of hits, pray as I may that the opening notes of tonight’s performance will be the intro to ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’.
As suspected, they’re not. The show this evening will be an altogether more sombre affair, as Sir Tom explains in his opening address to the crowd. “This is a blues festival. So we’re going to play some blues!” And so they do, kicking off proceedings with a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Soul of a Man’. Working his way through tracks from new record Spirit In The Room as well as 2010’s Praise and Blame and a few favourite covers, Jones’ voice is phenomenal - deeper, more rich and more powerful than ever before. “What a voice, no-one’s got a voice like Tom Jones,” says co-commentator Denise. In fact, the whole performance is note perfect, aside from a fairly laboured duet with ‘up and coming popster’ Josh Osho (“No, wasn’t keen on that” - Denise) and the charming part where the 72 year old Jones forgets the opening words to Paul McCartney’s ‘(I Want To) Come Home’ and requires his son to come on stage for a swift prompt. There’s a warmth and palpable passion about the performance, a collection of Tom Jones’ favourite songs from his preferred genres of blues and soul, and although Jones is clearly enjoying the vocal theatrics that these tracks inspire, as well as appreciating the remarkable musicianship demonstrated by his band, the crowd’s reaction is pretty flat. And Sir Tom has noticed.
“What he understands better than a lot of young performers do, is that the people here want to hear his older songs,” Denise remarks of the crowd’s reaction. “Even if it’s a blues thing, we want to hear the bigger songs that we’ve all grown up with.” But it’s not until a good 15 songs into the set that the audience is really set alight, when Sir Tom sends his two guitarists to the front of the stage to sing the opening phrases of that ol’ Jones classic, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home.’ Up until this point, the crowd’s reaction hasn’t been cold, it’s been appreciative… but tepid. This song, however, triggers the rapturous applause and feverish adoration that Tom Jones concerts are so well known for. As honest, meaningful and rich as the blues tracks may have been, there’s no doubting what most of the people in the room are here for, and that’s to hear the hits.
I personally am a much bigger fan of the blues numbers than my co-reviewer tonight, and I embrace Jones’ impeccable croon as he rounds the set off with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’, as well as ‘Evil’, the Howlin’ Wolf cover that Jones recorded and released with Jack White earlier this year.
Leaving the stage for a few minutes, Jones soon returns to commence the encore. As the opening notes of ‘Delilah’ fill the room, the crowd is finally given the long-awaited opportunity to go mad. And they do. A delighted atmosphere spills over into the final song of the evening, Tom Jones’ renowned cover of Prince’s ‘Kiss’ accompanied by a chorus of squealing 50 year old women. It’s as though a tension has been eased in the room, as the crowd hear what they came to hear, and Sir Tom is able to give his adoring audience what they want.
(Fortunately) no knickers were lost in tonight’s proceedings, and I count myself as one of the crowd members who very much enjoyed the opportunity to see a star that has been so boxed in by his success given the opportunity to spread his wings a bit. Denise would’ve rather heard a few more of the big tunes. And she didn’t like it when it went a bit jazzy, but her overall verdict? “He’s still got it.” Can’t argue with that.
“In Europe in general, I think London’s probably the top place for us to play as a band,” states Matthew Dear as he sits at a table in the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen, nursing a tea and preparing for his performance later this evening. “The support and the energy that people bring, it’s always consistent, so it’s always a good thing.” And he’s not wrong. It may be a Monday evening, but this corner of East London is bustling, the bar overflowing with eager spectators turned out to witness Dear’s sold out show. New York based Dear’s rise to prominence has been a steady one, and one that’s certainly set to continue as he unveils the news that his latest album is ready to go.
“It’s coming out in August,” he smiles, “it’s mastered, it’s mixed… it’s sitting there, waiting. It’s champing on the bit!” Beams will be the fifth full length release from Detroit originaire Dear, who first made a name for himself in the Detroit techno scene where he co-founded his current label home of Ghostly International. An acclaimed DJ, Dear released music under the monikers Audion, Jabberjaw and False before stepping out as Matthew Dear, the musician that we’ve come to know and to love, and the one who’s sitting in front of me, explaining how he put his latest album together.
