Monday, 4 February 2013
Sorry it's been so long. I've been busy travelling to and fro from city to sea, back to Essex, to my hometown of Southend-on-Sea, or London's sphincter as one or two locals know it as. Essex has become one of the focuses of my writing in the past year, culminating in my recent article that was published in Guardian's G2 supplement, a piece that was as inspired by Dawn Mellor's exhibition What Happened to Helen (example picture above) as much as my own fascination with the discrepancy between the Essex of 'structured reality' television and media myth, and the Essex that I had fallen in love with, estuarine Essex, iridescent creeks and beguiling marshes. It's a discrepancy that charged up the broadcaster Jonathan Meades to make The Joy of Essex for BBC4, a one-off programme that he had pushed to be made in three parts but could not persuade the BBC to give over precious repeat time to what might be assumed to be a niche concern. You can watch it here for a limited period.
Essex is a place that has tempted the wandering, often London-based writer (although Meades lives in france these days) for centuries, going back to Daniel Defoe who owned a brickworks at Tilbury. Later Conrad lived there, writing Heart of Darkness there in an association obsessed over by Iain Sinclair for many years. I met Sinclair a few years ago to interview him for The Daily Telegraph. He told me of his visit to Southend. "It’s a strange place. Such a long place. If you count Leigh-on-Sea and all the suburbs. I walked down the whole A13 one time, so I spent about a whole day walking through the ribbon of Southend and in the middle it got quite heavy, the Casino area. There were lots of crazy people on the streets running about with wounds before it petered out again and I got out on the other side to the sea, suburbs, and then military stuff. I thought it was absolutely fascinating, I loved it."
Similarly, I walked back home from London in two parts last winter for the magazine Pages Of. For The Quietus I wrote about the role that the suburban new town of Basildon had to play in Depeche Mode's underrated second album A Broken Frame. You can read it here.
Essex can be read as a kind of experiment, an embodiment of postwar popular culture but one with an obscured history. It is sustained by London but entirely other. Pop music and pub rock mix along with the natural elements, bird migration patterns and erosion, and thick old Essex clay. 'I have a theory that the Essex countryman’s character owes at least something of its quality to the nature of his landscape,' wrote C. Henry Warren in his book Essex in 1950, written just before the start of rock'n'roll boom. 'Clay and sky are all – the heavy clay that tears the soles off a man’s boots and the wide open sky where he hears the larks singing. And my theory is that just this combination helps to give the Essex countryman his odd mixture of harsh realism and tender poetry.' He could have been talking about ex-Feelgood machine-gunning guitarist, Wilko Johnson, in that last line. Johnson has been famously but no less sadly diagnosed with terminal cancer, and now, at the last minute, has become Media Britain's latest 'National Treasure'.
Thursday, 18 October 2012
It is mid-August in a former electronics warehouse in east Manchester, and the filming of the second series of Fresh Meat – Channel 4’s comedy drama about six students mismatched in a shared house – is nearing the end of its three-month shoot.
The comedian Jack Whitehall, who plays the incorrigibly posh JP, wanders around the set in a vest and boxer shorts. The sneaker-clad feet of Joe Thomas, who plays Kingsley (an everyman similar to his character, Simon, in The Inbetweeners), stick out of one of the bedrooms (he’s trying to sleep off a hangover). Kimberley Nixon, the Welsh dentistry student Josie, ferrets around in a spotted dressing gown; Charlotte Ritchie, who plays the English-lit student Oregon, is in a long printed charity-shop dress; while Greg McHugh, who plays the bearded and bespectacled outsider Howard, struggles under the lights in a thick woolly jumper.
'We haven’t come here to play some cool, foam-party-loving students living it up and having a great time,’ Zawe Ashton, who plays the tough-as-nails Vod, says. 'Walk around the set and you will realise it is actually very smelly here. You don’t want to open that fridge.’
Fresh Meat was devised by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the creators of the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show. It was almost inevitable that they would tackle the subject of student life – the pair met at the University of Manchester during the 1990s. 'We wanted to try to create something that would feel unique,’ the co-producer Rhonda Smith says. 'Sometimes comedy can be really funny, but it doesn’t always look fantastic. We wanted to have really funny scripts but high production values and a dramatic element in it as well.’
Although critical reception was muted at first, the profile of the series grew, and it went on to be nominated for a Bafta for Best Sitcom, and to win Best New Comedy at the British Comedy Awards and Best TV Show at the NME Awards. Crucially, it won a sizeable audience: the average viewing figure for the first series was 2.7 million.
The masterstroke of Fresh Meat is its balance between comedy and drama. The plot feels as plausible as the situations it throws up are hilarious.
'Going to university has become a much more universal experience,’ the co-writer Tony Roche (The Thick of It, Veep) says. 'When I went to college it was still unusual, but now it is much more part of normal life – everyone has been or knows someone who has been.’ In the first series Josie repeatedly made a queasily-named recipe, 'vegetable munge’, which is veggies boiled to an unappetising gloop. 'I had a friend at college who made it,’ Roche says. 'She actually called it that.’
