Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Skee-Lo's I Wish and Other Songs of Eternal Joy

This is the last thing I ever wrote for The Word. Writers were asked to submit a long list of songs that never fail to make them happy, from which the editor picked one per writer for a piece that was meant to appear this month but was held over and will now never appear. Which I guess is apt in the circumstances.

There’s nothing purer in pop than the one-hit wonder, the artist who rolls up then buggers off before you’ve had the chance to weigh up their cool – or even remember their name. For months I was convinced I Wish was by Stee-Lo, that being fashionable hip hop slang for aura or style at the time. But it didn’t matter – great as I Wish is, Skee-Lo was never gonna thrive in the alpha male world of big willies and mack daddies.

The lovely opening lines (“I wish I was a little bit taller/I wish I was a baller/I wish I had a girl who looked good/I would call her”) were a beautiful counterpart to all the killers and the hundred-dollar billers who dominated rap in 1995, when I Wish peaked at 13 on Billboard (15 here), and the swingy, uplifting brass and smiling self-deprecation make it an almost impossibly cheerful lovelorn lullaby.

It was a trick he could only play once. Despite the single’s success, his album flopped and after a stalled comeback in 2000, he vanished. I have literally no idea what he’s doing now, but wherever he is, I hope he still smiles when he thinks of this.

And that he’s with a girl who looks good.

Here's the rest of my 10 
Sly & the Family Stone – Hot Fun In The Summertime
Terry Callier – Ordinary Joe
Frank Wilson – Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
The Beat – Twist & Crawl
Digital Underground – Humpty Dance
The Bangles – Walk Like An Egyptian
Beyoncé – Crazy In Love
Salt ‘N’ Pepa – Push It
Kelis – Milkshake

Saturday, 9 April 2011


A month back, I met Merrill Garbus, better known as Tune-Yards – or tUnE-yArDs, if you're feeling fingery – in a Tufnell Park pub for a mooted magazine feature. Unfortunately the feature stumbled over the issue of photos, but not before the interview happened, so rather than let it go to waste, I’m posting it here in its unedited entirety. We talked BiRd-BrAiNs, w h o k i l l, Kenya, loop pedals and recording devices (mainly in the opening section – apologies if you find that too teccy, but stick with it, it gets lighter), gangs, women and, inevitably, cultural appropriation.

You’ve been something of a next hype for over a year now. Did you feel you had lots to live up to with this second album?
Yes, or a little to live up to, depends who you are. A lot of people didn’t respond to my first album (BiRd-BrAiNs) at all. It was more myself that I had to live up to, and make a change. A person has to evolve in some way. I knew I wanted to track in a studio cos the first album was on a dictaphone like this [points to my voice recorder]. It had a stereo mic and a built-in compressor so it had a unique sound that was all over that first album. Then I would multitrack it, then I’d mix it on Audacity, shitty freeware. As long as the track’s playing at the same time, there’s your multitrack recording device.
  Let’s say I was recording drums, I’d record a kickdrum into that thing. Then I would copy and paste. It was slooooow, stupid, I would never do it again. This time I learned ProTools. You can stick a mic in and record three minutes of a song and then listen to it. It’s a humane way of recording. This was slow, but for someone who’d never recorded before other than with a 4-track, it was illuminating. At first there were too many compressed vocals on top of one another.

With the first album, could you record it all on the hoof; vocals one day, then bang a few drums in a hotel room the next?
Yes, very convenient. A lot of I did in Martha’s Vineyard, I was a nanny there, a lot I did in my bedroom. I took samples of all these songs. The whole process of recording it, it necessarily had more sound samples. The ferry I took to get the island, I used that as a rhythm track. I’d record myself playing the ukulele around other people, so you’d have all these other voices in addition to it. A dog was waggling its collar, that would get caught in there. I loved the outside sounds. This time it was difficult, because you’re in a studio playing it. We’d track it and I’d be: “OK, it sounds like we played it. Boring!” Having recorded the last one the way we did, this seemed dry, like a vacuum. There were a couple of tracks later on where I needed a real drummer, a keyboard player came in; as my mind expanded I thought more about what this album could be.

And then do you let them play on the track and then loop them up so it sounds more like something you would’ve done?
Exactly, which sounds a bit patronising. I consider a lot of what I do to be editing work, selecting where and when certain sounds happen. I learned Cubase and ProTools. I did it all in nine days, but then took a couple of days and listened to it again and thought this is the most boring thing I’ve ever heard. It felt flat and unexciting, particularly since I believed in the songs so much, they weren’t alive, it was all pretty dead. At that point I realised I had chopped up too much, introduced samples that didn’t belong there. It was too complicated. I was using a shallower version of the tricks I was using in the first one. I had Eli Crews, who engineered the album, help me mix it. He knew how to treat my voice, to make it pop out and shine. We argued about how much reverb to use, I argued against it. I found myself doing things I never thought I’d do.