“Everything was done at my home studio, but this time, we took all of the tracks and mixed it at an outside studio,” he explains of the process. “I went to a place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a guy named Nicolas Vernhes in the Rare Book Room Studio. When I make a song in the studio, I work I work I work, maybe five hours go by and I think ‘ok, i’m getting a little tired… I think it’s finished, I like it like this.’ Then i’ll pass it around to the label and Sam [Valenti] at Ghostly [International] will listen to it, i’ll take it through my headphones and walk around the city or whatever, and then i’m done with it. But this time, I took everything apart, I took it to the studio and all of a sudden you get this new set of ears. So Nicolas would say ‘hold on, let me try this, and what if I make this sound a little quieter here’, and that’d make room for a little guitar part or something, so i’d go into the studio and add things. All of a sudden, songs that I thought were finished were opened up again and I got to see them from a new perspective, whereas in the past, I didn’t feel like re-entering that headspace. But this time, I felt like I had more energy to add more.”
And there’s certainly a sense of energy about the record. The brighter, lighter vibe that was first introduced on January’s Headcage EP rolls through Beams’ tracks, with Dear describing the overall tone of the record as “more dancey, more upbeat” than his previous work. A notably prolific songwriter and worker, Dear goes on to reflect on his method of reviving old ideas and adding a new, perhaps wiser perspective to them.
“[There are] a couple of old things [on the album]. There’s one song called ‘Shake Me’ that I wrote when I wrote ‘Gem’ on ‘Black City. I wrote a bunch of songs back to back, and that was back in 2003. So I pulled them out and did new versions for the album that became Black City. ‘Shake Me’ almost became a version of that song for this album. I like representing my old self as well. It’s weird, I have these little songs from when I was 23 or 24, and in a totally different headspace. And to include those on modern day albums is weird, it feels like i’m bringing a past soul back into the process.”
On to the new album then, and the origins which inspired it. Dear’s last effort, 2010’s Black City was widely recognised as the product of the sensations experienced when relocating to the vast metropolis that is New York City. It was an album that was home to dark, brooding tones and driving new wave rhythms. So where did the new album come from, and is it thematic as are his previous albums?
“This album’s called Beams, and beams are represented in a couple of ways. You have beams of a building,” he says, tapping the conveniently placed beam supporting the wall next to our table. “I feel like the songs are the beams of my life and the album, holding everything together. And then you have sunlight, beams of light, so optimism and colour. It’s still on the tail end of this black city experience where the dust is still settling. But Black City was done at a time when I was working non-stop, touring, travelling all over the world and seeing all of these really black cities - London, Tokyo, always being in the grime, and I think that album represented the style of my life. Whereas now, that beam is the step out of it, but a very peaceful step. So Beams is all about that.” “It’s weird when you’re coming up with a title, because you really have to think. You can’t force it, you really can’t overdo it. And that one just popped up, so I thought about the different ways it could be meaningful, and it still sticks with me. I’m happy with it.”
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs: one guy, a whole host of costumes and magnificently matched tones, beats and timbres. It’s this recipe that has placed Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, aka TEED, aka Orlando Higginbottom so prominently at the forefront of music loving minds over the past 18 months, and why the anticipation for his debut album Trouble to drop has been so… troubling. His outstanding live performances featuring dancers, extravagant headdresses and outfits, and carefully plotted setlists designed to lift listeners to the point of rapture have made him one of Europe’s most coveted live acts and now, he’s finally released his debut full length album. We catch up with Orlando Higginbottom at home, a few days after wrapping up a much praised headline show at London’s Koko to hear more about how Trouble came to life.
“I had Rob Da Bank and Zinc supporting, which was kind of… amazing!” Higginbottom comments coyly of his recent Koko show. “And I was lucky, the weather was incredible so everyone was in this great mood.”
The live show is where a huge amount of TEED’s following first came across the artist. With Higginbottom being an incessant tourer boasting an acclaimed live show, our conversation naturally begins by discussing whether he was always a comfortable performer, or whether nerves have ever played a part in his musical life. “I get a lot of adrenaline before a show,” he comments. “I’ve had a few shows where I’ve been nervous, but on the whole, it’s fine. Even early on, I wasn’t really nervous, it was just the odd one where there was a lot of pressure that I’d think ‘Ah. Fuck.’ It’s the ones where I know that it’s going to be shit where I get nervous!”