Aside from Roche, the team of writers includes Tom Basden (The Armstrong and Miller Show), and the playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike). At the beginning of the first series there were regular comparisons to The Young Ones, whose four protagonists Neil, Vyvyan, Rick and Mike were notable for their unlikeableness. Fresh Meat works in a similar way – you notice the characters’ negative characteristics first, but it’s the slow realisation of their human qualities that creates the drama.
'Comedy drama is such a poisoned chalice,’ McHugh says. 'It makes you think, “Do you want to be funny or do you want to tell a dramatic story?” Obviously life isn’t like that at all – and that’s what Sam and Jesse and the writers have done so brilliantly. If you can buy into the characters, you can achieve pathos.’
The new series begins midway through the first academic year, yet each character has already been on quite a journey. In the first series Kingsley and Josie engaged in a messy bout of will-they-won’t-they that ended in Josie breaking it off with her Cardiff-based fiancé. JP has had to contend with the death of his father and – even worse – being snubbed by his peers from his former school. Howard has successfully made human contact with his fellow housemates, and, possibly just as life changing, Vod has read a book.
Perhaps the most spectacular strand is Oregon’s affair with her domineering English tutor, Professor Tony Shales (played by The Thick of It actor Tony Gardner). Real-name Melissa, Oregon is a bright English student from a privileged background who plays down her abilities and hides the fact that she owns a car and a horse in order to impress her peers. When Shales’s wife finds out and wants to arrange a coffee to discuss things with her, she is visibly thrilled by the adultness of it all. 'That’s so French,’ she says wistfully. 'What a total f***ing drama – it’s like something from a Woody Allen!’
Oregon is played by Charlotte Ritchie, who first made her name in the classical-pop crossover group All Angels. The youngest of the cast at 22, she graduated from the University of Bristol only in June last year. 'I didn’t have an affair with my English tutor, or have a friend like Vod who led me astray, but I have definitely met a lot of Oregons,’ she says. 'The character is perfectly observed. It’s so hedonistic, that first year of university – so much more about your own personal drama, how you feel about it from your own perspective.’
Whereas Oregon is all self-conscious statements and intellectual dreaming, Vod is a walking, sniping, powder-snorting embodiment of hormonal id. 'It is really nice to have a female character who is not always repenting their sins,’ Ashton says. '[Who is] sexually out there and slightly gross at times – there are a lot of sins that Vod should be repenting but she’s never made to do that. She has been allowed to develop and figure out things about herself and where she is in the world. She’s got real backbone.’
Whitehall’s character, JP, is more complex than he first appears. Educated at the Buckinghamshire private school Stowe (as was Whitehall), he is the embodiment of plummy privilege and instantly dislikeable. Yet by the end of the series he has become a fulcrum of the group. You learn that he, like the rest of the characters, is merely a product of his background; that university is partly about forging a new life and learning to rub along with people at opposite ends of the spectrum.
'The value of what this show projects is the friendships, and that’s really what you take away,’ McHugh says. 'Unless you are doing a vocational degree, often the best thing you get out of it is a sense of how to live with people and how to develop friendships and relationships.’
McHugh’s character, Howard, is a self-styled loner, part geek, part fantasist, and someone everyone who has lived in shared accommodation at university will recognise. 'I think I benefited from being a bit older than the rest of the cast. I have been in a lot of house shares through the years and lived with some scarily Howard-like people.’
The advertising teaser that preceded the first series showed the cast members naked in a tray inside a kebab-shop fridge. It perfectly articulated the predicament of the student that the show explores. Whereas once a person’s university years might have been described as a new dawn, these days the jump from school to university is more akin to a lemming-like leap into a life of debt. The cost of university per student was recently estimated at £60,000.
'I think that’s why students are humorous,’ 28-year-old Thomas, who studied at Cambridge, says. 'They realise the slight absurdity of their situation. In my case, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was there.
I knew I was getting into lots of debt, and the sense of why I was doing that was quite vague. Now the debt’s much higher [than when I went to university], and the sense of why you are doing it is probably not any greater. I think the humour, and to a certain extent the nihilism, of studenthood comes from that. That feeling that your life doesn’t make any sense.’
To ensure the setting’s accuracy, the production team found a suitably studenty property in Manchester and recreated its exterior and interior in the studio. The resulting set is an uncannily accurate imagining of an archetypal student dwelling, right down to the dry, musty smell that hangs thick in the air. On the landing, forgotten-about clothes hang over the bannister, a forlorn cuddly toy sits among beer cans and whisky bottles.
Each character’s bedroom is meticulously designed. In Oregon’s room, a volume of English mystery plays sits alongside a copy of OK!. In Josie’s (she fulfils the girl-next-door role in the show), Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook is on a shelf. A Florence & the Machine poster adorns her wall, whereas Kingsley inevitably has a Radiohead poster on his; JP’s room is decorated with lads’ mag posters and bottles of champagne; Vod’s is filled with vodka bottles, ashtrays and industrial boots.