Is there a political attachment to lo-fi? Are you suspicious of high-gloss entertainment?
Yup. Although I love my Michael Jackson, I love Prince, these people who are high gloss, so I can appreciate it, but I know I’m not that, and there has to be room for people who aren’t high gloss. If I’m political, it’s only to argue that you don’t need a lot of money to record an album. And for women, you don’t need men who apparently know more than you to tell you what your music should sound like. But then, what a hypocrite I am to say you don’t need all this money to make an album. We didn’t spend $500,000 on it, but I spent about $10,000 after the musicians were paid. As with anybody, there were hypocritical moments. Now that’s the new position I find myself in, of having mentioned resources and trying to find a way to use them in a way that chimes with my politics.

It seems to be a good time at the moment for women to make records that aren’t overtly feminist but are made with full control and presented in a non-sexual way, people like (my personal hero) Fever Ray. Is this a product of the new technology, that maybe rock & roll works in a macho way and electronic music doesn’t?
I think being able to make home recordings certainly is a liberating tool for anybody, not just women, but people without money or power. Electronic vs rock: I don’t know, I still struggle with where I fit, I’m neither and both. This time I’m using synths more and it’s not all acoustic, it’s very rarely acoustic. But that’s where it differs from electronic music, there’s no drum machine, no quantising to correct all my wonky drumming. So it’s a good time for women, but at the same time we still see women as objects in the industry continuously. So that keeps going. But Micachu and the Shapes are one of my favourite bands of the past few years and it’s not talking anything about feminism, but she and the rest of the gang are doing crazy, fucked-up shit and no one’s saying “How dare a woman do that?” People always say women don’t have a hard time in the music industry anymore and I just say “Ha ha ha, you try doing it”. But I think the tools are now there in a way that they weren’t in other areas.

Your buzz grew more as a live thing than from the record. Is that because when people see you live, you take the music to a different place? Or is it more because of the tricks, it’s like a magic show, or a puppet show (Merrill was a puppeteer after leaving university)?
It’s a bit of both. There is a sense of miracle with a looping pedal. How does she possibly do that? Even for people who know looping pedals, it’s hard to grasp what’s going on. Because I was trained in theatre and live performance, acting etc, that’s what I think I’m good at. I had those skills and the philosophy behind it. So I know how to do something so people will pay attention; to go, “Stop talking into your beer”. I have those skills, while I had no skills in recording. Plus my parents are musicians. My mum’s a classical pianist and also plays folk music which is what my parents were doing when they met. My mum plays harpsichord and old-time Appalachian folk music and my dad plays Appalachian fiddle. My mum’s from Kentucky, my dad’s from the Bronx. I grew up outside of New York, in Connecticut mostly.
   My dad in the '60s and '70s picked up the banjo and the fiddle. As a Jewish kid from New York he was playing Appalachian music, people who were generally Christian and from a different world. So did my mum have any more right to play this music than my dad because she was from there? Probably not, because she wasn’t living in the mountains…well, she was living in the mountains, but she wasn’t living in a one-room shack; they had a house, her dad owned a grocery store. It’s funny. Where are we justified in borrowing from each other? They played square dances, my dad played the fiddle, my mum played accordion and the piano and they met each other through that community, a community that is based on continuing the tradition of American folk music. To me, it always seemed more legitimate than what I do because it’s from America, which is where we’re from. But still in America, as in Africa, there are a thousand different cultures or tribes or ethnic groups, whatever you want to call it. But there’s lots of stealing and borrowing going on between these traditions.

You spent several months in Kenya after university and African music plays a major part in your sound. Did you go there because you loved the music or did you discover the music out there?
The first African music I ever heard was [white-led South African band] Johnny Clegg and Savuka, when I was about ten. That was a time when my uncle and aunt, who are both medical practitioners, spent a year out there. I had this very idealised notion of what Africa was. I was trapped in Connecticut, in this very limited and unrealistic world, and they had found this new freedom in a completely new part of the world. There was something about that that was so appealing to me from the get-go. When I got to school I was always planning to go Africa, to Kenya, so I studied Swahili at school. I had to go to another university to find a Swahili class.

Where did you go to university?
At Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Luckily at Smith there were lots of people from Kenya and Tanzania who could be my tutors, so I could have discussion classes with them, get to speak it. When I got there, it was a study-abroad programme, I found myself in a community I hadn’t expected to be in. First I imagined Johnny Clegg, then Paul Simon’s Graceland; here I am exposed to that I Know What I Know song, the one with the [makes a high-pitched birdlike noise] in the background, and I always pictured myself jumping on these savannahs with coloured paint on my face, a complete fantasy of what Africa was gonna be. I was in Mombassa, which is Muslim. They trade with the Middle East and have done for thousands of years, so it’s often more like the Middle East than the centre of Kenya. I studied music there, studied tarabu, and got to work with a very well-known harmonium player and got to play the fiddle as well. I was playing taarab-style violin.

And you were teaching kids how to sing at the same time?
I was mostly teaching music-theory class, I guess. But we did sing as part of that.

