Monday, July 26, 2010

Johnny Flynn interview (2010)

Johnny Flynn
Johnny Flynn is the dashing prince of the nu-folk/anti-folk scene in the UK right now, if you haven't heard. Flynn's a kind of triple threat artist who at just 27 has released an album of songs, Been Listening, which seem to come from a voice of great many more years experience. Life as a poet, actor, musician and artist has helped shape him into a grounded yet exquisite performer who excels in each of his fields. But it's his musician's hat though he'll be wearing on this tour – a previous stop off in Perth for a traveling Shakespeare production (Taming Of The Shrew) was his only other Australian visit. Although his life sounds like scheduling hell, Flynn begins our talk by discussing a recent foray into some kind of routine – surely the enemy of any artist?

"Any period of working or producing something, it takes time for me to really get flowing I suppose, so it's nice to know everything's set up for me to just go in and get to work." He describes an away-from-home recording studio he's recently acquired. "If I'm working at home, its just endless distractions, you know. I end up in the yard looking at my flowers." He laughs gently to himself, "It's festival season now so I kind of go to work on the weekends and record during the week, which is a nice system for me."
Flynn's poetic works are as many as his songs. The heart of his music, despite his ability as a musician, is fine prose and storytelling. "I used to start by writing everything in verse, so the music always came second, but at this stage I usually know whether what I'm writing will turn into a song or a poem." He adds, "I've learned to write verse with enough space around the words to form its own rhythm." Coming from a poetry background and declaring William Shakespeare as an influence is certain to influence how fans view Flynn's lyrics. In a kind of poetic response, Johnny offers, "I think if I'm doing this right, then I should be able to avoid explaining what my songs are about." He adds further, "I'm into songwriters who are poetic in their lyrics and use less literal expressions. I get quite bored with writers who simply translate what they did or what somebody else did into a song, I mean you only have three minutes to tell the story so you might as well make it something worthwhile. It's much more challenging to take the assumption people can read into what you're saying metaphorically, go above expected turns of phrase and then add lots of colour as well."

Outside of literature, Johnny only really claims one songwriter as an influence on him as a young writer. "I really liked Bob Dylan when I was growing up, but I'm not really one of those music fans who thrived in isolation, listening to a great many artists who affected me or my music." He says adding, "I do like this American scene at the moment known as anti-folk. There's some real raw talent coming from there I think." On his journey to making his second long-player Been Listening, Johnny has gathered a solid group of artists to collaborate with. The Sussex Wit go where Flynn goes and have become essential to taking his music on the road. "My sister Lillie's in the band, and the rest are people I played with in other bands and some I grew up with as friends." He beams. Flynn can claim fluency in guitar, mandolin, violin, organ, accordion and trumpet, no less. Good thing then he's bringing his band with him on tour to help out with those, but as earner of two music scholarships from the age of 13, band or not he's studio-ready anytime.

"I started out playing on a four-track because I used to have this thing about having to  playing all the instruments myself and so I'd always record all the parts separately into a tape recorder and feed those into the four-track, but you'd always end up with this terrible hiss like some old 78rpm record." He laughs. Flynn's sharing the band duties around now, but on the idea of potentially writing songs for other artists to sing, he's not budging. "No I'm not really interested in doing that because I only really write when I feel I've got something to say and then it's usually quite personal to me." He explains, "My music feels kind of synonymous with my expression of it. At least that's how I feel about it now, but who knows if that might change. Writing for other people I think would feel a little contrived or untruthful, and besides I'm not exactly a Max Martin type hit maker or anything like that." He giggles.
Last year, singer Lisa Mitchell, who was probably just shopping for an extra if we're being frank, introduced Australia to Johnny through her video for Coin Laundry. He appeared as the bookish object of her lust in said establishment – a humble cameo, yet oddly memorable. Flynn reveals, "My friend who's a film maker directed that, and I'd never met Lisa before, but it's funny because my girlfriend actually worked on one of Lisa's previous videos as an art director." He exclaims, "So we didn't have any musical connection but we had a loose connection through video, I suppose. I do a bit of acting and so when they needed an extra for that clip my director friend offered me the job. I got on really well with Lisa and by chance I ended up touring with her in Europe along with Mumford and Sons earlier this year."

In closing, I want to ask Johnny if he's a distant relative of flamboyant Aussie actor Errol Flynn. His family come from theatre stock, and are from far flung corners of the globe. Pressed on the subject, he laughs, "I am not willing to deny that, but I have no evidence to suggest it's true." He adds, "I'd like to think there's a connection in there somewhere, but it's one of those things I only want to know if it is actually true. Otherwise I'm just willing to let remain a mystery."