'It was a huge amount of preparation,’ Smith says. 'Each room, every single thing that you see here has been thought about with regards to that character.’ Most impressive is the sense that the property has a history of its own. 'The feeling that lots of students had come and gone. Each year when a student has left, they have left a little bit of something. You can feel the history of the people who have passed through, hence the colour of the wallpaper, the shabbiness.’
One distinguishing feature of this season as opposed to last is that there have been more location shoots, including a lengthy trip to the Pennines for a geology field trip, which includes JP hanging off a rock at 30ft. Kingsley makes an ill-fated attempt to branch out from bumbling awkwardness into cooler territory. Graham Coxon, the lead guitarist of Blur, has written a song for the show, which Kingsley is meant to have penned, and which Thomas recorded a version of. 'It was really interesting because it was Graham Coxon deliberately trying to write a bad song. At times it slips into sounding half-decent, particularly when he plays it, because he can’t help embellishing it. It’s quite confusing to listen to because you think it’s bad – but it’s almost good.’
As I speak to each of the actors about the three months of long days in Manchester, what comes across most of all is the genuine sense of camaraderie that the cast and crew enjoy on set. The day before we meet, all six actors travelled down to London to see the Olympic closing concert at Hyde Park, which featured Coxon’s band, Blur, along with New Order and the Specials.
'One guy shouted at us, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you all hang out together, that’s so cool!”’ McHugh says.
They didn’t get back home until 4am (which explains Thomas’s hangover) but they had to get up bright and early for the day’s filming. 'The six of us really like each other’s company,’ Nixon says. 'It’s nice to relax after filming as it is quite a mad day, especially for my character. She’s quite high energy.’
The cast all live in the same apartment block during the shoot. For Whitehall (who studied in Manchester – as did Ashton a few years before him), the art of playing a student for three months quickly merges into his life. 'It’s as if we’re in halls, only slightly more hygienic,’ he says. 'While I am up here I turn back into a student. Eating a Rustlers [microwave burger] because I can’t be bothered to cook anything after a long day’s filming. Not washing any clothing, and then at the end of the week putting all of my dirty pants and socks into a bag and taking it back to my mum’s house. How much can you pass off as method?’
INTERVIEWED: Martin Landau remembers filming Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in 1958, for the Telegraph Magazine
This scene was filmed at LaSalle Street Station in Chicago. I wasn’t working on the first day of filming, and Alfred Hitchcock called me in my hotel and said, 'Martin, put on one of the suits you are going to use in the movie – I’d like to see it being worn in the [scene’s] surroundings.’ He had helped me choose the suits because he wanted my character, Leonard, to be better dressed than Cary Grant’s. He took me to a tailor’s called Quintino’s in Beverly Hills, which also made Cary’s suits, though Cary didn’t know about this. I arrived in the middle of a take, so stood on the fringe of a crowd of hundreds of Chicagoans watching the shoot. I was tapped on the shoulder. It was an English fellow called Ray Austin – I guess you could call him Cary Grant’s valet. He said, 'Excuse me, Mr Grant would like to know where you got that suit.’ I said, 'I beg your pardon?’ He repeated the question, adding, 'Only two people in the world make a suit like that, one’s in Beverly Hills, the other is in Hong Kong.’ Cary had noticed the suit in the middle of hundreds of people. I suggested that he had better have this conversation with Mr Hitchcock. He said, 'Oh! Are you in the film?’
North by Northwest took two and a half to three months to film. When I look back, I realise I wasn’t intimidated by Hitchcock and Cary Grant. They were so accepting of me. Cary was very generous, as was Hitchcock. And Eva Marie Saint (also pictured) played such a range of different roles throughout her career. The critics haven’t acknowledged her in terms of her ability.
I was 30 and it was my first film. I am sort of in awe of the fact that I wasn’t overawed by it. I think it’s because when I was a teenager in the 1940s I was already working in a 'grown-up’ job, as a cartoonist on the Daily News in New York. At the age of 22 I was offered a promotion but I knew if I took that job I would never leave, so I quit. Subliminally, I had always wanted to act. Although I had only performed in a couple of plays, I was serious about it, and was subsequently trained by people like Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Hitchcock first saw me in an Edward G Robinson play in 1957. The character was 180 degrees from Leonard, very macho, a bit of a dope actually. When I asked Hitchcock how he could cast me in this part, as they were so different, he said, 'Martin, you have a circus going on inside you. If you can play that in the theatre you can play this role.’
I chose to play Leonard as a gay character. It was quite a big risk in cinema at the time. My logic was simply that he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, so it made sense for him to be in love with his boss, Vandamm, played by James Mason. Every one of my friends thought I was crazy, but Hitchcock liked it. A good director makes a playground and allows you to play.