Such extensive touring has given the Oxford native occasion to not only create a dazzling live show, but also to air the tracks prepared for his long awaited debut album, Trouble. “I’m very excited [about the release]” Higginbottom states. “Of course, i’m a bit nervous. There’s a lot of work that I’ve put into it and it’s a very personal thing that i’m putting out there. So i’m nervous about how people are going to take it, but on the other hand, I don’t really care how people take it. I made it, that’s what I wanted to make so there’s nothing else I can do really. I am excited and I have no idea what’s going to happen with it. I don’t know if it’s going to sell any copies at all, or a thousand copies, so it’ll be a surprise.”
Trouble is certainly not TEED’s first release, having already put out five EPs, a plethora of remixes and enjoyed viral online success with the track ‘Garden’. So when it came to writing an album rather than an EP length burst of sound, did the writing approach need to be modified? Was there a need to plan more intricately what was going to take place?
“There was definitely no theme that I was working with, musically I didn’t really know,” he responds. “All I knew was that I wanted to keep writing an album until I felt like there was an album, until it took shape. What I can say is that at first, I didn’t think I’d be singing on it that much. I thought i’d just be singing on three or four songs, but I think there’s only one instrumental song on there which now, doesn’t seem surprising to me at all but if i’d said that to myself a year and a half ago, it would’ve been like, ‘oh wow, so you’re a singer then, are you?’. So that was something that took me by surprise. My plan with it was really just to explore the idea of a dance music album and why that doesn’t really work a lot of the time, so I was thinking about that and trying to work out what the problem is.”
The subject of the life span and validity of dance albums is a poignant topic on the day of our chat, as an interview had just been published where Higginbottom feels that his views on this matter had been misconstrued, leading to a series of clarifying messages appearing on his Twitter account.
“I did a magazine interview and I was talking about [this], and I wrote that I was thinking about why so many dance music albums don’t stand the test of time,” he explains. “But what that was understood as was that I was saying I’d written a dance music album to stand the test of time, but of course I wouldn’t say that and I wouldn’t think that. But the point was that I was thinking about that very thing, about how few dance music albums there are in everybody’s record collections, considering how popular dance music is and has been.”
“When I was a teenager, which I guess was my biggest album listening time, I used to listen to UNKLE, Psyence Fiction - I know that’s not dance, it’s electronic - but that album is incredible and still sounds incredible. Roni Size, New Forms. I was also listening to a lot of R’n’B and Hip Hop, a lot of Erykah Bahdu, Common and Dilla stuff. But I was missing those dance albums.”
All the way back in 2002, The Walkmen wrote, recorded and released their debut album Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. It was an album which served to introduce the band - comprising members of two former groups, Jonathan Fire*eater and The Recoys - as a brand new, raw and thrilling musical proposition, The Walkmen. But it was their second record, 2004’s Bows and Arrows that truly brought the band to the attention of those elsewhere than the band’s home of New York, as the driving beat of lead single ‘The Rat’ quickly and thoroughly infiltrated radio stations, music channels and CD collections in Europe and the US.
Ten busy and fruitful years have passed since those early days, with the band releasing a further four albums and in this, their tenth anniversary year, unveiling the latest addition to their impressive back catalogue, the divinely titled Heaven. “It does seem like a long time,” reflects vocalist Hamilton Leithauser of the band’s lifetime.
“When you think back to ten years ago, that was a really long time ago. We were very different people, the band was very, very different back then. We were all in Harlem and we had this recording studio… It seems like thirty years ago! But when we did these tenth anniversary shows, for some reason, it just made us all feel legitimised. At first it was a little strange as it didn’t seem like something to be celebrating, necessarily. But as I said, it felt legitimising and I think it helped us to finish the record. I don’t know why, because it took ten years to get there and it was a very gradual process, but suddenly we were able to look back and think ‘well, we did this! We got here, we’re alive!’ ”
“Our whole life is different now. We used to all live in New York, we were all single guys in our early twenties and now we’re all married with kids and live all over the country. When we got our start, we played around all the different clubs in New York once a week or twice a month or something. Now it’s an international thing, where we don’t really see each other much outside of touring because we see each other so much while we’re touring. So it’s very different.”
Scattered all over the country, how do the band members go about their traditional collaborative writing process? “It’s all done very individually which is always the way that’s worked the best for us,” Hamilton responds. “We used to try and get together and have band practice with us all in the same room, but looking back, nothing good ever came of that! Just a lot of stupid jamming for hours and hours, it was really just a waste of time. But writing now, it’s very isolating, it can be really lonely and stuff, because it takes a year where you spend so may hours a week in your room by yourself. We email stuff back and forth, but honestly, we get stuff done much faster and I like the stuff we write better. It’s made our actual output more productive, I think.”