You said in interview that we borrow from Africa but we also steal from Africa. In musical terms, what’s the difference?
I think I was talking about economic theft.

Do you think there is such a thing as theft in music, other than straight plagiarism?
Plagiarising a song is something that happens often. But I was just talking about this in the previous interview: what is that difference? Obviously this idea of sharing, African musicians borrow from Western traditions and it’s very rare that we accuse anyone of doing that because that’s just how cultures swim into each other. But when you deconstruct it a bit, it has these distinctions. Westerners colonised Africa. African musicians using Western music is almost like, “We will find our own power stealing your music, making it part of ours.” It brings up these interesting relationships and power dynamics. I guess what I regard as thievery is stealing shit that’s not your own, and not giving anything financially, politically, back to wherever you’re taking from. I’m into borrowing, it’s a total part of music, but whatever I do I want to keep it in this social context. You can’t just take African music, put it in pop music and just say, [smug voice] “Yeah! The world is just music, man.”  I hate that. Where did you get that music? Who recorded it? Did they get money from it? What’s the relationship? I guess I find it more complicated than many musicians portray it as.

Do you find someone like Vampire Weekend problematic? [awkward silence] Sorry if it sounds like I’m trying to start some kind of war.
You know what I do to not be in some kind of war with them? I don’t listen to their whole album. Sorry Vampire Weekend, but I haven’t. Yes, I do find it problematic. I’ve read a bit about them and I think their perspective is, "It’s a world of music, we’re allowed to do what we want". I see how it’s a valid argument. They make good money, but they’re not U2. Maybe if they were they would be able to give back. Musically, I find the Very Best a lot more interesting. They clearly took the Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa song. Vampire Weekend were obviously borrowing that and put it in this African tradition, and then [Esau Mwamwaya of Very Best] takes it back and samples it. It makes it a more interesting song. I think we are flawed beings, flawed as people existing in the world, polluting, exploiting other cultures, wearing clothing made in other countries where people make pitiful amounts of money making it. We’re in this relationship the whole time so I can’t crucify anyone else for being a certain way, but I can be musically interested in something over something else.

Your music dabbles in African, folk, there’s elements of hip hop, elements of electronica. Would you ever be tempted to make an album in one of those genres, just a straight genre album?
Yeah, for sure. I wonder how purely I could stick to it, but yes. Lately I’ve been thinking about sludge metal [laughs], how cool that would be. Not making a sludge metal album, but there are parts of that that would let me get out of whatever genre people think I’m in. But certainly I would like to make a great dance album, every track thumping dance party music.

With vocals?
With vocals. Even if it wasn’t all vocals, I could treat them so I could sample myself, like I would with other musicians, I can do it myself. You don’t always have to be the lead singer, but there can be elements of my voice.

When you’re working with loop pedals live, what do you do if it goes wrong? Is it possible to make a 'wrong' loop? And if it is, do you get halfway through a song and say, "This is fucked up, it’s the wrong note", then delete it and go back to the beginning?
You should ask audience members how much I’ve done that! I try not to stop in the middle of a song, but yes. The worst example is when the loop gets erased, maybe there’s a surge of electricity and it erases everything I’ve just done. All of a sudden you’re in the middle of a song and there’s no loop on it. The most embarrassing thing is having to recreate the loop.

Do you get enormously self-conscious when it goes like that?
Puppeteers, because you work with physical objects that tend to fall apart in performance, for instance a leg might fall off, I was taught to handle it. The school had a very specific approach to mistakes, which is that the audience is 100 per cent aware of what’s going on and the moment you make a mistake you have the most of their attention. That’s not something to be ashamed of or afraid of, it’s the moment you embrace. My experience lately has been that the audience is on my side. It’s very rare now that I find myself in a place where everyone seems like my enemy and I have to fight to gain their attention.

Did you find that a lot before?
Yeah, open mic, nobody listening at all and I had to fight for attention. I was using a Line 6 delay pedal, a more delicate looping pedal. And I’d do these tiny percussive things on the ukulele, banging on it, and that was going through the looping pedal. So it was much more delicate and when you’re in a noisy bar at an open mic... My voice was my primary tool. People don’t always know what’s happening and you can get away with a lot in a live performance, but it’s not like having a laptop there and that goes wrong. Then you’d be screwed. The looping pedals are more hands-on and that makes it interesting.

When you’re in front of a hostile or indifferent crowd, what do you use to turn it around? Humour, aggression, both? Or do you just ask the soundman to turn it up and maybe start crying?
No crying at all. Both [humour and aggression]. My job is to get people to listen. With my old band [Sister Suvi] we opened for much bigger bands like Islands. We were playing to teeny-boppers who just didn’t care about our music. It wasn’t their fault, it was our job to do something that was captivating and when we fell short of that I felt very strongly that it was our fault. My first solo performances, I knew it was do or die, I could either bust or I could captivate people. Truth be told, I think it was in the quieter moments that I really got them, really pulled them in so they had to concentrate to hear. I learned how to go between being loud and whispering so [whispers] you have to concentrate to hear every word. You wish.