This is a gig needs that needs big and clear bass frequencies — but, as it’s a hip-hop showcase in dear ole London Tahn, we know not to expect passable sound quality. LA’s Stones Throw maverick Kutmah fills the large venue with choice beats, but the first thing you notice is everything else but the music. This isn’t One Audience Under a Groove, it’s the post-working week: the lager is flowing, bromance is in the air. Security guards stand around a patch of vomit.
DOOM doesn’t let it get to him and he paces the stage slowly, calmly. The US exile — he is living in South London after being barred entry back into the US — temporarily dons a high-vis jacket, and casually boshes out rhymes in the relaxed-yet-hard-boiled manner that has sustained his global cult. He isn’t known for decent live shows, but on ‘Gazzillion Ear’, for example, his thick’n’true flow and rhythmic about-turns are hypnotic. Like the best artists, DOOM achieves something others can’t while looking like he doesn’t care; the Usain Bolt of boom-bap hip hop. Before leaving the stage he performs a brief homage to another famous Olympian, by doing the ‘Mobot’.
After DOOM leaves the stage, his sometime collaborator Madlib (the pair will apparently be reuniting in the studio soon, and DOOM featured their shared Madvillain track ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ during his set to a huge crowd reaction) cuts an estranged figure — almost anonymous behind the decks in the front of over 2000 worshipers. Some are talking over his DJ set, not through intentional rudeness but because it’s not cutting through. You feel the Forum is full of people wishing they were seeing their ‘Konduktor’ in a smaller club.
Next up is Freddie Gibbs, backed by J. Rocc. Like DOOM, Freddie’s flow is fluid, but Gibbs is a more menacing MC, all gym-prepped torso and aggro chants while J. Rocc provides cuts from Damian Marley and Nas, Dilla’s Ruff Draft, and Dizzee’s ‘I Luv U’. Down the front, joints and fags are smoked freely under the venue’s proscenium arch. It’s like 2006 all over again. Which might well be back when the cult of Stones Throw peaked. No, this isn’t tonight’s hot new thing in town — that’s Azealia Banks at Shepherds Bush. In this hulking former cinema, the sample appreciation/inebriation axis rules – a modern-day Wigan Casino with spaced-out, ketamine’n’lager-fuelled lurching replacing speed-propelled northern soul dancing. An unabashed, imperfect, collective show of love for mixology, soul samples and boom-bap beats by the tired and emotional. AKA a lot of fun.
Originally published on the Stool Pigeon website
Monday, 8 October 2012
Dan Hancox has long been fascinated by Marinaleda, a small communist utopia in Andalucia, southern Spain. Last winter he travelled there to meet its crusading mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, and has since written a book, 'Utopia and the Valley of Tears', about his trip into the unknown. More recently, Gordillo has become the subject of international news, dubbed Spain’s “Robin Hood” after staging robberies at supermarkets to feed poor families suffering under Spain’s economic crisis. Andalucia is one of the regions hardest hit by the crisis, with 34-per cent unemployment. In Marinaleda, thanks to a system that values jobs over efficiency, unemployment is only six per cent.
What brought you to Marinaleda?
I heard about it a number of years beforehand, but couldn’t work out a way of getting there. It was only last year that I was lucky enough to happen upon someone in London from Estepa, the nearest reasonably sized town. He couldn’t believe I had heard about this crazy local curiosity. But now Gordillo has risen to such prominence. He’s regularly on the front page of the Spanish newspapers – a kind of rallying figure for the anti-austerity movement. It has been amazing to watch him emerge in the struggle against [Prime Minister] Rajoy’s cuts, which are only just beginning.
How successful do you think he can be with that?
It’s a good question – can this bizarre but completely, I think, successful experiment in creating a communist utopia in a small town be replicated? He would say; 'yes, of course it can be replicated all you have to do is struggle hard enough'. He is full of this fantastic rhetoric about making the impossible the reality. The conditions that allowed Marinaleda happen were unique to that town. After the death of Franco there was a lot of confusion. They took advantage of the situation but they struggled extremely hard. It took them about 12 years to get the land around the village by repeatedly occupying it and being arrested and being imprisoned and doing it again, as well as occupying airports and going on hunger strikes.
Do you think the authorities will eventually get tough on Gordillo, because he is showing an alternative?
Gordillo must worry them immensely. The fascinating thing about Marinaleda is the message they’ve been pushing for some time: to make the lives of the people in this small town better. They did that during the Spanish economic miracle, when capitalism was bringing fresh riches to everybody. Its complete collapse has left Marinaleda standing strong, surrounded by places with abject levels of poverty and unemployment. As a beacon in the darkness of capitalism, it’s no wonder it’s shining stronger than ever.
The end of the book feels like a bit of a call to action, to get people thinking of alternatives in the UK.
