Monday, 26 April 2010

THE PRISONER; My visit to Swakopmund, Namibia

There have been inevitable criticisms of ITV's remake of 'The Prisoner', the main question being;'Why remake it at all?' It is a fair point - we live in a world in which the fear of putting serious money behind original ideas has crippled much mainstream filmmaking. The original series was a surrealist enigma, an open-ended puzzle - a Lynchian premonition - open to interpretation like a Kafka novel. But, watching the series, and knowing the ambition behind it,I think it wrong to write it off without a fair hearing.

I visited the set in September 2008 while the series was being filmed in Swakopmund, Namibia, talking to actors such as Ian McKellen, Jim Caviezel and Ruth Wilson. Wilson told me how the writer Bill Gallagher instructed the cast to read John Gray's book, Straw Dogs. Will Self wrote that Gray’s greatest feat was to highlight the human race’s ‘unwillingness – inability even – to appreciate not simply that we are the kin of the other animals, but that like them we are ultimately powerless over both our individual and collective destinies, which leads to our nonsensical faith in progress.’ A progress that leads leaders of men like Two to sadistic acts in the the name of furthering the human race.

While filming began in Swakopmund a story ran in national newspaper The Namibian. 47 skulls of local tribesmen were being stored at the Medical History Museum within the Charité Hospital in Berlin and had been requested to be returned to Swakopmund. They had been taken to Germany from Namibia around a hundred years ago to ‘prove the superiority of the white race’, following an ‘extermination order’ from General Lothar von Trotha in 1904: German troops surrounded thousands of members of the Herero tribe; men, women and children perished under machine gun fire. Many survivors were reportedly sent to concentration camps in Swakopmund and Luderitz Bay to the south.

My piece, which ran in the Telegraph Magazine on 17 April, can be read here.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

"IMMATURITY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING": These New Puritans interviewed

A 40-minute high-speed train ride away from London is Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, the place that the four members of These New Puritans call home. Today, twin brothers Jack and George Barnett, Thomas Hein and Sophie Sleigh Johnson bound and stumble on the grass-padded patches of marshland that rise out of the mud-flats. Distinct in uniform black against dull greys, greens and browns, they walk without talking, as a violent, biting wind terrorises them, animating Sophie’s hair into a frenzy, the Thames flowing calmly behind.

Leigh-on-Sea is a commuter dreamscape, a pleasant mix of suburban stillness, gorgeous landscape and real history (the town was listed in the Domesday Book). Around the turn of the millennium, Leigh became the unofficial home of the hairdresser – coiffeurs Lee Stafford and Adee Phelan ended up on docusoaps and the town, in a way, followed suit, as bars, restaurants, and fitted kitchens were transformed into hives of gossip.

The 22-year-old Barnetts went to a Catholic boys’ comprehensive school, where they met bandmate Hein. Jack had already learned guitar and cello and he put his brother George to work on drums, and taught Hein the bass. He began to imagine bands in his head, and gave them various names. “University Trashcans was the first one we actually formed,” remembers George. “I don’t know why I came up with that name,” Jack adds. “I didn’t know what a university was.” Other projects followed – China Pig, Mexico City, then finally, These New Puritans.

For TNP, Jack wrote songs that attacked the ersatz and tapped into his passion for psychogeography, magick and symbolism. The Barnetts’ cousin Sleigh-Johnson was installed on keyboards and the band slowly graduated from local pub function rooms to the London cicuit. Soon enough, they were commissioned to soundtrack Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme spring/summer catwalk show in Paris 2007, kickstarting George’s sideline career as a high-end male model. The band quickly signed a shared deal with two of the most respected labels in the UK, Domino and Angular. Did they think they had made it? “I just remember hating the venues, and hating everything about playing,” recalls Jack. “I don’t know why we even carried on. Probably because we wanted to record something that is really good, which has only really happened now.”

The band’s new album, Hidden, is a defining LP for a new decade – a purge and a renewal that embodies the spirit of inquiry of great British artists past, contorting stolen forms to convey a unique aesthetic. Co-produced by Graham Sutton of post-rock project Bark Psychosis, and mixed by Stones Throw’s Dave Cooley, it features vocals by Heather Marlatt of US wyrd-pop makers Salem, the massive

sound of Japanese Taiko drums, a 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble from Prague, and a school children’s choir from London.

Their 2008 debut Beat Pyramid was packaged as a puzzle, and brought together Jack’s disparate passions, such as numerology and J Dilla’s hip hop production. It worked well, but the more you listened the more you began to wonder whether the enigma was enhanced by the fact that it was a disjointed document in a lot of ways – a fusing together of the different styles that Jack had assigned to the band.

A label marked “pretentious” was routinely slapped on to them, which unending editorials that described the band in terms such as “fiercely intellectual”, as well as the incorrect accusation that the band all went to public school, did much to promote. Yet, while at times deserved – this is, after all, a group whose singer claimed he liked to fall asleep on stage during gigs for 30 minutes at a time – such a label essentially lionises mediocrity and punishes ambition, safeguarding tame, ironic consensus-culture in the process. It did not sit well with the band and, this time around, they believe that they have made music that people can engage with. “I think this album will have much wider appeal because it is more interesting emotionally,” says Barnett. “Before, we had really pinned down themes – infinity, secularity, that kind of thing – and one kind of tone. This time, there is a lot more scope for people to get involved.” But don’t mistake it for a new-found sophistication. “Maturity to me is the same thing as being boring. There are ridiculously immature things on this album, like a full children’s choir singing, ‘This is Attack Music!’ I think immaturity is the most important thing in music.”