Did you have standard lines for dealing with hecklers at open mic?
[laughs] No, I did a lot of improv at college, it was all different every day.

There’s a couple of songs on the new album I want to ask about. What’s Gangsta about?
I tell you what it came out of. When I first started visiting Oakland, which is now where I live, there was a gang that formed outside of [her bassist] Nate’s old house. There were a couple of violent incidents that happened, he was telling me that young kids in his neighbourhood were forming a gang. I made friends with the younger sister of one of them, she was eight or nine. She was beautifully young and naive. It was striking to me that her brothers were reaching this age. They had very little place to go or much power in their social situation. Their response was to form a gang to protect themselves. It seemed natural, in a very disturbing way. That was the source of it. These were kids I became more and more afraid of because they started to have weapons, become more antagonistic. Other times they’d be nice neighbours. So the family next door, I had a very good relationship with this young girl and an antagonistic one with the boys. I started to think about people and power and how they’re attracted to power and their need to feel empowered in order to get by.

The song Bizness has the line "don’t take my life away". Is that a reflection of how you feel about the music biz?
Yes, that’s one side of it. I think a lot of my songs start with an impulse, which was "don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away. But that song was supposed to be a Christmas song [laughs]. It was round the time of the Haiti earthquake. I was trying to have any inkling of what it’s like to be in that situation, being a victim of that, so "don’t take my life away" was about that as well. Most members of the global community understand the reality of a people elsewhere. If you’re living in Haiti you’re well aware of people being more well off than you and being able to help you, but maybe not doing. I really don’t want to write songs that are me whining about the record industry. Here I am making a living, a beautiful living, you’re asking me questions about myself. How much better can life get? But at the same time I worry about what part of myself is lost when I become part of this bigger… The definition of my band all of a sudden starts to define me even though I want to squirm and wriggle out of those definitions, as any human being would.

And make a sludge metal album.
Yeah, if I want to [laughs]. I will if I want to, damn you. I like that song cos it can mean a lot of different things. It’s also about personal relationships. There have been changes in my personal life in the last couple of years.

Performance-wise, is it still just you and Nate?
For this next tour we’re taking two horn players, so it’ll be four. For some songs it’ll be me and Nate, but Nate will start to play more percussion and drums. I got lucky with him; not only is he a great human being but he’s a drummer as much as a bass player.

Will you be looping up the drums and brass lines the way you do with your voice and percussion?
Yeah, I haven’t thought about the brass lines yet, but I’ll be sampling some of Nate’s drums, my drums, my vocals, his percussion on bottles. There’s a lot that can be done. That’s why we’re bringing in this soundman, it’s going to be very complex.

So you’re both front woman and this crazy little technician, running about grabbing bits of what everyone else is doing?
Oh yeah, I’m not happy unless I’m meddling in whatever everyone else is doing. Total control freak. It keeps me on my toes.

You played at Yoko’s all-star concert in LA last autumn. How it was being onstage with Lady Gaga and Rza?
At the end we were all on for Give Peace A Chance, and I found myself next to Lady Gaga, who I didn’t think was an actual human being before.

Just pieced together from different marketing concepts.
Yeah, exactly, but she’s real. Nate and I did a cover of a Yoko Ono song, which was amazing for me because like many people I didn’t know her – what’s the word? ­– oeuvre until I started picking out the song I wanted to do. For reasons we all know, she didn’t get her credit as a songwriter. The one we did, We’re All Water, is often attributed to John Lennon because he played guitar on it.

She obviously has a bit of a bad rep in the rock world, but when you hear her good stuff, it’s easily up there with someone like Nico.
The Plastic Ono Band with John Lennon, those are totally great. She’s abrasive, her voice is purposefully abrasive. I find that with myself as well sometimes, that people just aren’t interested. It’s not soothing, it’s challenging. When I first came out, the New York Times wrote this great article saying my voice was somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Yoko Ono. Oh my god, that’s heavy! But I didn’t even know what Yoko Ono’s voice sounds like. But when I heard it, I was incredibly complimented by that. Her work’s very idealistic, every word that comes out is a haiku poem, but also it’s all about peace in the world, super-idealistic in a way. I can be too, but then I think ‘Oh, that’s so cheesy’. But so what if you’re an idealist. You’re able to get these things out in the world as best you can. That’s something I admire about her: she still sticks with slogans from the ’60s even though it’s not fashionable anymore.

And you’re working with her again, I believe.
Yeah, hopefully. We know Sean Lennon well, because he’s a fan of Tune-Yards and us of him. So we’ll see where it goes.

The new album is called w h o k i l l. Explain the lettering on the album title. Is it an aesthetic thing or a cryptic thing?
It’s just the way it came out. And I have a history of sticking to my guns over form and text. I studied Dada a lot and the Dadaist way of screwing with text is compelling to me, a subtle way of fucking with civilisation and language. It’s always been there. I don’t know if you’re into graphic novels, but I think it’s part of our generation’s artistic right to fuck with what we want to fuck with. Throughout the recording it was called Women Who Kill, but spelt as one word. I changed my mind, based on the reaction of some trusted cohorts.