I think what has underscored the fight against austerity in this country is the constant argument of ‘Well this is what you are against but what are you for – what’s the alternative?’ This is part of the reason I was so eager to go and visit Marinaleda. How could you come up with an alternative to capitalism? Well someone already has! You could argue about how possible it is to apply the model they have there in other places, but in that context it works very well and that’s a really good starting point. Just a glimmer of possibility. The awareness of another way of organising economically and socially, with different principles other than ‘profit’ and ‘efficiency’. The crops that they grow in Marinaleda are deliberately not efficient. They want to create enough jobs for everyone, so they’re planting artichokes and tomatoes and other things that are quite labour intensive and need canning afterwards.
Is it something you will go back to after this book?
I’m going back over the winter to write the full history of Marinaleda as a book for Verso which will be published at the end of next year. While I am in Spain I hope to meet the protesting miners, student protesters and visit the places where they have abolished money – they are now trading in kind in some villages in the north. There a lot of really interesting things going on in Spain at the moment and this is just the beginning.
“It’s been a total shock,” bellows R Stevie Moore as he reclines in his chair at The Shacklewell Arms in Dalston, London, late one June afternoon. He’s referring to the kudos boost he recently received in becoming the cover star for that critical barometer, Wire magazine. His phone hasn’t stopped ringing during his current UK tour. “Everything’s changed immensely since then. People can’t believe it. My first ever magazine cover! It’s all good.”
Take the above quote out of its context and you might assume this is an artist in the first five years of his career. The excitement over his first magazine cover. The shock of sudden exposure. But this particular artist, white-bearded home-recording legend Mr Robert Steven Moore, is a little further into his career than that. Some 40-odd years in. “I was doing DIY before I even knew it had a name,” he explains. “And now they’re calling me the grandfather of DIY, because everybody’s doing it. The corporations are falling.”
Moore knows who to thank most of all for this revival of fortune – Ariel Pink, the nearest thing the blog age has to an iconoclastic, underground rock-star with the mystery and tunes to back it up. Pink has been bigging Moore up for years, and put together his selection of his hero’s output, Ariel Pink’s Picks Vol. 1, last year. Together with a little help from James Ferraro and a few others, Moore and Pink can be credited with influencing a whole (if admittedly almost entirely journo-made) genre, the awkwardly named hypnagogic pop.
A Moore obsessive, Pink introduced himself to his hero by writing him a letter, including with it a CD-R of his own 1999 record, The Doldrums, and a list of tapes that he wanted to purchase. He was surprised when an email from the man himself appeared a while later. “I had just set up my Hotmail account,” says Pink. “Signing on and seeing that my first email was from him was the most exciting thing to have happened in my life up to that point.” Moore immediately recognized similarities between their approaches – “although he doesn’t much sound like me,” he clarifies, and Pink seems to fetishise retro recording methods while Moore switched to digital years ago – and the pair have been firm friends and musical collaborators ever since, releasing the 61-track Ku Klux Glam together early this year.
Pink is one of the most persistent collectors of Moore’s discography around, owning over 200 releases. “There are periods where he was really inspired and musically driven, and periods when he was so frustrated with the futility of life that he was throwing any junk on tape and just called it a fucking record.
“At some point in the early 80s he just didn’t care, fell into the abyss and embraced it. I really felt that you got a feeling of the man from his tapes, that he was cataloguing his stuff like a diarist. You really get the sense of the times from him, just what it felt like to be a freak, tuned into the zeitgeist and becoming a product of it.”
Growing up the son of Bob Moore, one of Nashville’s most sought-after bass players, gave Moore Jr a natural predisposition to composition and performance. “I have my father’s ear,” he says. Bob Moore was abusive to his family due to the stress his fame brought with it, which partly explains his son’s willingness to avoid the industry at large. An outsider he may be, but it is probably impossible for someone whose Dad recorded with Elvis and Patsy Cline to feel completely separate from the lineage of rock’n’roll. “Elvis Presley was in his bedroom Roy Orbison was at his dinner table,” affirms Pink. “He was so close to the source and he knows it. It’s natural.”
Moore started recording on reel-to-reel in the late 1960s, creating early releases such as On Graycroft (1968), put together by a 16-year-old Moore in his parents’ basement using his father’s Crown tape machine and stereo deck. Though it sounds extremely primitive, even for a musician known for his lo-fi tendencies, the record saw Moore starting as he meant to go on, fusing together myriad styles and subjects, from the nasal bossanova croon of “Midsummer Reflection” to the folk-on- Quaaludes of “Grandpa Has a Beer Gut”.
He moved to New Jersey in 1978 to be near his uncle Harry Palmer, and stayed for 30 years. “My main thing was to escape Nashville, which was very backward musically. Country, boogie, southern rock, Allman Brothers. I was making Ziggy Stardust kinda music. The music Industry Nashville-style would never accept any experimentation, so I had to get out of there.” Palmer released Moore’s early records – such as Phonography (1976) and Delicate Tension (1978) – on his label HP Music. It was perfect timing: “When I got to New York it was skinny ties, spiky hair and Ramones.” Nevertheless, he went to CBGB sparingly, and remained on the outskirts of the scene despite the world’s press and A&R stalking the Lower East Side in search of the next new wave sensation. “I’m not a nightlife person. I should have really planted myself on the streets and plugged away, but I’m not a very good salesman so I never thought of going down and trying to convince people to sign me. It was a struggle.”