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Torquil Campbell (Stars) interview (2010)


Torquil Campbell – leader of Montreal's Stars comes across as a tireless information enthusiast, responding to all questions in our interview with as much detail as he can muster. Characteristically, his band (in which the singer shares co-lead with vocalist Amy Millan) are celebrated word smiths, big of heart, and key-holders of sublime hooks. A new album, The Five Ghosts only strengthens their already solid catalogue, and upon discussing Stars' fifth record with Campbell, it serves as proof that some pretty sinister events can sometimes result in truly great beauty.

Regarding the album's intriguing title, Campbell opens up about being strangely pestered by the number five, and felt forced to confront its apparent hold on him. "It's a very unsettling number for me, and overtime I began to obsess over why that was." Campbell mysteriously reveals. "Usually I have a very polemical answer for what I write about and why I use certain references, but the five ghosts were just there. They seemed to demand the record be called that, and I don't want to give you a flakey answer, but it was something that was outside of my reasoning." Torquil was eventually moved to do a little research on the expression 'five ghosts', which offered a something of an explanation. "I found out that the five ghosts is a feng shui term meaning the five points of energy in a house and how those energies change when someone dies." He describes, "It suddenly all became clear to me because my father had just died."

Even stranger events began to take place, informing precisely the direction Stars' new album was going to take. One highlight from The Five Ghosts is also the bands debut 'impressionist' track, He Dreams He's Awake. This trance-like, mostly instrumental track stands alone alongside their often conceptual rock songs. Torquil elaborates, "That's an interesting one because it was the very beginning of the record, and is so far the only song Stars have ever written with just the five of us sitting in a room starting from scratch." He remembers. "It happened the day after we all got together in Vancouver to start work on this album, and Chris, (Seligmano - keyboards) who'd been living in this rented apartment, was coming to rehearsals in the daytime looking ashen faced, having not slept all night. He claimed that he was being haunted by this female entity that was trying to attack him!" Campbell exclaims, laughing. "We thought it was kinda funny, but then on the third night he left his flat and refused to go back, so the rest of us had to go back and get his luggage and stuff. He told me he would wake up just after falling asleep each night and this ghost would be there standing over him. So this record was started in these strange circumstances and no matter how you try and steer things to be, I dunno more cheerful I suppose, ghosts were all there around us commanding the album."

If Torquil felt that making this album satisfied the number five's hold on him, he's not willing to admit it just yet. If I'm reading between his words correctly, Campbell doesn't want those little demons to disappear as long as they're pushing him into creative terrain. "Our (Stars) parents never told us when we were growing up to go get a job or gave us a hard time about who we were, so I feel blessed by that, but it means that we have a temptation to explore the dark side of life when we get together. I don't really know why that's the case, I mean the hardest question for me to answer is always 'where did you get that idea from?'" Campbell continues, "If I knew the answer to that, I'd go back there and rape the place of ideas. Instead I have to just ponder these things when they come." He adds, "So in reaction to these 'five ghosts', I ended up writing a short poem - which we didn't use on the album - but it goes; Five ghosts in the garden,/five ghosts in the shed/five ghosts on the pillow when I lay down my head. Who were these figures/who could they be?/Three of them were strangers and the other two were you and me."
The bizarre happenings Campbell describes, encouraged Stars to map out and stick to a previously untried method of recording for the fifth album, with the emphasis on capturing the 'raw spirit'. "We had a very clear plan in that we weren't going to demo but instead get together in three individual sessions. (We would) write for two weeks, record everything we had in another two weeks and then take time off and go back to what we had recorded and see what we thought of it." How the change of process affected the album and band in Torquil's mind was ideal for preventing any stagnation. "The fun part of making an album can be quashed if you over do the demo side of it. You can end up trying to recapture a flame that was burning somewhere else so we didn't want that to happen anymore." He continues, "As much as we love Set Yourself on Fire and In Our Bedroom After The War, I think they suffered from people not willing to let go of individual contributions and tunes, so this time we were very ruthless with ourselves and pushing for the songs to earn their place on the album."

Campbell is separate from the rest of Stars in that he's hardly able to play any musical instruments, yet he possesses an incredibly keen ear for luscious hooks and melodies, making him peerless within the band. Of his main role, Torquil chimes in; "Knowing melody is just like knowing how to skateboard, you know." He says in what I've come to see as a typical response from the singer; "It's a particular physiological thing that happens in our brain. Some dudes just know how to skateboard, but I could never get that. I don't even know that much about making music, but I know how to write melodies. Even Johnny Rotten, who wasn't a musician had a great sense of melody – he understood what a brilliant hook was, and that's enough sometimes." He continues, somewhat understated. "People look for gratification in pop music, so if somebody has a half finished phrase in their mind and you can write the end of the phrase for them in music, you're giving them gratification and they're gonna want to keep coming back. That is what I know how to do. It's all I know how to do in music."