What was their reaction?
We could’ve got away with calling it womenwhokill, but you and I would’ve talked a lot more about women than I feel the need to. That was the argument people had. "If you want this all to be 'this is about women being empowered and we can kill too', if you want to talk about that for the rest of your life, then fine, call it that." When I really thought about it, I felt there was way more to this, about violence, about killing; there’s plenty of that in there without it being a women’s issue. No need to go there.

It does also sound like a tatty TV show.
Yeah, that also. It was compelling to me because women aren’t expected to be violent and I think it’s a great title, but w h o k i l l is great too. It could be a bird call, it could be Tune-Yards who kill, it’s open ended. I love my music to be as open-ended as possible.

But it’s not some cryptic thing, or an acronym?
No, no. Or maybe it is and I will never tell [laughs].

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

March playlist

So much good stuff around at the moment, more than I can reasonably post on Facebook.

First up Austra. Just got the album of this. Not quite as instantly smitten as I'd expected – not yet, anyway – but this is gorgeous. Here in its harder, longer form. All the work of Katie Stelmanis, a Latvian-American out of Toronto with a voice for the opera and beats for sex in club toilets.

Clipse's last album was pants, and I can't remember the last time Fiddy was any good. But this new single from Pusha T is a blast. Clipse never put a foot wrong with Neptunes, and if they're producing their solo albums, all will be right again.

Another lone woman working wonders. I was meant to spend the day writing up an interview with Tune Yards, but that's on hold. And this is the best way to spend my time without getting depressed hunting for work. The new album is the nuts and her live shows are meant to be even nutsier. This is something like how I'd hoped Vampire Weekend would sound until it turned out they were wimpy indie at heart.

J.Rocc's album is a massive surprise. Expected drab turntablism, got some spacey, bass-heavy carnival madness. For my money you can hear it best on Party, but this seems to be the first single – and J.Rocc Party isn't exactly chosen with SEO in mind – so cop this.

Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek about to release their first album as Africa Hitech. This is just immense.

Really recommend this new Instra:mental album, Resolution 653. Thought they were meant to be d'n'b, but don't much sound like it to me, which is why probably why I like it so much. Parts of it sound like a colder, harder Isolee. And others don't. Can't find any videos, so hopefully this album megamix will do.

The return of Raekwon in the last few years almost makes up for his old mucker Ghostface losing his way a little. Here he pays tribute to, um, Bon Jovi and lords of rawk. Possibly the first rap track to big up its rock credentials without using really shitty axe wankfluff.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Belting Braces

                     This originally appeared in Word Magazine, January 2011

Now’s The Time
It’s pop’s true perennial, one that’ll be here long after the guitar-bass-drum legions have gone the way of the washboard. The double-barrelled shotgun of big-song/big-voice predates rock and keeps getting in the way of its conquest: halting the Beatles’ run of consecutive chart-toppers when Release Me hemmed in one of their best singles, Strawberry Fields Forever, at number two; pilloried as the pinnacle of bad taste on Abigail’s Party; even raising the damned Titanic in the ‘90s.

Adele Adkins wasn’t supposed to go that way. Hyped as XL’s “new Amy” to Rough Trade’s competing Duffy – a rare case of indie labels scampering down a path laid by a major, Island – her first album, 19, was a too-light-by-half exercise in gentle soul, folk and jazz.  Its saving grace – and the driving force behind an impressive two million worldwide sales, significantly boosted when she fluked her way onto the same record-breaking Saturday Night Live bill as Sarah Palin – was the beast of a ballad Chasing Pavements. Drenched in strings and with a hook that allowed Adele to unleash her vocal cannonade at full blast, it achieved that delicate balancing act of subtlety and force-of-nature emotional torrents that stop the right side of histrionics.

Having perhaps sensed that for Adele more is always more, her second album strips away the soft padding that marred her debut. While 19 placed her in some metaphorical supper club, 21 – like her debut, named for her age – puts her centrestage in Vegas, with songs that typically start at 11 and work their way up. Not that these are overly ornate – Rick Rubin, who produces four tracks, didn’t get where he is today by burying the voice in superfluous instrumentation – just dramatic, every gun set to stun. With Adele slaloming her way through the notes, you feel on the cusp of being overwhelmed, even when, as on the Rubin-produced Cure cover Lovesong, she’s backed by nothing more than acoustic guitar and the gentlest of strings.

Adele is a graduate of the same BRIT school that brought us Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash, but has always seemed like the oldest child in the playground, and not just in her generous physical frame (all the better for booming them out with). A former indie kid who kept her fondness for Celine Dion hidden from friends, even her Twitter account has lain untouched in 18 months. No winsome mundanity here about teeth-brushing or trips to Tesco’s – all 11 songs on 21 are powerplays, postcards from the edge of some relationship crisis or other. It’s not without drawbacks – you’re never more than ten minutes from an X-Factor-style emotithon, the worst of which, Set Fire To The Rain, sounds like it was made with the aid of a wind tunnel and a Bonnie Tyler fright wig.