Following a few years of moderate success, the release of the group’s sixth studio album Lisbon in 2010 would see the band once again thrust into the musical limelight, with lead single ‘Angela Surf City’ becoming an instant favourite of magazines, blogs and radio stations. The album peaked at #27 in the US charts, confirming not only that there continued to exist an excited and insatiable hunger for The Walkmen’s driving, powerful brand of vintage rock, but also proving that the band had reached a stage where they could produce that style of music better than any other. Their follow up album, latest release Heaven was recorded near Seattle under the watchful eye of Phil Ek, a producer who’s very well respected in his trade having worked alongside the likes of The Shins and Fleet Foxes, but one who’s also widely regarded as a taskmaster.
“He was. He really was,” Hamilton interjects quickly. “Kind of a pain in the ass too. He did a great job, but it was actually a pain in the ass! I suppose it was easier to make [the record] because we did keep a schedule and finish on time, but it was not a walk in the park making it, it was very tough.”
“It was just the way that we play together,” Hamilton elaborates, ”the way we play a rhythm, all of the old habits that we’d fallen into - he started trying to change those. So it was really hard, because we’ve been playing in bands together for twenty years. This band has been going for ten years, but a lot of us were in bands together for ten years before that.”
The hard work seems to have paid off, with Stereogum having already touted Heaven as the second best album of the year so far. ”We wanted something a lot more dynamic and a lot richer than Lisbon,” Hamilton goes on to explain, “and I think that’s what we got. We worked with [Phil Ek] because he’d done all the Fleet Foxes records. He actually called us up and we’d just heard the new Fleet Foxes album and thought it sounded great, so we thought, let’s give him a shot. We really wanted that rich sound and I think he brought a lot of that to our songwriting, and I think we also wrote songs that were a lot more dynamic. I think we ended up making something a lot bigger and more complicated than we thought, but I like it a lot more actually.”
Photo by Ro Cemm
The Walkmen have always been a band who deal in intricacies. Melodically, rhythmically and lyrically, the five piece concentrate on creating texturally rich tracks with a bold, impressively powerful vocal and lyrics that play host to poetic nuances, stories of love, life and growing up. ”Some of it was a conscious attempt to write very simple culture classic rock songs,” Hamilton explains of the thread holding the tracks on the latest record so seamlessly together. “Like ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Love is Luck’ were attempts to be as simple as we possibly could and to write in a style that we liked. That was a big victory for us, because we can never seem to write something happy and not hate it right after we write it! So to have something that sounds happy, rock and roll with simple lyrics, and to actually like it was a big breakthrough for us. Then the other side of it I would say would be the songs ‘We Can’t Be Beat’ and ‘Heaven’, which were the two last sets of lyrics that I wrote. I wrote those after we did those tenth anniversary shows, and they aimed to capture where we are as a band, a little statement of who we are.”
A lot can change in ten years, especially when your line of business is popular music. Ten years ago, iTunes was just beginning to make ripples in the market. It was the year that Pop Idol was launched, and a year where illegal downloads were beginning to truly effect the inner workings of the music business, with Napster having been very publicly shut down the year before. So a decade later, seven albums and a fair few worldwide tours under their belts, is there a consensus that the music business is still a good place to be?
“Well, it’s pretty hard to make a living,” Hamilton replies. “You have to travel, and you sometimes have to do things like play events that you don’t want to play. You have to sell your songs sometimes, and do things you don’t really want to do. You don’t really have an option anymore, anyone that wants to try and make a bit of money does stuff like that.”
It may not have always been an easy ride for The Walkmen, but enduring passion, belief and an unparalleled way of combining vintage instruments and Hamilton’s unique, soulful, rasping vocal have led the band to firmly mark their place in the world of music. Latest album Heaven is a fitting ode to all that the band and friends have seen, done and created, with each track brilliantly harnessing the sound and sentiments that the band have so skilfully honed throughout their career. Powerful, honest and eternally romantic, here’s to another ten years of The Walkmen.
Heaven is available now through Bella Union who are currently streaming the album in its entirety at the Bella Union website.