Torquil may have answered his calling in music, but a sideline in acting holds a special place for the singer. Appearances in popular dramas Sex & The City and Law & Order have fed his urges, along with various stage shows in Canada and New York. He's the son of actor parents Doug Campbell and Moira Wylie, but instead of a full time career, Torquil sees it as more a retirement plan. "It was totally what I thought I would end up doing you know." He laughs, "Everyone in my family is in the theatre and it was the only world I knew, until luckily I met Chris - my first musician friend." Torquil adds, with a mock sigh. "But somehow I just know I'm going to end my days acting though."


Tom Gabel (Against Me!) interview: 2010


In the 13 years since forming Against Me, singer Tom Gabel has grown his 'baby' from a solo acoustic act to a full blown band of aggressors, moving increasingly in step with the current wave of US punk bands. However Against Me's distinction is in their outspoken criticism of that very scene and Tom - the reluctant spokesman's - apparent fragility. His band's tour to promote current album White Crosses - their fifth - will include Australia but tonight an eloquent Gabel, fresh off stage in Canada is hunkered down in the band's tour bus, fighting back what sounds like flu.

"I love touring in Canada but we always end up playing there in the dead of winter" He sniffs, "It's inevitable we end up getting sick so at least when we get to Australia we can look forward to some sun." Tom explains in before a bout of coughing. "Oh that's just a little after blast from the show, we played about an hour ago you see." He says. Against Me's 2010 release, White Crosses, follows the band's biggest album of their career thus far, New Wave (2007). Both projects have been over seen by star producer Butch Vig, but at what stage in the current album's process did Tom decide the Against Me/Vig combo could turn out another ripper? "We knew pretty soon after we started making the album that we were going to work with Butch again." Tom assures, "The last time, working with him was a fucking magical experience and thankfully, he liked our stuff a lot and actually called us to ask if we wanna do the next record together." 

Tom defines their working relationship as more 'band and older brother' than knob pushing dude behind glass. "Butch is a great guy to hang out with and just drink, you know. He's been in a few bands so he knows how to play hard as well as work hard." Tom smiles knowingly, "Also it's hard to have perspective when you just finish an album, you need a little time to digest how you feel about the songs and even the whole experience of making it." Butch added to his producer role that of objective critic, Tom explains. "It's hard taking criticism from anyone in the band, I mean we all would argue a lot about stuff, but Butch was an outsider and so we kind of automatically accepted his opinion because it never felt like a personal thing." He laughs.

The album's title and title track, White Crosses is a loaded term, conjuring up images of white supremacy in the American south or vast fields of fallen soldier's graves. However Tom's anger, he explains, was not aimed not at the KKK or lives lost in war. "I wrote the majority of the record in St Augustine, in Florida where I recently moved to and just around the corner from my house there's this church and the front lawn is covered in these little white crosses, and behind them there's a piece of text saying each of the crosses is there to represent how many abortions occur in America every day. So the song is in essence a pro-choice song, and seeing those crosses everyday, I fantasised about kicking them down, or driving my car through them. I think there's something to be said for acts like that - it'd be very gratifying, but instead I play music and write about this stuff. That's why I say in the lyric, "I want smash them all down".

Fighting words are never far from Gabel's mouth when it comes his perception of injustices. He's also been very outspoken of his punk peers' use of the genre to raise their own profiles, and generally miss the point. The current album's lead single, I Was A Teenage Anarchist takes careful aim at punk scene posers and prompts the question; has punk completely lost its way? "I think as long as there's passion and enthusiasm for punk music, and people are still doing it for nothing but the right reasons, then it still has meaning." Tom offers. "I think it's about what's personal to the individual - For me, my life has been changed by punk, and so if somebody comes up to me and says, you're not punk or our band's not punk... Punk is this, this and that, it makes me mad because they don't even see that they're putting rules and conditions on something which isn't defined by fashion or haircuts." He continues, "I'm not doing anything original, I mean the bands that I really admired were the ones who were most critical of the snobbery around punk, bands like Crass were saying things like 'anarchy has just become another token cancer, another cross to bare.' That sort of stuff would always effect me the most."

Gabel's online blog keeps fans up to date with the band's every move as the tour rolls on, however his very personal approach has unearthed some pretty gruesome effects traveling has had on the singer. "We do pretty aggressive, exhausting concerts and I've come pretty close to losing it after shows." Tom reveals, "I write a lot on tour to keep focused, but there's a whole shit storm that goes on around touring and playing in different cities ever other day." He adds "It feels like you're in a submarine going along in trapped in this tiny space, then you surface for a show and then it's back down in the depths and (you're) moving on again. The diet really suffers too, you know." Tom grins, "I think I'm up to day six now without having even seen a vegetable!" 