For Moore, postpunk took over where 70s experimentalists such as Beefheart and Zappa left off. “Public Image Ltd changed my life! That whole postpunk thing, minimalist dub, drums and bass. It almost sounds like fragments, not finished songs. I loved that music.” He became part of the underground homemade music scene. “Right after that was the cassette revolution. Indie labels. It was perfect.” While he received some good reviews and international exposure, the records “made a dent, but didn’t sell very well. I didn’t care about playing the game. Through the 80s, my uncle was hoping I’d get a band together, but I had no idea how to do it.”
He used to fantasise about trying to reach out to his heroes – Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa, David Bowie – by getting letters to their doors. Recently things have changed. Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Jason Falkner, David Shrigley, Deerhoof, the Strokes and the Vaccines are all big fans. “And MGMT,” adds JR Thomason of Moore’s Texan backing/support band, Tropical Ooze. “After our first show we had these two superfine girls backstage. They were like, drop-dead gorgeous, not just like the girls on Bedford Avenue. I was like, ‘Man! I didn’t know that playing for Stevie Moore was gonna be like this, but thank God!’ It turns out they were the girlfriends of the two stoned dudes in MGMT. Those guys were like, ‘Man, Stevie’s the Godhead, Stevie’s the best!’ Totally bowing down to him. It was kind of surreal.” Moore, meanwhile, jokes about trying to find Jack White, who moved to Nashville from Detroit in 2006. “He’s taken over my hometown. I dig where he’s coming from, but I haven’t tracked him down yet...”
Pink aptly describes Moore as “an all-access enigma”. The phrase nails the fact that, for all his underground credentials, accessing Moore’s material has never been a problem. He has two YouTube channels full of curiosities, and there are over 200 albums on his Bandcamp page (he estimates that he has made over double that in his life). One reason why he has fit so well with the times is that, once the internet established an insatiable need for more and more content, he was on hand with hundreds if not thousands of hours of quality music; work that would make inroads into the heartland of a genre before careering 180 degrees into something completely different, via a parodic interlude. His music has long been eclectic and hard to define, yet pinned down by his personality as a songwriter and performer. Even if one song is inspired by the Beach Boys and another by hip hop, chances are you’ll recognise both as R Stevie Moore. He champions “freedom and diversity. Every album that I have made is like a mixtape of various artists. Never just one style. I always loved doing that.”
More than not knowing how to play the game, it feels as if there was an element of self-sabotage involved, as if Moore evolved an in-built characteristic to avoid succumbing to the pressures of fame like his father and heroes such as Brian Wilson. In return, he has kept hold of his creative autonomy.
He concedes that half of his job now is as his own archivist, but it’s hardly a new role. Years before he could export it online, Moore kept everything he had ever made in his home in New Jersey. “Stacks of tape were part of every room. (I had) a huge record collection. I have digitised most of it now but I still worry that I don’t have a lot of backups. Ideally I need all my music on external hard drives in climate controlled rooms.” A fan from Lisbon helped get his videos together on YouTube; now, if you search for him on that website, the first video that comes up is for 1986’s “I Like to Stay Home”. It begins with a dressing-gown-clad Moore eyeballing the viewer, and unravels into a nonchalant, deadpan performance that mocks the very act of making a music video. “Everything I do is like that,” he says. “I’m mocking myself all the time.”
Now 60, he had never extensively toured with a band until last year. “I started a whole new rock’n’roll career at age 59, as far as live performance goes. I had fantasised but just couldn’t coordinate it. There’s a lot of logistics you have to do, getting players and funds and a van and rehearsal space.” His band “fell into my lap” after filmmaker Jon Demiglio started hanging out with him to work on Phonography: the R Stevie Moore Story, a documentary still in its early stages. Demiglio suggested he go on the road with his friends Tropical Ooze as backing band. “I said, ‘You gotta be kidding. I can’t even get down the corner store – I can’t go on tour!’ But we all just did it.”
His live set-up is an unashamedly rock proposition, featuring beefed-up (yet still sensitive when needed) versions from Stevie’s huge back-catalogue. Thomason’s relationship with Moore mirrors Ariel Pink’s – he became a collaborator after first being a fan. “I had become infatuated with Stevie’s music through YouTube. When we agreed to tour with him, I didn’t know how famous he was – you see 50,000 views on YouTube or something, you don’t know what that means. We wondered if we were gonna play in front of 20 people or 500. But I was impressed with how many people turned up in the middle of the United States.”