Recognised, renowned and respected for being the man behind the sumptuous ode that is ‘La Ritournelle’, but probably best known in the UK as that quirky, hairy guy that represented France in the Eurovision a couple of years ago, Sébastien Tellier is one of the more extravagant, confusing and wildly interesting subjects that a music journalist is going to have the chance to write about. Hailed in his home country of France as something of a national hero, the Parisian singer/songwriter has spent most of his ten year career inciting conversation due to his controversial musical antics, his curious attitude and his musical quest to explore philosophy and life.
A figure of humour, musical prowess and stature to the residents of his homeland and a man of cult status to those in the UK, Sébastien Tellier returns in June, bringing with him a new approach, a new philosophy and ideas which reach much further and much wider than those typically found on an album. My God is Blue is Tellier’s fourth studio album, a blue jewel in his crown and an eccentric, playful yet musically masterful effort. We caught up with Sébastien during some down time in Paris to find out more about his latest creation and the community he’s built around it.
“I love playing in the UK, even though the dressing rooms are often filthy,” Tellier states dryly of his feelings towards his upcoming tour which sees him come to the UK in July. “But I love those ten minutes that follow a successful show, it’s a great, highly addictive sensation.” A sensation that he’ll be well used to by now, as, if nothing else, Sébastien Tellier is a true performer. Whereas many musicians are content with quietly writing, recording and releasing an album, for Tellier, the process is an involving, all encompassing experience which links life and philosophy to sounds and rhythm.
Yet as wild and spontaneous a character as he may seem, there’s a distinct method to the creation of Tellier’s work. Each of his albums plays host to a theme, and that theme is addressed directly by the title of each record. Having already looked to Politics (2004), the Universe (2006) and Sexuality (2008) as inspirational touchstones, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the concepts of religion and spirituality fell into Sébastien’s creative path.
“My God Is Blue is about spiritual awakening, and it’s the mechanism of faith that interests me the most. To believe in something that might not necessarily exist - that’s a beautiful thing,” he states before listing ”power, future, awakening” as elements which are contained on the album.
That all sounds straight forward enough, as a concept. But for those who have experienced the complexity of Tellier’s music and character in the past, it’s clear that a phrase as soft and simple as this is a mere hint at something far more grand and convoluted, as is confirmed when Tellier goes on to describe the first moments of the album’s creation.
“I recorded the album in Paris, but the reality of this world was revealed to me during a shamanic trance in Los Angeles” he explains, bluntly. “There were no words or sounds, blue pixels morphed into bricks of blue nuances. And it was after this trance that I started to construct my inexpressible truth.”
Et voilà! With this utterance, Sébastien Tellier has arrived, more colourful, ambitious and lovably bizarre than ever before. With My God is Blue, Tellier has not only created an album celebrating spirituality and belief, but a whole community surrounding the music, a community that unites Tellier’s fans in a space of freedom of expression and musical harmony. A place where his “followers” are invited to share ideas and explore their creative passions and desires. And most importantly, a place where no one thinks that all of these ideas are completely mental.
Once the inspiration had been found and the theme set, Tellier returned to Paris to his home studio where the songs were constructed and the concept given the space to flourish. But in order to realise this project, a very sympathetic producer was going to be needed, something which Tellier fortunately found in Mr. Flash, a Parisian DJ and producer signed to the prestigious electronic label Ed Banger.
“He knew how to understand my ambitions,” explains Tellier of the partnership, “and where to make space when the planes became too vast. I wanted to make a futurist album with new sensations, and Flash was perfect to help me do that.”
In a recent interview, Mr. Flash proved that he was not only sympathetic to the ambitions of Tellier and his muse, but also that he himself was on a similar musical plane and therefore beyond doubt the best man for the job, stating: “if i had to say a few words about My God Is Blue, I’d say that we tried to infuse melancholy, rock, madness, tears, rainbows, magic, hope, majestic, poetry, mystery, lights….and at the end…true love.”
And the result? Irresistible pop twinges, sublime synth hooks, rich and imaginative lyrics and an album listening experience akin to no other. Although the theme and content selected for this album may sound weighty, the music retains a lightness and a playfulness which renders each track digestible, attractive and sincere. That’s not to say that he hasn’t raised a few eyebrows however. The video for latest single ‘Cochon Ville’ depicts, well, many a naked girl dancing in a club, to put it mildly.