But there’s more than enough to demonstrate that Adele, far from being just another cookie off the stage-school cutter, could still be selling out the enormodomes when the rest of the class are banding together for the BRIT School Reunion package tour. Her delivery, first breathy then blowy, on the retro soul gem I’ll Be Waiting sounds like a gauntlet flung in the direction of Ms Winehouse, whose forthcoming (yeah right!) LP will have to defy visible physical and creative decline to produce anything to compare with it or the stupendous, stark R&B of Rumour Has It. As if to prove she can occasionally do understated, Someone Like You, on which she’s accompanied only by a piano, sounds like Alicia Keys’s immaculate No One remixed without the eruptions.

She will, it’s hoped, be served better by time than Tony Christie. Like Adele, Christie is a singer whose voice is built for the big occasion, one that would’ve been an easy listening mainstay, had he found more memorable material. Instead he spent most of his career in the shadow of Tom Jones, eking out a living in German clubs while the Welshman strutted the stage in Vegas. Revived with a nod and a wink by those twin towers of northern humour, Peter Kay and Jarvis Cocker (who pens Get Christie, an awful homage to Get Carter that borrows the film’s theme tune and most famous line), he’s released two albums of covers post-Amarillo. Now’s The Time is original material, recorded with the aid of other Sheffield stalwarts such as Roisin Murphy, who appears on the most successful track, the bold, confident 7 Hills, and producer Richard Barrett of All Seeing I. It’s a stab at recreating his early ’70s heyday, but sounds instead like a bid for an Austin Powers soundtrack or Glastonbury’s veteran’s slot, a self-conscious stew of showy big band tunes, heavy on brass but light on funk, swing or drive. In this battle of the big voices, the veteran’s locked in a pastiche of the past; the newcomer is busily re-proving that old adage about quality being timeless.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Good Cop Nazi Cop

Highlight of my Christmas domestic entertainment by a distance was the latest Philip Kerr, Field Grey, the seventh in his series of Marlowe-in-Nazi-Germany novels featuring that most anti of anti-heroes Bernie Gunther. This one starts in mid-50s Cuba with Gunther and Graham Greene comparing tits in an upmarket brothel. Greene is en route to Haiti, scene of his greatest book, The Comedians, but Gunther is dragged back to Europe and Landsberg Prison (where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf), and back in time to Weimar Berlin, Occupied Paris, the Ukranian and Byelorussian killing fields, a Soviet POW camp and divided, but pre-Wall Berlin.

It's probably his best, certainly his most complex yet, even if I don't entirely buy the ending. And that's all I'm gonna say about it (other than BUY IT). Instead, I'm uploading an interview I did with him in summer 2009, just prior to the publication of If The Dead Rise Not, which first ran in Word.


“For a short period of time the German language was a series of very large German words, formed from very small German thinking.” Bernie Gunther says this the way he says everything; with a curled lip, a tone that dares you to disagree and the bitter regret that, though he was helpless to do much about it, he might’ve done a little more. His creator is rather more comfortable company, sipping tea in The Ivy’s private members’ club. A 53-year-old Scot with an RP accent and a complexion so deep-tan he could be Iberian (he attributes it to his Pict ancestry, though his schoolmates preferred the simpler pejorative ‘Paki’), Philip Kerr has built one of the most durable characters in modern crime fiction, a Marlowesque private detective thrown down streets far darker than those his forerunner trod.

Gunther’s beat is ‘30s Berlin. The Nazis have dumped Weimar into history’s dustbin, but the decadence forever associated with its name still lingers. Germany is in transition from one of the world’s most liberal states to its most tyrannical. A former homicide tec whose face doesn’t fit the new Nazi-dominated police force (KRIPO), Gunther’s kept busy by the never-ending wave of disappearing persons, many of them Jewish. “Whatever crime you’re detailing,” Kerr says, “you know there’s always something far worse going on in the background, the spectre of it. [The Holocaust]’s the great crime of the millennia, whereas a lot of crime writing seems a bit parochial.”

Gunther first appeared in 1989’s March Violets, soon followed by two more (the first three novels are still in print as the trilogy, Berlin Noir), then a gap of some 15 years, when he was revived for The One From The Other. “Crime writing is a bit like being on a treadmill, crime writers do cookie cutter novels, and I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t sign on just to write one sort of thing for the rest of my life. And I was lucky enough to be able to do that, now it would be impossible.” So Kerr ventured elsewhere, writing children’s books (as PB Kerr) and techno thrillers, sci-fi and historical counterfactuals. “I wanted to be like Kubrick, going from Strangelove to 2001 to Clockwork Orange,” he says. “A friend of mine called it fucking with your niche. I fucked with my niche.”