Hidden began with a plan to merge the violence of dancehall artists such as Vybz Kartel with Steve Reich, and underpin it with melancholic 16th-century British renaissance composers such as William Byrd. But an obsession was forming in Barnett, with two unlikely bedfellows – English composer Benjamin Britten and Britney Spears. “I had this fantasy of wanting to combine the post-Timbaland pop sound of Blackout – one of the great classics of our time – with Benjamin Britten,” he says. “To make music that has the complexity of a Britten opera but that sounds like Britney Spears. And that is kind of what we ended up with.”

Barnett recognises much of Britten’s ideals in the way he wants to work. “He deliberately rejected the European avant-garde,” he explains. “He said it was the same as a totalitarian dictatorship and by doing that, his music was more interesting.” Britten found inspiration in his home of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast when composing the tragic 1945 opera about a fisherman put on trial for abusing his young male assistants, Peter Grimes. Barnett has moved back to Leigh on Sea recently from east London, and the album reflects the part of the Thames Estuary where it was written. Single “We Want War” best displays this new found romanticism for their home. Lyrics such as “And that the Thames flows beneath the grass... sea breeze, sea breeze...” explore the grim and the celestial in the sometimes bleak, sometimes beauty-filled landscape. A shimmering, ecstatic choir reflects the silver of the sea. It is underpinned by a deep-rooted directness that might be traced back to savage local bluesmen Dr Feelgood. Being a seven-minute fusion of operatic brass and grim dancehall beats it is, potentially, commercial suicide. Yet it is also breathtaking.

Barnett’s next project might be a Britten-style song cycle inspired by the 12 islands of Essex. He is thinking of living on one of them – Foulness, just north of Leigh and Southend. For nearly a century it has been used by the MOD, who blast an arsenal of weaponry into mud-flats, the boom audible for miles around. Despite the controlled warzone that surrounds them, around 150 people live in the village. There are rarely any visitors, the yearly bike race is your only chance to get on the island. Last year, Barnett entered.“It was so funny,” he relays. “I was just slowly going along, taking pictures of everything. You can walk right up to the guns. It’s crazy. You are in this tiny village when suddenly, looming over you, there’s this sign that reads STATE OF HIGH ALERT.”

A move to Foulness would be a kind of homecoming – the Barnett brothers’ grandfather used to play organ on the island. It is an outpost, a dreamworld, where Jack can be alone to create. Yet it is not the outside world that is the problem. “I am the most stoical person in the world away from music,” he says. “Nothing bothers me that I can’t change. But when you are making music, you can change everything. It’s terrifying.”

First published in the February 2010 edition of Dazed & Confused magazine. Photography by Leonie Purchas

REVIEWED: Various Artists: Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Vol. 1

Chris Petit's remarkable new film Content, a companion piece to his late 1970s road movie Radio On, positions the director driving away from a past that is gaining on him, as he narrates over footage of car journeys, road after road. He offers up the internet - the way it ensures an ever-present past, how it detaches each of us from one another - as a reason for 21st century sorrow.

It might be the reason that the songs of Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Vol. 1, an album of songs by little known European acts - with one American and one Canadian thrown in for good measure - sound so prescient. Unearthed by Angular's Joe Daniel and Pieter Schoolwerth of Brooklyn label Wierd, the majority of these tracks were recorded on the edges; songs that came into being isolated in European suburbs between 1980 and 1986, away from the media invented glamour and glitz of the city. Today they sound like future echoes of current feelings of a similar disconnect, caused by the dominance of technological communication which increases with each tweet.

'Polaroid/Roman/Photo' by the French group Ruth is the song most imbued with this sense of melancholy. The whirr and click of a Polaroid camera in action begins the song and a beautiful, slightly sombre trumpet and flute harmony closes it. The beat plods along steadily, with unforgiving purpose. It is a mindless, robotic slump boogie, a club-friendly riff on technology-as-crushing benefactor, which anticipates a future where the act of pose-as-performance, once the preserve of a modelling elite, has segued into the everyday. Where the camera has become an ubiquitous companion, the wall-posted photograph a consistent reminder of a very recent past.

Despite the icy, clinical connotations of the term cold wave, translated from the French la vague froid, this is a profoundly human album. Laden with brass these are organic creations that act as a kind of reappraisal for analogue synths and drum machines over digital music software. French group OTO's 'Anyway' careers deranged like an electronic freakbeat outfit willed on by a sax-less James Chance. Manu Moan, singer in Swiss band the Vyllies, wails about the devil over metronomic beat and troubling keyboards on 'Babylon'. Italy's Jeuneusse d'Ivoire's 'A Gift of Tears' begins like a fragile Joy Division dancefloor filler re-imagined by Neu! before soaring along a dream-like freeway.

"Radio On," Chris Petit said recently, "ended with a car 'stalled on the edge of the future', which we didn't know then would be Thatcherism." The irresistible melancholia that pulses through the Xeroxed saxophones and cold-steel synths of Cold Waves... feels like a European reaction to the unstoppable rise of consumerism, as well as a music made in anticipation of the walled-in existence that technology has since brought into our lives. We have made suburbs of ourselves and the only road out is on the dancefloor.

Originally published at

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

MUSOHISTORICAL #3, #4, #5, #6

Sorry for the break in transmission... my history of SOHO gay nightclubbing, first published in the Daily Note, is here...

Camden from UFO to Britpop via the Lurch Scene here.

New Cross and Deptford here.

And finally, my trudge through the Olympic site and Newham.