“This song tells us to embrace our vices - not to kill them, but to tame them,” explains Tellier of the track, before going on to advise that “we should cherish the sources of our pleasure.”
“Nowadays, we’re living in a commual ocean which is pouring into a black hole of nonsense,” Tellier goes on to explain, as he introduces the online community that he’s constructed around his latest album. “The Alliance Bleue, with and by its followers, proposes to use this ‘virtual communal energy’ to appease the curiosity, the suffering and the frustrations of mankind.”
Upon announcing the release of My God Is Blue, Tellier invited fans to join this online community - a place to share ideas, to celebrate music, to explore beliefs and a place for Tellier to impart wisdom to his ‘devotees’, such as “Message Bleu #11 : Tout est vrai dans la tête du fou / All is true in the mind of the madman.” It’s a space for Tellier to further explore his ideas and interests and to share them with his fans, something which he’s looking forward to doing when he heads off on tour next month, ”Now my concerts are the time for me to meet my followers and to transmit the messages of Dieu Bleu [blue God].”
Eccentric, intelligent and completely original, 2012 has been crying out for someone like Sébastien Tellier to return to lighten the mood, to lead us to the dance floor, and to propose a fresh, eclectic and slightly twisted view of modern life. And one thing’s for sure - the world is certainly a much brighter (and bluer) place because of him.
My God is Blue is released through Record Makers on 4 June.
An artist whose sound is described as understated, evocative, catchy and commanding, Best Fit Recordings are extremely proud to announce the signing of Swedish siren FAYE to their family of artists, a songstress whose perfect blend of electronica and pop leaves an indelible impression upon all who listen in.
The story behind Swedish vocalist Faye Hamlin is by no means a usual one. How many singers can say that they spent their adolescence touring the world with the likes of Destiny’s Child and Aaron Carter as one quarter of hugely successful, multi-million selling all-girl group Play? Not many. And even fewer have been able to go on to create music with as much integrity and stylistic prowess as that in which Faye is so naturally and brilliantly releasing today.
Alongside long time friends and musical partners, Swedish production powerhouse Montauk, FAYE, formerly known as Fanny, is set to unveil her latest single, the dynamic, compelling and addictive ‘Water Against The Rocks’ on 25 June. Blending FAYE’s pristine vocals and sumptuous harmonies with gleaming synths and a seamless electronic backdrop, ‘Water Against The Rocks’ is the stunning sonic representation of FAYE breaking away from her pop roots and embarking on a much deeper, more personal and highly adventurous musical journey.
“I don’t like sitting around too much,” states Sir Tom Jones as he welcomes me to the hotel lounge that will be his press-hosting home for the day. “Something to drink?” he offers hospitably as he generously fills a glass. I thank him and place it on the table, knowing full well that I’ll be far too nervous to ever touch it. It’s a miserable London day outside, drizzly, grey and dull. And in front of me is Tom Jones, dressed entirely in black save for a handsome grey scarf, his LA/St Tropez tan radiant against the darkness of his attire.
Where does one even start when looking to write an introduction to Tom Jones? Would it be best to begin with the illustrious body of work that he’s produced during his (very nearly) 50 year long career? How about the innumerable collaborations and celebrated friendships, which see every person that comes into contact with the Welsh crooner being placed within two degrees of separation from his ol’ pal Elvis? Of course, his off stage antics and reputation as the ultimate ladies’ man are worthy of a mention, with every band that’s ever had a pair of knickers thrown on stage at them owing something to the jovial gentleman sat in front of me today. Above all though, it’s that voice. That unmistakable, soul filled husk of a Valley voice that’s adorned stages around the world, adverts for anything you’d care to think of, sold more than 100 million records and soundtracked everything from Edward Scissorhands and The Simpsons, to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He’s currently starring as a judge and guru on BBC1’s The Voice and at 71 years old, has just played his first major role in a tv show, King of the Teds. So no, he really isn’t one to sit around. As many projects as he may have on the go, today we’re talking about Jones’ first and truest love, the reason that he does what he does, the music.
“We did it in the same studio as we did Praise and Blame, which was my last album, with the same producer, Ethan Johns,” Tom explains of putting his most recent album Spirit in the Room together, his sentences bathed in his trademark Welsh lilt. “We used basically the same process - a small amount of musicians, no headphones, no separation, all in one room. Except for the drums, we had to put the girl that played them in a room because drums spill. Then when I talked to Ethan about it, we thought we’d just kick it up a notch, we’d spread it out more than Praise and Blame, which was more of a gospel kind of thing.”