Gunther’s revival has seen him blossom. Always cynical and smart-mouthed, his misanthropy has developed a pronounced streak of self-loathing, fuelled by his wartime experiences as a reluctant SS member. Like Flashman, he has a habit of bumping up alongside any number of historical ogres, including all of the leading Nazis bar Hitler (“it’s good to have this ultimate monster in the background”) and the Perons. In the new novel, If The Dead Rise Not, he encounters Meyer Lansky and friends as they’re busily turning ‘50s Cuba into a Mafia colony.

But it’s the immediate predecessor, A Quiet Flame, which stirred most interest. While Peron’s welcome mat for escaping Nazis is a matter of historical record, Kerr adds a deal of conjecture, placing concentration camp architect Hans Kammler among them and speculating that Argentina may have had its own programme for Jewish extermination.

The novel aroused “horrified fascination” among Argentine journalists, but is based on a crime that was never committed. Was it? “Others have speculated that they may have done. There were certainly camps for opponents of the regime, pre-Peron, during Peron, and during the ‘70s junta too. Argentina has always chucked the left in camps, and worse. I don’t think it’s too outrageous to speculate they might have done the same with Jews. Directive 11, forbidding Jewish immigration, was certainly true. The book didn’t go down well in Argentina. But look at the evidence – there were 8,000 Nazi war criminals in Argentina by the 1950s, so it seems perfectly reasonable to speculate on what they were doing, why they were there, who let them in, and if they were welcome, who wasn’t, and what happened to them?”

Gunther is now a globetrotter (The One From The Other explains why), but the stories always keep one foot in Berlin. Readers expect it and Kerr loves the place. He talks of his first visit to the Soviet East, just before the fall, with childlike excitement, his language peppered with the stuff of storytelling: “unbelievably exciting…bullet holes in every wall…fantastically atmospheric.” But he won’t freeze Gunther in time, insisting the character develops. He’s older now, not as imposing, less attractive, frequently paying for the sex that comes his way. “Too often heroines throw themselves at the character,” smiles Kerr. “It was fun this way, makes it worth doing. I’m not trying to inhabit the same pitch, I want to him to get older, greyer, so he can’t hack it like he used to.”

Monday, 18 October 2010

Swords of the Dance

Yet another old Word piece rehashed for interweb immortality. This originally appeared early Sept 2010, timed to coincide with Ninja Tune's 20th anniversary celebrations.

Perched between a gay pub and a grey council estate on a south London trunk road stands a lone house. Looking out of place, like it’s ducked the sweep of a demolition ball more than once, its anonymous blue façade makes no reference to its contents, save one small sticker below the buzzer: Ninja Tune. One of the longest-serving British dance labels, it was formed as an outlet for renowned producers Coldcut, Matt Black and Jon More, with an initial cash injection of just £500.

They’ve spent a bit more since, but not that much. The higgledy-piggledy three-storey headquarters is crammed with people, records, shelving and computers. An overworked server roars loudly in the corner while the lavatory sink threatens to come away from the wall. Black slinks into the upstairs office, containing hand-me-down and left-behind furniture, and sprawls on an old sofa. Dressed in black (the fact that his birth name is Cohn suggests this may not be a coincidence), with long, straggling hair, his is a more intense presence than the laidback, comparatively dapper More, who’s dressed in the age-appropriate (he’s 53) cap and jacket.

Birthdays and anniversaries are very much in mind. Black turns 50 soon, Ninja Tune celebrates its twentieth this year and they’ve been in this Kennington house they call home for 10 years. But not much longer: the label will move north of the river next year (Black himself is pondering making his partners an offer on the building), bringing one Ninja chapter to a close. Looking around at the walls – a few silver discs (Mr Scruff, Roots Manuva, Coldcut, Cinematic Orchestra) and a lot of posters – I wonder why two of the biggest names in British dance music (and in the late-’80s Coldcut were very big indeed, producing Yazz and Lisa Stansfield and famously remixing Rakim) ever chose to go it alone.

“We’d already had experience of forming a label with Ahead Of Our Time. That was done through Big Life, which was subsequently sold to Arista,” explains More.

Black interjects, “It’s like little fish that get eaten by bigger fish that get eaten by bigger fish. We realised we were little fish and it would be better if we swim for freedom.”

“So we escaped to the best place in the world for fish, which was Japan.”

“Surely the open sea?”

Fish-friendly or not, Japanese films inspired the name and the distinctive logo (designed later by Kev of DJ Food). The ethos – fiercely independent, techno-savvy, web-literate, supremely obstinate – was all their own. While British dance was dominated by house, which went from the underground to high street hegemony, Ninja went the other way, dabbling in anything but. “You can read Ninja Tune as a war with house music, definitely,” says Black. “When the first house records came out we were very excited, but we don’t like conformity, uniformity, monoculture. There are massive pressures pushing monoculture and destroying biological diversity and cultural diversity. You don’t have to be a green-bearded hippy to be aware of that. There’s nothing wrong with people getting off their tits and coming together under one rhythm. But when that rhythm takes over so there isn’t anything else allowed, that’s a problem. So we decided to become the resistance.”