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mark Lanegan interview (2010)

For Washington based singer Mark Lanegan, music has been a great addiction and one rarely satisfied by the occasional hit. He began performing in grunge nearly-rans, The Screaming Trees in the late '80s, but was restless with their slow progression and so before the band even fully broke through, Lanegan instigated a solo career to satisfy his need to write and play. The Screaming Trees, carried along on the grunge wave, seemed poised to hit big, yet it soon became clear their singer was intent on paving a way out of grunge for himself and continued to surface, mainly in collaboration, with artists also seeking a way out of their respective scenes. With that in mind, it's Mark's collaboration with the English duo Soulsavers - on two of their three albums - that begins our talk ahead of his Australian solo tour. The roof-raising soul/gospel angle of these works saw Lanegan move as far away from his grunge roots as possible.

"The gospel influence on those albums was those guys' vision, but did I co-write a lot of the music on Soulsavers." Mark explains. "It was just one of those things, they asked me to sing on it and I liked the music so, that's what we did. I have simple criteria – If someone asks me to do something and I like what they do, I'll get involved." The challenge of writing and recording music he had no founding in was appealing for the restless artist that Mark is, he continues; "Any sort of music is a challenge, because you're creating something where there was previously nothing and so I find that more challenging than the type of music I'm doing." He adds, "The thing that draws me to these different projects is that it's actually a treat to do something outside my realm and that keeps it interesting for me." The Soulsavers marry down-tempo electronica with the uplifting gusto of traditional gospel, if you're among the uninitiated. Yet Lanegan found their niche appealing not from a religious perspective but because of its rarely matched power to move the listener. "I find certain gospel songs incredibly moving, and just because I don't go to church that doesn't mean that I can't be moved by the music of that environment." He states, "But you know it doesn't matter if its gospel, or rock or blues as long as the artist means it and you can feel that, then that's what's gonna draw me in every time."

Mark's current tour is a look back at his solo work, but also promises to include a few tracks from his many collaborators. A third album with Isobel Campbell (ex-Belle & Sebastian) is due later this year, Lanegan has recently completed a tour with his ongoing collaborator Greg Dulli (as The Gutter Twins) plus another solo record is underway. The work keeps piling up, and as Mark puts it, it's all down to him being unable to refuse an offer. "There's time for everything I suppose, but really, I just can't say no." he laughs, "I'm never not working on something or other. One of the main reasons I guess I don't say no to working with so many different people, because each time it's a surprise." He adds, "I know what it's like to sit down and write a song by myself, and that's my comfort zone I suppose, but I might not know what it's like to write with you for instance, so that'd be the more interesting option every time." Interesting is the word, I've never written a song in my life but it seems rude to not offer Mark the opportunity to get a co-write happening anyway, "I'm very busy for the next few years but….!"

Moving on, we discuss Mark's involvement with Queens Of The Stone Age. Between 2000 and 2005 he became a full-time member after a long association with the group. I ask Mark if he was perhaps missing the dynamic of a group, and the simpler pleasures of just rocking out. "I guess that was the thinking there."  He laughs. "I had played with Josh already in Screaming Trees (Homme toured with the band in 1995) and I'm a big fan of what he does, so when the 'Trees split and he asked me to join, it was no question really. Anytime I can travel the world and play songs I love and hang out with friends, I'm there."

 Mentioning Screaming Trees has Mark sighing a little. It's well documented that the band had a rocky existence, but yet were still able to pull off seven acclaimed albums in their career. Lanegan's slow move away from his group had begun in 1990 with his first solo album, The Winding Sheet. In hindsight I wonder if Mark felt he was outgrowing his band from the start. "Not at first, it was just something that I saw as a way of playing with people other than the band. Also it wasn't only me doing that, the other guys had bands outside of Screaming Trees as well, so the group was kind of all our side project really. Now I'm out doing this solo tour, I kind of feel like everything I've done has been a side project." He smiles. As Mark's list of collaborations grows, it's hard not to wonder who's left on his dream list; "Well one of the high points of my recording career has been working with PJ Harvey (on Mark's album Bubblegum)." He recalls, adding "Also I really like Band Of Horses, those guys are really doing… something right." He drawls, "You know you're a big deal when you get one of those bus stop bench advertisements." Mark laughs, "I saw their new album advertised on one of those things which was pretty weird, but I love those guys."

With that tantalizing thought hanging in one of the many silent moments during our chat, I ask Mark finally if creating music from such a broad palate with apparent ease has given him greater confidence. "I think I've gained more humility," He pauses, "I had confidence already but music has taught me to be humble because it's outside of my realm in that I don't really understand where it comes from when I'm writing or singing." He adds, "I hope I never learn how to grasp it fully either. It's like a goal that you never quite reach, but that's why I do what I do because if that chase ended, then I'm sure the music would stop for me."