“It’s gonna be like this until I drop,” says Moore. “I don’t have much time left to procrastinate. The beauty is that I don’t have to worry about coming up with new music that is vital; I have the back catalogue of a dream. Forty years of music. A lot of people are discovering the 70s recordings as if they were recorded yesterday.”
The photographer starts taking pictures as Moore orders his second glass of shiraz and immediately starts to pose. He’s always aware of the camera, taking pictures as Moore orders his second glass of shiraz and immediately starts to pose. He’s always aware of the camera, sliding up against a pillar and acting coy when the snapper asks him to ignore the camera. “I’m sorry I’m posing,” he says. The photographer jokes that he is enjoying it a bit too much. “No, I’m not. I’m sick of it,” he says, sounding slightly hurt, before quietly and instinctively uttering “I like to stay home,” the title to one of his most celebrated songs. It feels like a glimpse into the wrench it must be to leave the freedom of home behind for somebody who has relied on it for so many years. Later on, as Moore and his band blast through a valedictorian two hour set in Dalston basement venue Birthdays, the song’s power is realised as an anthem for the post- Google age of terminal procrastination. Flipped on its head, distraction becomes the ultimate creative act – a defiance in the face of external pressures to be economical with time, to go get ’em. It describes better than anything else just how Robert Steven Moore got here: “I don’t care about going anywhere / I don’t care about appearing anywhere / I got enough to do right here.”
To see Samuel Beckett’s face on the computer screen, but hear the voice of Michael Gira of Swans — who has chosen a famous 1973 photograph of the avant-garde playwright as his Skype avatar — makes perfect sense. This pose of Beckett’s (lines etched on to a craggy head floating in a void) is immortal and intense, in much the same way that the cracked yet acutely sure voice of the 58-year-old Swans frontman is. And where famously Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot was boiled down to the description “nothing happens, twice” by Irish critic Vivian Mercier, a Swans live show during the band’s mid-eighties incarnation might be paraphrased, “nothing happens again and again and it’s FUCKING LOUD”.
Google the 1986 clip “Swans ‘A Screw (Holy Money) (live)’” and over slamming drums and Norman Westberg’s tortured guitar, Gira’s razor-wire gurgle seems a pure prototype of the vocal of Kurt Cobain. The singer was a big fan of Swans (1984’s ‘Young God’ EP, in particular), and it was Nirvana, Mudhoney and Swans’ old road-mates Sonic Youth who would carry the torch for loud, uncompromising American guitar music into the 1990s. While others around them hit pay dirt, Swans eventually broke up in 1997 after the pressure of never quite making enough money finally took its toll. It would be 13 years before they’d release another record.
One of the most striking things about Swans’ new (double) album, The Seer, as opposed to 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky is the lurching rhythm that seems to hold it all together, as heard on ‘The Seer Returns’, ‘The Apostate’ and elsewhere.
“A salient preoccupation is the groove,” says Gira about The Seer. “We’re not playing dance music or anything, but I am a big fan of Can and Miles Davis’s album On The Corner. Things like that can just endlessly repeat. I was just trying to find the right place inside it [the groove] and then build things from there.”
It suggests a band that has found its rhythm following the initial exultant shock of reanimation that was Swans’ triumphant return. Whereas My Father… was based on defined songs written on acoustic guitar by Gira and recorded by the band in a disused factory building in Brooklyn, The Seer is a more varied exploration of the potential of Swans mark II, complete with gargantuan, 32-minute title track, and the closing two songs, ‘A Piece Of The Sky’ and ‘The Apostate’, that together clock in at 42 minutes.
This time, the band recorded for 10 days in Berlin during their last tour and for a few weeks in New York after that. Gira spent months sleeping on the couch at Marcata studio in upstate New York putting the disparate elements together from the prolonged sessions that were based on songs that had evolved during the tour. As he is a self-taught musician and producer, his process of putting tracks together is one of trial and error.
“Record, record, record and then I have to deal with the consequences later,” he says. “To me, it’s torture. Frequencies collide and can make things very muddy, whereas a skilled arranger would know what to put on tape. If you listen to Ziggy Stardust, for instance, it’s impeccable. That’s a really intelligent arrangement, whereas what I do is throw shit at the wall and then try and make a painting out of it.”
A case in point of this approach is ‘A Piece Of The Sky’, which includes a snooze-and-you’ll-miss-it return of Jarboe, member of Swans from 1986 until the band split, and Gira’s partner during that time. Around two minutes in, Jarboe rises out of the song like a pillar of light, samples of her distinctive vocal turned into a collage that appears within the long sound piece at the beginning of the track.
“Knowing her abilities, I wanted these drone vocals but with character in them,” explains Gira. “She sent me a bunch of takes with a note or two notes, and I put them into this sound collage — and it worked.”
In addition to the groove, The Seer is peppered with a feeling of calm — a sense of reflection, acceptance and positivity among the tumult. It’s in the optimistic close of ‘Piece Of The Sky’, for example, and the beautiful ‘Song For A Warrior’, which is sung by Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The latter contains a contender for knockout love lyric of the year: “Some people say / God is long dead / I heard something inside you / With my head to your chest.”