Spirit in the Room, remarkably Jones’ 39th studio record sees the singer release his second album of covers in a row, this time angling more towards rock and blues influences than the gospel and soul of his previous release. “Well I thought, what if we pick a song from songwriters that I like to listen to? And then I thought about which ones they’d be. [We recorded a track by] Bob Dylan which didn’t make the ten but will be released as a bonus track, and Tom Waits, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, then some old blues. Odetta’s track ‘Hit or Miss’ is on there, which is one of the few songs that she actually wrote. She was a folk-blues singer, Odetta, and she wrote this song which I thought was great because it’s all about being yourself. You’ve got to do it your own way, hit or miss. Whether you succeed or not, you’ve got to do it your own way. We looked for meaningful songs that would sound real coming from me, not to do something that wouldn’t sound true.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done. By selecting a mixture of humble and relatable tracks, Spirit in the Room is about as true an album as they come. It marks a comfortable spot where Jones feels happy to create what feels most pure and honest to himself in his current position. Gone are the days of dying his hair and clinging on to the rapture of youth, this is an album for the grown up Tom Jones.
“We looked for real songs, like Leonard Cohen’s. I like him. With ‘Tower of Song’, we were thinking about either doing that one, or ‘I’m Your Man’ was another one. But we thought maybe [the latter] would be a little too… cliché. I’ve done macho songs before, so, you know… But ‘Tower of Song’ is about as real as I can get, it’s about what I do!” says Tom, before going on to emphatically quote the tracks lyrics. ” “My friends are gone and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play!/AndI’m crazy for love, but i’m not coming on…” (laughs) If I could write that well, I’d write that. And then he sings about Hank Williams, and I always liked Hank Williams. “I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does he get/Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet/But I hear him coughing all night long…”, it was all very meaningful. The reviews for Praise and Blame, which was released two years ago now, were really great and they said, ‘Now Tom is stripped down, you can really hear what he’s wanting to say…’, thank God for that! [The idea] worked so well, so why not stay on the same track but widen it?”
Although getting a bit more serious on this release, there’s still a tinge of that trademark humour and playfulness flowing through the record, found most prominently on Tom’s cover of a Tom Waits track. “I love [Tom Waits’] new album which is called Bad As Me, so I thought I wanted to do one of those songs as there are so many great songs on it. Ethan suggested ‘Bad As Me’ and I thought… Christ… he’s already done such a good job of it himself anyway, and I don’t want to be blasphemous, because there’s a few ‘Mother Superiors’ on there… But I thought, as long as I can do it convincingly enough, with the laugh, the chuckle, then it could work. And it did. So with the arrangement, we tried to make it more floaty, with an almost middle eastern feel to it. And we pulled it off… I hope! A lot of people like it. I’d love to hear a dance mix of it, because the beat it really strong on there. That could be screaming in a club.”
AlunaGeorge have certainly been keeping themselves busy this year. Their EP You Know You Like It was released to acclaim across the board when it appeared back in April, and the London based duo have just completed a tour supporting Friends. Their tracks have been remixed by the very capable hands of Lapalux and Raffertie, and the pair’s knack for putting sensual, soulful yet playful vocals against a sublime electronic and bass driven background has led the duo to be touted as one of the most exciting musical propositions of 2012.
We caught up with Aluna Francis and George Reid on a sunny Brighton evening before they took to the stage at The Great Escape festival to find out where they’ve come from, where it is they’re planning on going and the key to writing a perfect AlunaGeorge tune.
So you both met on MySpace, I believe?
A: Pretty much, yeah! It’s quite funny because it didn’t seem weird at the time, but when you say that now… it sounds a bit geeky! Like a dating agency or something.
G: Back when MySpace was new, I had some awful music up there - as you do. And I came across Aluna’s band at the time, and thought ‘that’s pretty good’. Then left it alone, and about a year later, I was trying to find a Van Morrison song on the internet, and their band had done a cover of it, so they came up again. Then another year goes by, and they were a featured band on the front page, and I was trying to get some remixes done as my band had just split up. So I got in touch about doing a remix, and that was pretty much that. Then we hooked up to do some writing, and it came out completely different to her band, so… yeah. She had to be stolen!