Black, who’s collaborated with Crass before now, has a mile-wide anarcho streak, but that oppositional policy and attachment to life in the margins has made Ninja closer to a dance version of John Peel, a comparison that delights them (“a solitary giant fighting the forces of darkness,” says Black, typically). Just as Peel was always more interested in tomorrow than yesterday, Ninja’s 20th Anniversary package, XX,  shuns nostalgia, instead bundling up six albums of new music and remixes. In 20 years they’ve never done a ‘best of’. “There’s always something more interesting to do,” says Black. “It’s an exciting time in electronic music right now, it’s swung back again, there’s some pretty wild new sounds and new characters out there.”
Ninja’s one brush with real fame came this time last year when the Mercury Prize went to Speech Debelle’s Speech Therapy, released on their Big Dada subsidiary. Its triumph turned to ashes when its failure to sell like Arctic Monkeys was held up as proof of the Mercury’s inverse Midas Touch and the artist herself turned on her label, whom she criticised for not getting stock in the shops. Ill-attended gigs told the truth of the matter: despite being the best record on an unremarkable list it was never going to trouble the scorers. Black shrugs, “It’s full of character, unique, but if you think it’s gonna be Lily Allen you better think again, because it ain’t; it’s something else, it’s an odd record.”

Whether Speech returns or not, Ninja Tune remain vital. Recent releases include The Bug’s excoriating ragga-dubstep, Grasscut’s future folk and Bonobo’s electronic soul, the still breathtaking “audiovisual rhythmic montages” of Hexstatic and the reissue of the Solid Steel series of mix CDs (a format practically reinvented by Coldcut’s 1997 70 Minutes Of Madness). They seem quite happy tootling away, rarely fashionable and largely out of view.

“Our philosophy is to not be distracted by the sound of people jumping on the bandwagon,” says More. Black adds, “We’ve been flavour of the week a couple of times and when you see how the machine works and how it’s set up to flog things when the quality’s not really there, we keep away. We know what we’re doing and we get on with it.” Here’s to another score.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Kanye's Thriller Night

Kanye West has compared his self-directed 40-minute short film Runaway to the abstract works of Picasso and Matisse. What they would’ve made of this breathtakingly cornball fantasy is anyone’s guess, but I suspect that other giant of 20th-century art whose name kept cropping up at last night’s screening – in the Bafta HQ on Piccadilly, no less – Michael Jackson would’ve felt right at home among the UK urban celebs (Tinie, Chipmunk) and the dozens of St Martin’s art students, reputedly invited at Kanye’s suggestion to “make it look cool”.

“With Michael Jackson’s passing I felt a responsibility to create things for our generation, to be more inspirational and be better parents,” he says. “The lowest common denominator is all you see on TV, we need to use our power in a proper way.”

In Runaway’s case this means rescuing a half-dead phoenix – gorgeous and, happily, wearing as little by way of feathered clothing as daytime telly restrictions allow – coaxing her back to life with a lush garden, a sheep and the power of Kanye’s sampling skills, marrying her, arguing, promising “I’ll never let you burn”, and then watching her rise into the sky while running through the words to his horrible Autotuned take on Bon Iver’s Woods.

This is actually a rare reversion to 808s And Heartbreaks. For the most part the songs represent a return to the form of, if not College Dropout, then at least Graduation. Hard and raw in places, grandiose and orchestral in others, it mostly maintains the form of tracks like Monster and is evidence that Kanye’s new album may overcome its clunky title My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (whither Good-Ass Job?) and drag him back from the precipice he’s been gazing over for the last two years.

He touched on these problems (notably the fall-out from his embarrassing awards-show intervention) in the post-film Q&A. Sounding worryingly earnest in his claims of divine intervention, he seemed like a new, rather boring man, talking about his heroic resistance to record company pressure to do something commercial. He saw this as “the same shit Michael went through”, as if the man who made the most successful album of all time, and regularly phoned CBS boss Walter Yetnikoff at all hours of the day seeking reassurance that its successor would sell even more, was merely a disinterested passenger in his own global super-megastardom.

But beneath the waffle the old arrogant, ever-quotable Kanye was there. “This is gonna sound like the Kanye of three years ago, but do you know how creative I have to be to be me?” he said. And “I wish I had a billionaire to invest in me, ‘cos investing in me is investing in arts through all the three-year-olds I’m gonna inspire.” Then he got lost in a rant against the snobs of the fashion world, blaming Lindsay Lohan for his failure to successfully launch his own range. “Lohan’s collection was like the 9/11 for Arabians (sic) to celebrities [doing their own fashion line].”

And when, reflecting on the extended ballet dance that forms the latter half of the title track, he said “hip hop is like black semen – anything that connects with it becomes that”, it was good to have the old Kanye back. Sorry doesn’t suit him any more than surrealism. But if the film reeks of superstar self-indulgence the new album should make some amends for the horrors of Heartbreaks.