“It’s pretty sentimental, but hopefully not saccharine,” Gira says. “It’s dedicated to my six-year-old daughter. I tried to sing it and I sounded like Howlin’ Wolf trying to sound like Nick Drake — it just seemed that my voice was inappropriate.”
Gira had met a pre-fame Karen O at gigs in New York during the nineties. He noticed her dancing wildly to Flux Information Sciences, a group on his label, Young God Records, that his wife Siobhan Duffy (who now lives with Gira in the Catskills with their two children) played drums for.
“She would always be by herself — just one of those punk chicks you see who is oblivious to their surroundings; who was completely immersed in the music and didn’t give a shit who she bumped into.”
It was a similar desire for a kind of total freedom-in-rock that made Gira enter into music in the first place. He grew up fast in sixties Los Angeles. His mother was an alcoholic and his father a wandering businessman-cum-raconteur. His adolescent years are sometimes noted for these statistics:
He consumed 300 hits of LSD in his mid-teens.
He served two stints in jail — in Israel for selling marijuana, and in Amsterdam for vagrancy.
His first real musical awakening happened while watching Pink Floyd in Belgium: “I was a runaway kid in Europe when I was 14. I ended up with a bunch of older hippies at this festival in Belgium. I guess I was on acid, as I usually was then.” At the same festival were Pretty Things, Soft Machine and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. “It was really experimental and experiential, great music. Rock music, or amplified music, has the ability to provide a certain experience that nothing else can achieve.”
In the late seventies, Gira had hoped to make it as an artist in LA, but found the elitism of the art world proved incompatible with his straight-shootin’ outlook. He played in the punk group Little Cripples and edited a fanzine, No, selling it at punk gigs and persuading the newsstands of Hollywood Boulevard to stock it despite its pornographic and often violent content. After briefly writing for cult LA zine Slash, he attended a Suicide gig in LA, during which Alan Vega repeatedly hit himself in the face with a microphone while being covered in the spit and sputum of the crowd. Impressed, Gira decided to relocate to New York, Suicide’s home city.
“The best rock’n’roll for me is like one big enema,” Gira told East Village Eye in 1983, having steered Swans to a pivotal position within New York’s no wave scene. Releases such as their ‘Young God’ EP and 1986’s Holy Money solidified the band’s reputation for thumping, repetitive rhythmic loops, violent imagery and depictions of the extreme power imbalances that are made inevitable by the primacy of capital as much as the sin of man. The legendarily puke-inducing decibel levels of Swans’ live shows gave them a reputation for being purveyors of musical warfare. According to lore, the infamous Town & Country Club concert in 1987 forced desperate audience members out on to the north London streets. But, for Gira, Swans were (mis)represented as stone cold nihilists, the darkness being over-exaggerated, the joy underplayed. “I was a fairly bleak person in the past, that’s true,” he says. “But still, looking for some higher state in the sound was pretty much what it was [all about]. The Stooges were going for the same place.”
During 2010 and 2011, Swans lurched around Europe with the deafening swagger of the only rock band that mattered. Gira spat booze, thrusted and lurched his body around and shouted his way through every show, in front of original guitarist Norman Westberg, the indomitable percussionist Thor Harris (who Gira describes as “a stellar human” and performed with Angels of Light and Devendra Banhart, who Gira first put out on Young God), guitarist Christoph Hahn, drummer Phil Puleo and Chris Pravdica. At Primavera 2011, after a pounding outdoor set that brutalised and beatified the Parc del Forum in Barcelona, Gira screamed instructions to the Spanish people: “Overthrow your government now!”
The band stands out starkly on today’s circuit because each band member really does give it everything. “Unfortunately, I am cast in the role of taskmaster,” says Gira, with a nod to his reputation as the band’s unforgiving general, barking orders. “It creates some tension as I am constantly screaming at them, to push it harder. I developed this mildly sadistic technique of having the venue turn off the air conditioning when we play, so it is extremely hot. For us as performers, it makes things doubly difficult, but it works and that’s all that matters. This is my life and it is all that is gonna be left behind besides my wonderful children, so I don’t see any reason to do it half way.”
To Gira’s delight, Swans’ audience has evolved to represent the wider demographic that extreme guitar music serves today. “In the eighties, rock music gigs were mostly attended by males and it’s been heartening to see at least a fair amount of young ladies in the audience — not particularly for any salacious motives, but it’s just good to see that it’s no longer viewed as a testosterone event. It’s not just dudes in black t-shirts.”
And the amount of younger people attending Swans gigs pleases Gira. “If there were a plethora of people my age, I would definitely find that to be a motivation for suicide,” he says with a chuckle. “I think the internet certainly has enabled the music to reach more people who are likely to enjoy the experience. The tendrils reach out to different social groups. Whereas before, people were limited to music magazines — and who reads those fucking things!”