A: No, it was more that I was given an ultimatum by my band. All or nothing, I wasn’t allowed to do any other projects. So they kind of shot themselves in the foot there, I went for nothing!
Both of your backgrounds are in bands then?
A: Quite different bands though.
G: I was in a really sort of… techy guitar band for about four years.
A: And mine was quite electronic, left field, avant-garde stuff.
When did you reach a point that you realised you could make what you were writing together into a full project?
A: It was quite a while, it felt like we were messing around for ages.
G: Immediately there was something really fun about it. But I’d say it was about 6 or 7 months before we thought ‘well, shall we just put this music out and see….’ because there was no real idea apart from that we thought that what we were doing was quite good and it was fun doing it. So we kept writing, got the name….
A: Very original name…!
G: I just thought her name was too good not to use! But she needed some convincing… so we put mine on the end!
A: I couldn’t bear to have a band just called ‘Aluna’ or, ‘Aluna’ with other words added to it…
How does a writing session for AlunaGeorge tend to go?
A: It’s always different. The only basic rules of thumb are that George is the production side of things, and I do the vocals/melodies/lyrics side of things.
G: Then we nitpick and ‘suggest’ things to each other.
A: It depends, sometimes one of us will have something to bring to the other, or we’ll just start from scratch, or we might have quite a finished thing…
G: There are loads of different ways and starting points, but it’s nice to have different ways to do it - it’s never standard.
How did you approach the first live shows?
G: Well it’s taken us right up until now to get it to the point of how we want it. Because I think when you have finished a song that’s been made, pretty much entirely on a computer, you think ‘ah. Shit. How are we going to do this live?’ So it’s kind of reverse engineering and we look at what we can do live and what’s going to be electronic. But when we first started, it was really basic just because… well, equipment’s expensive! Neither of us had the money for it! So we did the first few gigs with this really basic set up, then we could buy another bit of equipment, so we built it slowly like that. Now we’ve got a couple of musicians that play with us. We’ve always had someone to play percussion…
A: This weird kind of, standing up [drumming] business… No drummer’s that happy with that set up!
G: The guy in Friends seems to do all right…
A: Yeah, but he’s a gymnast! He does use his whole body to kind of… work. But if you’re not that great with your body, it could look really weird to be standing up and drumming. It’s not a natural thing.
G: It’s tricky because you want as much of the sound of the songs to come across, but because a lot of people are still seeing us for the first time, they’re hearing a lot of our songs for the first time so you want something for people to get out of it. So we’ve added a live bass as well as the hybrid of electronics that we use live. It’s good though, and I think it’s important because it’s so easy to be this kind of ‘dead’ act. A lot of the time you’ll have someone with a computer just… not doing much live and as much as it sounds good, and 99% of them are triggering stuff… you just never know!
A: I couldn’t conceive of having fun on stage without the other musicians. The three of them together makes it feel like there’s an event happening.
If you had to pick a motto for AlunaGeorge, what would it be?
A: Umm…. if it makes you laugh, go for it! I’d say that in a lot of our music, that has been the motivation for choices! Which can end up sounding good.
G: We struggle to be able to take ourselves too seriously as it is just the two of us. But I think having a good rhythm is a good backbone for most of our songs.
A: If you feel awkward moving to it, it’s no good.
G: If you can hum it back, brilliant!
Who or what are your biggest creative influences?
G: Well for me anyway, i’d say other music. On the production side of it, I listen to experimental hip hop stuff so that was something I really wanted to try and do at the start of this.
A: For me, singing and writing lyrics is the only thing that really does it for me. When you’re struggling to know what you want to do, it’s very obvious when you hit on something that makes you feel like you don’t want to be doing anything else. The concept of ‘anything else’ is way gone for me!
What do you have coming up for the rest of the year?
A: Well, we’re hoping to get the album in the bag. We’re recording now.
G: Yeah, just try and get the album done. We’ve got a few festivals over the summer. But I think the album’s the main thing, then we’ll see when we can get it out, and maybe another tour towards the end of the year.
A: The Friends tour that we’ve just been on has been so much fun! We’re basically just hanging on to the tour because it’s been so great, if we can get to America… I don’t know, that’s a big step.
G: I think we have to get to here first!
AlunaGeorge will release their You Know You Like It EP on 12” in June through Tri-Angle Records, and catch them live at the following dates: