Thursday, 20 December 2007

Darren Hayman feature

published in November Stool Pigeon under headline 'Class Act - Darren Hayman keeps it comprehensively British and old school

You’ve seen it. The generic Fruit of the Loom t-shirt in block colours, with the word ‘Hefner’ printed across the chest. You see it worn occasionally at a market or a record store, and more often at festivals, where they share a status with Slipknot hoodies at Reading. Walking past one of these t-shirts, some people will think, what is this shit skate label that only sells one thing?, but to others, a quiet society of John Peel listeners and knowing indie boffins, this is the secret handshake, a seal of approval as dependable as a lion on an egg.

The man behind the t-shirts, once the main force behind Hefner, is today comfortably unaware of his cult status. Or at least, if he’s aware, he doesn’t show it. Tucking into a bacon sandwich in between home and the cinema, Darren Hayman talks me through an ordinary day as an underground pop icon. “Some days,” he tells me, “my job is just like anyone else’s job.” He isn’t being blasé, it does sound pretty normal.

“My wife’s alarm goes off at six to the Today programme, and I’m usually up by 7.” He says, “I’ll do a bit of housekeeping, then I’ll walk the dog, do me emails, update the website, this and that. When my wife gets home I usually make sure I’ve done her dinner. Might do a gig.”

You might wonder why we’ve settled so quickly on the unremarkable, but in a world where kids are making big money with songs about owning trainers, it’s rare to find someone who’s living a life as real as he sings. Of course, Darren Hayman started making music with the intention to keep it real. He first picked up a guitar in 1986 after seeing Billy Bragg play, and what follows

“I remember being about 17 when I saw Billy Bragg play,” he says, “and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I could do this.’ up until then I’d never hard anyone sing with an essex accent, just American ones, or Liverpudlian like the Beatles. It just made me think, that if he’s only got his guitar and his voice, maybe I could do it too. I guess it was quite arrogant really.”

Hefner’s songs, like Billy Bragg’s, were at their best with the smallest situations as starting points, songs like Greater London Radio, or Lee Remick, a lament to family dysfunction centred around a teenager’s film star crush. Emerging just as Britpop faded out, Darren largely ignored the fiercely marketed bolshiness of Cool Britannia, ad drew inspiration from observational lo-fi artists from America, like the Mountain Goats, Simon Joyner and the New Bad Things.

“All those bands inspired me because they had an audience but they weren’t rich or famous in any way. They had this real, genuine, troubadour quality that I couldn’t see in bands English bands at the time.” he muses, then continues, “but I was always very keen I would sing about what I saw - British things, with a British accent. That was the most important to me.”

Darren is unique in this country in that he hasn’t really strayed from those early inspirations, or filtered his style as he became more successful. He would tell you its because he hasn’t sold enough records to sell out, but one suspects that at the heart of his music lies a voice that won’t be manipulated. Today, we’re here to talk about Darren Hayman & the Secondary Modern, his first album proper since splitting up with Hefner, and it is still lyrically outstanding, and still Very British. It’s British in the same way that Jarvis Cocker, Graham Coxon and the Arctic Monkeys make British Records, but instead of a kitchen sink drama, we have a full blown episode of Channel 4’s Teachers. Well, maybe without the swearing. And the sex. But there’s definitely some smutty looks in the teachers lounge and a few too many whisky sodas after school. It’s a Britishness that’s peculiar to the high streets of suburban East London, where he grew up and still lives. Songs like Rochelle, which begins, ‘if you can’t walk in high heels, then don’t walk in high heels’, or Elizabeth Duke, about proposing to a girlfriend with a cheap ring, invoke images of a town you’ve never been to, but you’ve seen on telly. Unless of course, it reminds you of a town you do know. That’s the beauty of the album, you can either have experienced it, or not, but either way, you know what he means. The album also unique in that it may be pop’s first age-appropriate album since Kate Bush started singing about dishwashers. You wouldn’t catch Jarvis singing about marriage or mortgages in a hurry, nor any other thirty-something pop star for that matter, but that’s precisely what Darren has done on this record. Is this a nod to the write-what-you-see school of his early influences?

“I have no problems with writing adult songs for adults,” says Darren, “There’s a bit of a gap in the market for that isn’t there?”

If there was a gap in the market for Walthamstow centric, part-time teacher indie pop, then it looks like it’s just been filled. And anyone who was looking for that missing record on the moon-landing, or the new town of Harlow can also expect the wait to be over. Since breaking up with Hefner’s label, Too Pure, Darren has been afforded an unprecendnted amoung of creative freedom. So much so, the next album may well be 14 songs about town planning.

“I’m getting used to the idea that I’m not on a label anymore and I can do all the silly ideas I’ve had.” He says, “I’m sure if Chris Martin wanted to write an album about Harlow, someone would tell him it was a shit idea. I’m sure he would think it was a shit idea.” He giggles, “I’m sure it is a shit idea – but I’m just going to keep doing this until I do something so bloody awful that nobody buys it.”

On last count, Darren Hayman is yet to release a bloody awful album, Coldplay on the other hand... If his initial dream on seeing Billy Bragg was only to represent his own background as well as Bragg did, then he’s succeeded. He's also managed to rival heroes like the Mountain Goats & Simon Joyner on prolificacy, and maintain a double life of artist/ working man of which Phillip Larkin would be proud. Occasionally, however, news of his success will filter into his reality.

“I was doing a music crossword the other day, and the answer was Darren Hayman,” he says, “and I didn’t get it. I left it blank. My wife told me off for that.” He laughs, “That’s a sign isn’t it? That I can’t even get my own name in a crossword.”

I bet the kid on the next table with the Hefner tee figured it out.

Friday, 14 December 2007

DisCover - the Wave Pictures

Pretty gushing piece I wrote for Drowned in Sound

Remember when a band used to play and suddenly everything would go soft focus and everything but the players would go dark? Of course not, because even I have only seen that happen in Grease when an angel visits Frenchie in the diner and basically calls her a complete reject (anybody else find that weird?), but I imagine that it used to happen all the time. I imagine there was a certain kind of crooner who could strike one chord on a stage and all the light in the room would go pink, and all the members of the band would be backlit like models in a 1950’s knitwear catalogue. I guess that’s what they call star quality. I’ve never seen it before, but they sure talked about it a lot in Fame Acadamy, and so when I saw this band the Wave Pictures in Birmingham last week, and suddenly the light in the room felt like it was coming out of a super 8 camera, I was able to figure out why it was.

I’ve now seen them play four times. Each time there was a song that I didn’t recognize, or something they’d written new that day, no mean feat when you appear to be playing a different show every single night. And then I spoke to them and I realized they have no idea how good they are. Not a clue. And they don’t know who CSS are, and they’ve never heard the Maccabees, and they live off a diet of Chuck Berry and Jonathan Richman, but occasionally sing the filthiest lyrics you’ve ever heard. Like first there’s a surfs-up guitar solo, and then there’s the line ‘And then you got cystitis, didn’t you?’

I don’t know, maybe I’m like an idiot girl in a poodle skirt swooning over a matinee idol, but I’ve never fallen in love with a band like this before. It’s like discovering the Mountain Goats at their first show, or getting hold of the first Belle and Sebastian tape and getting to tell the weirdo who sold it to you that you like his band. You know the people who get interviewed because they were the first Neutral Milk Hotel fans? Well I get the feeling this article has written me into at least a book or two about the Wave Pictures. But that’s a few years down the line yet. At the meantime they’re on tour with Darren Hayman and about to release a single on Moshi Moshi. A four week residency at the George Tavern starts on Tuesday 13th November and continues on the 20th, 4th & 11th. They also seem to be playing everywhere else, all the time, for the rest of their lives.

Here’s the transcript of the interview I did. The singer David did most of the talking, cause the other two got really shy. We had to force them even to nod their heads- how dreamy is that?

[Transcript at]

Monday, 12 November 2007

Young Husband

biography for Young Husband, single out November 26th, 2007

One look at the earnest, wide-eyed Young Husband, aka Watford-born twenteen year old Euan Hinshelwood, and you’d be forgiven in thinking him a kid navigating his first tread onto the stage. One deft strike of a chord, however, and a note from his strong, measured voice, and you will realize – ah, he’s done this before.

In fact, Young Husband has been forging his musical path for more than half a decade, playing the pub circuit before he was even allowed at the bar. At the age of 18, in scuzz-pop band the New Shapes, he had his first taste of the rock and roll dream when they were signed to a label and picked up for a Bacardi advert. Touring the country and playing sessions for nationwide radio, he started to hone his skills as a performer, but it wasn’t till it all fell apart that he found his true voice.

“I’ve always written songs, and people have always asked me to do gigs, to the point when it was getting in the way of other stuff,” he explains, “so I just got rid of the other stuff.”

Essentially an introvert who has struggled in the past with ‘thinking too much’, Euan’s initial output was pure, acoustic based self-observation, beautiful, romantic songs about being a boy with a conscience, trying his best to understand the world around him. Lyrics like I’m just a novice, remember that, cause you make me confused, and we overreact knock you dead with their simplicity, delivered with a solemn, puppy dog glance that makes you want to wrap him in a blanket and put him to sleep. As he became more engrossed in the recording process, however, different influences began to creep in.

“I used to be really into Elliot Smith,” he admits, “and almost got sucked into that singer-songwriter vein of sounding quite like him, but things have shifted now.” Talking about the need to have a band, he adds, “I listen to more noisy music these days, bands like My Bloody Valentine, Stephen Malkmus, so it would be great to get a band to demonstrate that.”

If the first thing that sets him apart from other singer-songwriters is his personality, the second thing will be his commitment to recording things his own way. Like Smith, he records onto an 8 track reel to reel (“though mine is a little better,” he confides), lovingly set up in the corner of his bedroom. “I don’t even have a proper bed anymore,” says Master Hinshelwood, “I’ve got a fold up that comes out at night, and the rest of the room is a little desk, some nice old mics. I sit there, press record, play the song, then put stuff over.” Clearly reveling in the process even as he describes it, he continues, “I usually get to record a song straight after I write it, then I just experiment with scuzzy guitars and weird drum beats.”

Certainly, there’s the air of the studio bear about Euan. He may look fresh faced now, but in his already full beard and grungy long locks, you can see his future self holed up in some analog paradise, taking tea and bread in from a hole in the door. At the mention of this he laughs, “some of my friends tell me I remind them of Robert Wyatt. I think that’s really cool, but maybe I’m not there just yet!” He also cites experimental outsiders British Sea Power as a inspiration, so not much hope for a life spent in daylight…

Before the inevitable lifetime of hibernation, comes Young Husband’s very first release – a digital single called Could They be Jealous of Us. Recorded over a year ago, it’s a song he’s proud of, but eager to move forward from.

“I’m ready for the next thing,” he declares, “I’m happy to play the song and promote it, but I’m also ready to move on.” On the subject of what moving on is, he proudly replies, “I’m gonna carry on recording in my bedroom and get an album together. I can’t be bothered to think about labels and stuff, cause I just want to keep being creative.” It’s a refreshingly non-careerist attitude and also sensible for someone who so values self-sufficiency and the evolution of ideas. So there you have it, Young Husband, a bright young talent miles away from the fleeting teen-pop revolution, happy to play the long game and perfect his craft.

“It’s exciting to be my age and already on my way,” he says, “but there are younger people doing it too.” Pragmatic and modest to the end, he finishes, “all I really do it float around with a cold.”

Friday, 19 October 2007

5 Tips for Greatness

Written for Clash Magazine, September 07

Five Tips for Achieving Greatness:

1. Having a surname makes you look common. Call yourself 'the something' (eg John the Baptist) or 'of something' (eg John of

2. Make use of quotations. use the classics - Pope, Shakespeare, Anchorman, Mallrats.

3. Have a sidekick. Make sure you're not actually their sidekick. This is heavily dependent on what you chose to put at the end
of your name. For example john of norwich is almost certainly somebody else's sidekick.

4. Be prepared for enemies. if you go around quoting Anchorman all day long you are going to make some enemies.

5. If all the above fail, die young.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

My Camden

This was supposed to be for Time Out but I wrote it wrong and they sent it back.

I moved to Camden in 2002 mainly because of Pump up the Volume at the Underworld. It probably doesn’t exist anymore but I’m too lazy to move again. The Stables Market stopped making sense to me about three years ago when it turned into a cross between Blade Runner and the Super Mario movie, but I’m still rather fond of it, and pisses me off that they’re knocking it down and making it fancy. Apparently there’s going to be a Topshop there, which is cool because it does take a whole fifteen minutes on the bus to get to the WORLD’S BIGGEST TOPSHOP (fact).

This kind of stealthy developing has been happening all over Camden recently. The other week the five pound noodle shop closed down. I can’t even begin to express the void this has left in my life. I can’t imagine paying more than five pounds for a bowl of noodles and I don’t want to. Thankfully my favourite local haunt is part of a global conglomerate and in no danger of closing down soon. Most days I sit outside Fresh and Wild eating apple crisps and wait for Graham Coxon to walk by. He probably looks at me and thinks – that girl has too much spare time. In which case I would have to say – right back at you Graham.

In really good weather I’ll walk further up Parkway to the zoo. If you walk around it you can see the zebras, giraffes, emus and some barnyard animals. I’d like to find the wolf cages from the end of Withnail and I, where Richard E. Grant performs the speech from Hamlet. There’s a book store down by the lock where you can probably pick up a copy for about 50p, but hey, I’ve always thought it would look better as a changing room.

Diane Cluck & Barry Bliss

I interviewed my favourite singer in the whole world, Diane Cluck, and her touring partner Barry Bliss for the Stool Pigeon this summer. The word count I got for the article was too small to contain everything I wanted to say, but here is the transcript of an amazing evening with two amazing people.

Green Man Festival campfire, 14th August

D: I never know how sensitive those things are (points to Dictaphone)

E: Not sensitive. How you feeling today?

D: Spicy (laughs)

E: So you grew up in Pennsylvania?

D: Moved to New York when 18.

E: That would be where the song Penn state vs. Louisiana Tech [from the mini album Diane Cluck]came from?

D: My dad hasn’t missed a home game in about 35 years. The year I wrote that song they had a really bad season.

E: And Barry grew up there as well?

B: I grew up in Virginia. Is Pennsylvania under New York? We met in 99/ 2000.

E: Do you make much music anymore?

B: I guess you would say I still do it, I don’t know what I’ll do when I get back. I’ve done 5 albums I believe, in new York.

E: Have you ever made albums together?

B: Not together but in the same room. While each other was out. Oh Vanille was made in the blue room, a couple of mine were made in the blue room.

D: We had opposite work schedules, which is important. We had a day off together, then I’d have a couple days on while he was off.

B: I forgot about that. (chuckles)

D: I was working in a restaurant, you were taxi driving. You had Wednesdays off I’d work Tuesday Wednesday Sunday and you’d work the other days. That way we’d have time to practice when the other wasn’t there.

E: Talks some shit about her own relationship.

D: Yeah, it worked really well for a while.

E: What are you doing in Georgia now?

D: Setting up my house so I can do all kinds of stuff I like, I’ve been mostly gardening. And I got a drum kit so I’ve been learning to play drums. The house doesn’t really have neighbours round it so I can make noise.

E: Is it yours?

D: No I’m renting.

E: What’s the community you were talking about, composting together and eating vegetables?

D: It’s not so much a community, but there’s individuals that I‘ve been interacting with. I feel like I’ve started interacting with people on a macro level, not micro, like even though I’m doing a lot of things by myself, I feel a lot more connected to people in general. But most of my individual relationships are all about that stuff, like connecting people, and composting and eating, is all about connecting people making the most of the relationships. And I do feel that actually I’ll probably want to eventually – I mean – I feel more of a pull of not having all my own stuff, it seems really boring to have ‘my house’, ‘my kitchen’, ‘my fridge’, ‘my dishes’. But I don’t feel yet ready to live communally, but I feel like that’s probably something that might interest me eventually, cause I think that’s it’s a better way to live.

E: Some bullshit about bullshit (my phone goes off) Why did you move to Georgia?

D: Cause NY was so expensive for me, to have a place to make noise. We had a really ideal setup, we kind of knew but we didn’t know how great it was until the building was sold and we had to leave. We had a carpenter upstairs, so there was good reciprocity with the noise there. He made noise, i made noise, he made noise, and the people downstairs, they just kind of ignored their neighbours anyway, and we had an absent housemate on the one side, and a stairwell on the other. But then after I moved about four times in new York, and spent about as much on rent, if not more, but never found anywhere I could sing. Now I have a whole house, with big land around it for the same price I was renting for a tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn, so it made more sense.

E: Is this the first time you’ve had land to tend?

D: Yeah, it’s actually a lot of work.

E: Do you not feel the pull to go somewhere a bit more spacious as well?

B: Yeah I used to do a lot of hopping around, I’ve lived out of garbage cans I've done stuff like that. It’s only just the last couple of years that I’ve hit my stride and been able to do work without thinking about it, find a place that’s mine, and a lot of free time, and so I guess unless the pulls strong enough I’m scared to shake all that up. I have a small room, I meditate quite a bit. I don’t hang out with anybody ever. So I have lots of time, if I want to suddenly sit up and meditate for an hour I can do that. I have nobody to answer to. I sing into a box. I hang a box on to the back of a door and put up foam. I play my guitar and sing with my face right into the box, so I am able to do that and so yeah right now ok, I think about it a lot, and we’ve talked about should we share a house, which we decided was not a good idea as of now. But still I’ve thought about moving to Georgia anyway. Um but I can’t say that’s where I’m going right now. After this I believe I’ll go home, and Wholefoods [Barry's employers] will have their busy delivery season, and I’ll probably do that for the next six months, then maybe move.

E: What are you doing creatively at the moment?

D: A lot of it is the art stuff, and people, relationship stuff, like learning to communicate openly with people, and regardless of consequences having really honest relationships with them. And I have been working on music. I just don’t feel the urge to be productive. Like when I first started, I must have had this left over work ethic from somewhere and I felt like every year I had to make an album and I did. For six years I did that. And then I felt the cycle was getting longer. Like even the last couple it kind of felt like it should have been a little longer but I pushed it, I was like ‘I have to do one this year’. And then all off a sudden I was like I don’t care. If it takes me five years to do something and I feel like it’s important to share, I’ll do it, and if I never do it I’ll never do it, and if I want to do it tonight and share it tomorrow I’ll do that. But I’ve been working on songs, I’ve always felt like music is an expression of a life well lived and I just like living in a way that I feel good about. There’s always a lot of food in my life, I like to cook a lot, so I spend like three hours a day in the kitchen, I make so many things from scratch, I just resign myself to the fact that that’s how I am. Like sometimes I think, oh man I spend so much time doing this, like I make all this stuff, maybe I should taper it down and then I was like, no I really like doing this. And that’s what people have been through for thousands of years. It’s like normal. They used to spend a whole day just heating up water. Not that it takes up my whole day, but it takes a lot of my time.

E: blah blah food is great [I agreed with everything she said, it was quite embarrassing but I couldn't stop myself]

D: Food is a really bug part of my life. I tend to make things and then even though I live alone I’ll always share it with someone, I’ll either bring it to work, or take it to the co-operative shop or to the friend around the corner or invite a friend over for dinner, there’s always a lot of food stuff going on.

E (to b): You don’t have a pull to make albums every year either?

B: I don’t you say?

E: nods

B: The only thing I have a pull to do, is to realise my full potential as a human being. As it so happens I’m drawn to make music, but music per say, I’m not interested in. you know, I’m only interested in being a successful human being, in being a servant of the lord, I guess you would say.

E: But you don’t mean that religiously?

B: No I’m not religious, I hate religion. I just use the word lord sometimes.

E: In the same sense as ‘nothing but god’ in Diane’s lyrics?

B: She has her own way of doing it, but I resonate with the vibe, or whatever, of the things that she sings about, even though she words things differently than I do sometimes.

D: I’m not religious either. Well I think it’s all the same words for deepest intuition. I don’t think that people are bad, I think our strongest voices are the thing we should listen to, and that’s what god is.

E: Shall we walk towards Robert plant?

for a review of Robert Plant (gag) scroll down.

Green Man Review

Written in the Bestival Internet booth after frantic phonecalling to see if I knew anyone who had actually seen bands at Green Man, so let's face it, it's not the best piece of journalism ever written. PLUS I am a dick for dissing Robert Plant. I was drunk by then and actually the guy is pretty awesome.

At some point during the GreenMan festival, New York songstress Diane Cluck calls out, "I like how no one is complaining about the weather!" Which begs the question - who exactly has Diane Cluck been hanging out with? And in which hole?

The topic of the weekend is rain. Rain that takes an area of unspeakable beauty in the Braecon Beacons and turns it into a giant urinal for the gods to piss in. Rain that inturn pisses on all the Green Man teams' meticulous planning.That's a year someone spent working on your perfect boutique festival - organic food, family play area, great acts in small spaces - and all you can think is how did i not fall down that mudbank?

So maybe i was a little slack with watching bands. Maybe the most I saw of Joanna Newsom was her jean-clad backside as she wove through the main stage crowd on Saturday, boyfriend Bill in tow. Arriving late at the Folkey Dokey stage for Fridge, I also make the mistake of asking bassist Adem what time they're on.

"That was probably our last ever gig." he says helpfully.

But that's the kind of festival GreenMan is. Spit and you'll probably gob on a perfomer you know and love. Its this kind of intimacy that has me drawn to the GreenMan Cafe, a tiny bandstand of a stage in the courtyard of some medieval castle. It's here that I see Diane Cluck's truly astounding set, during which even she seems amazed by the amount of people crammed in to see her. It's also where I see the Fence Collective perform an unplugged guerilla gig, using nothing but voices and tambourines. Surrounded by turrets, climbing ivy and people dressed like, well, Joanna Newsom, they could almost be a band of travelling minstrels from another time.

There's an ethos here, I just know it.

If the ethos has anything to do with quality, then someone forgot to tell Robert Plant. Watching him groove to his own psychedelic, folk-rock waffle is painful business, squint and you might think a tiny Stonehenge was being lowered on to the stage. Is this really all they could pull out for a Saturday night? Actually, no. Across the way, past what is either a large crowd of comatose Zeppelin fans or some trees, Brooklyn six-piece Battles are playing the set of the festival, if not the festival season. I can't believe how much they've tightened up since i last saw them. Supporting Animal Collective at the Astoria last year they were clever but lacked memorability, but tonight they have songs you can latch on to. It's clear they've mastered the perfect balancing act between chaos and concision, pop and avant garde. Plus the single, Atlas, is cat-chy. We're still singing as we drive away from the sodden hills of Wales, missing an entire day of music in the process.

Sorry, but it was raining you know

Lightspeed You!

Lightspeed Champion feature, published in Stool Pigeon May 07.

“I’m gonna say it,” says Dev Hynes, former member of cult noise act Test-Icicles, and current brains behind Domino signed Lightspeed Champion, “Baby Suri is like a modern day Jesus.” He pauses like a guy who’s just delivered the defining speech of a generation, then adds, “there, I said it.”

It’s Saturday afternoon, and we’re talking heroes. Coming off a tangent that spans Lil’ Wayne, Rivers Cuomo and graphic artists Adrian Tomine and Mike Allrod, Dev is happily throwing the world’s most famous baby into his list of idols.

“What about Shiloh Nouvell Jolie Pitt?”

He snorts, “Modern day Damien.”

Talking to Dev is always just on the borderline of ironic. He lives his life like a comic book slacker with a black cloud over his head, and things do tend to go wrong around him. On the plane to Omaha to record his album (with mike Mogis of bright eyes), the plane was delayed with the explanation, ‘oops, yup we’re gonna have to turn around’, and showing up to Jimmy Eat World on his own after a bad date, he bumped into the first love of his life with her new fiancé, and ended up having to stand with them all night.

“I went to my flatmate’s toilet to borrow loo roll the other day,” he sighs, “and there’s a gold disk sitting on the sink. Just lying there. I’m like, ‘what’s the point’.”

It must be kind of weird when your two best friends are in the hottest bands of the moment. His flatmate is in the Klaxons, and Faris Rotter has designed a comic for the cover of his album. However, for all the ‘right now’ of the other two, it’s Lightspeed Champion whose message cuts across to the experience of the everyman. Or at least everynerd.

Kiss me and comfort me, my sweet, come over I just bought the new OC, and if they can sort their problems out, why can’t I get out the house, for a mango frescato or tea? he sings on Everyone is Listening to Crunk, echoing the thoughts of all the kids who grew up watching Mallrats, and don’t get why they weren’t welcomed to their twenties with a game show and a Jaws themed wedding.

“My lyrics can be kind of literal,” says Dev, “but there’s always some metaphor behind it. It’s like the way I talk, people always think I’m joking, but I’m not, I really mean what I say but there’s also something else to it.”

Like the song where you’re wanking off to the lyric Wake up Princess?

“No that’s not a metaphor, that’s about Zelda.”

As rock n’ roll lifestyles go, Dev’s is not so much an adolescent fantasy as an adolescent reality. He loves Maroon 5, queued on day of release to buy Weezer’s Make Believe, and spends Friday night at home streaming 24 and iChatting Uffie (ok, not every adolescent’s reality). He talks self-deprecatingly and sparingly about his music, but has nothing but genuine enthusiasm on the subject of Spiderman 3. With all this normal life in the way, how easy is it to keep creative?

“I don’t really think about it,” he says, “I just write loads of songs all the time, and different songs go with different projects. That’s why Lightspeed is so different from Test-Icicles, and before that I was doing mainly hip-hop stuff.”

Like on your Myspace profile Nigga Bullshit Rules?

He giggles, “that’s kind of a joke, but yeah.”

Jokes aside, Dev is appropriately superhuman in his output, writing half of his second album before the first is even released. He has been known to write three songs in a day, make guest appearances with artists like the Chemical Brothers, and last year formed a band with members of Semifinalists and Tom Vek. He’s now co-writing songs for a female singer-songwriter called Florence and the Machine, and preparing to take his band on the road. Not bad for a guy with bad luck. Still, now that everything’s going to plan, what’s keeping him awake at night?

“Will Ferrell,” he shakes his head sadly, “Not funny.”

Ironically, it’s the first serious thing he’s said all day.

Travels in Omaha

Written after a few days in Nebraska, recording with Lightspeed Champion. Published in Stool Pigeon March 07.

The story is about Myspace. When you’re with Lightspeed Champion, it’s always about Myspace.

“I’m alternating between accounts right now,” he explains, not looking up to watch his debut album being edited. In the last hour he has re-configured his top 20 twice – first by aesthetic, then in order of righteousness, and by this system I have finally achieved more than the Strokes. At last look Fatty Casablancas and co are lagging behind me by two places, and I am sitting pretty on row one between Semifinalists and some dude called Train Chronicles. I guess you can sell a million records and grace the cover of Rolling Stone, but until you wait 8 hours in Chicago airport just to sing shoop shoop on Dev’s album, you’re nothing but a fourth row nobody. People have to scroll down to see you.

Look outside the window and the world is pretty awesome. Buried under two feet of snow are the kind of cars they drive in indie films about people who can’t get dates and love comics. The kind you drive to the side of a known beauty spot and make out in, or drink your keg out of, or drive home to mom and dad after the prom, bummed out cause some girl killed everyone with her telekinetic powers. On one side of the courtyard lives Mike Mogis, Bright Eyes producer and founder of Saddle Creek records, and on the other side lives Connor Oberst, or ‘Connor’ to those who feel they’re on first name basis because they can see the outside of his house. Somewhere in between is the studio we’re recording in, and a four-bedroom house for travelling bands, known as the frat house.

“We had Mates of State living here for a while,” remembers Ian, Mike’s engineer and all round big brother type, “they just showed up, but I don’t remember why…”

Ian’s quite blasé about bands that make me squeal. I guess when Connor Oberst’s garden is where you keep your sled, and Tim Kasher from Cursive is the guy who got your car out of the snow this morning, you don’t really care what Mates of State are doing in your studio. They just showed up. Meh, it’s just Mates of State. Indeed, I’ve been here two days and I’m getting kind of blasé. Hanging around at the mall we see the Faint’s drummer four times, I’m pretty sure I played Xbox with the guy from Two Gallants, and, if I wanted to, I could get a coffee from Tilly and the Wall’s Jamie Pressnell, who supplements her tap-dancing as a barista at Caffeine Dreams. It seems that every corner of Omaha is peppered with a little piece of cult history, hidden among the Normals in their Hilfiger jeans and snow boots. I wonder if any of the kids who wake up to Neely Jenkins as a substitute teacher realise that she is one of the most loved musicians in Omaha? It’s like Graham Coxon walking into maths class and scrawling his name across the board.

If you want to look at home-grown successes, Tilly and the Wall are a good place to start. Tapdancer Jamie, and singer Neely were in Connor’s high school band Park Ave, whose sweet, lo-fi sensibilities could be considered a prototype for the Saddle Creek sound. Kianna Alarid, singer and chanter, was also in a high school band, with members of the Faint, and later sang for Rilo Kiley. As for the two boys, Derek and Nick, they made their way to Omaha in the fall of 2001, lured by a friend who was playing in…Bright Eyes.

“We were really lucky to have friends who supported us from the beginning,” says Kianna, “Put it this way - our first tour was with Bright Eyes, our second tour was with Bright Eyes, and our third tour was with Rilo Kiley. We were just given the opportunity to reach people of a similar audience, and they responded.”

“We did try to send CD’s out before Connor came along,” adds Neely, “but people would just poop on it and send it back.”

It just goes to show what a little nurturing can do. Born out of a tight community, and the belief of a few friends, Tilly have gone on to make a bigger impact in this country than most of their senior counterparts. Four years after Connor created Team Love just to sign them, their presence over here has refocused the spotlight on Omaha, and Jamie is the first Nebraskan to appear on the all knowing, definitive, life changing, er, NME cool list. More importantly, when the culture board decided to honour local music with the Omaha Music Awards, Tilly and the Wall were the only band on TV that didn’t make Steps look classy.

“I guess you could call us Jesus freaks,” declare a member of Christian metal band Stigmata, “cause we love Jesus, and we’re freaks!” Covered entirely in white paint and bald as the day he was born, the man doesn’t make a great spokesman for the rest of Omaha. Actually neither does the presenter, who asks Jamie why she tapdances and thanks her before she answers. The last shot of the evening is Derek dissolving into giggles on the edge of the screen.

“It was like high school,” he laughs, before adding, “it was cool that they tried…”

Sitting around the frat house table, watching Tilly on the television, and drinking beer with Derek, Kianna, and their friends, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything outside of this perfect microcosm. Even on our epic evening out, where we take in an arcade, a bowling alley untouched from the fifties and a bowling alley untouched from the beginning of UV, everything seems like incidental scenery in an unwritten biography – ¬the story of what happens next. And does happen? The new wave of bands, who i meet while bowling, and who mainly bowl like little girls, seem ready to break into the spotlight pretty soon. There’s the Family Radio, fronted by the singer from Son, Ambulance, Flowers Forever, Derek’s solo project and Coyote Bones, whose singer David followed the Tilly boys from Atlanta. In the same way that the early Omaha bands shared a vision of sound, this new gang are united by a bright, raucous pop aesthetic, the natural evolution from the bands they follow, whose legacy they arrived to make use of.

“Saddle Creek created a foundation for us to get heard.” Says David, “People trust the scene over here, so we get a head start.”

Included in the legacy is the notion of self-sufficiency. Everybody in David’s circle are able to record and release their material off their own back, be it in his basement, on downtime in Mike’s studio, through Saddle Creek or any of the myriad labels following in its wake. There’s even an on-hand video director, Nik, whose weird, colourful films will one day form a visual reference for the scene. The week after I leave, he makes a Coyote Bones video in the famous basement. The footage of boys and girls in sombreros and giant sunglasses looks pretty low budget, and the scrappiness enhanced by Dev falling over, and David dropping his bunny ears mid-chorus, but it looks exactly how it should. It’s just a group of friends in the midst of the best party ever, and should they wake up in an alternate universe where they’re bankers and car dealers, it will exist as a record of when they lived in the best party ever. The three of us from England also have a record of when we crashed that party – a cover of Phantom Planet’s California, sung at midnight around a wind up melodica, the lyrics changed to ‘Oh Nebraska, here we come…’.

While we’re drinking around the TV, I hear the name Simon Joyner mentioned. A month later, at Tilly’s sold-out Scala show, Derek brings him up again.

“He was really big in Omaha,” he tells me, “Connor just loved him and he looked to him for inspiration, he was the best singer songwriter…”

Later that afternoon I email a friend who’s cooler than me.

Simon Joyner? I ask him.

Five minutes later the reply comes.

A necessity. It reads, and so I hit the Myspace angle again. It seems that even obscure folk artists who exist wilfully below the radar are capable of being online, and I find myself, on a spring day in Camden, reintroduced to the vast bleakness of Omaha on a pair of computer speakers.

If there was ever a soundtrack to the Omaha that I saw, this music would be it. Some of his songs are for walking through snowdrifts to the mall, surrounded by neon signs and miles and miles of road. Some songs are for when the snow subsides, and you are navigating backyards to look through someone’s window, and some songs are for the large stretches of park that I glimpsed through the glass of a 4x4. Songs that started their life on a scrap of floor at Kilgore’s, the legendary Omaha café where Joyner, Connor, and most of the early songwriters started out.

“It was sort of a songwriting competition every Thursday night,” says Joyner of the early days, “each of us trying to outdo each other. It was a pretty popular thing and I cut my teeth on that regular gig. Kilgore’s kind of became a kind of revolving door for Omaha songwriters wood-shedding and developing.”

Having met Connor at one of these events, Joyner and his friends helped to put out his first tape, a split with Bill Hoover called Kill the Monster Before it Eats Baby. However, it wasn’t just in enterprise that Joyner’s influence can be seen. If you listen to his recordings and compare them with early Bright Eyes, it’s easy to see how 14 year old Connor was affected by their association. They’re lo-fi, wordy, lightly tinged with a countrified melancholy, and narrated primarily through the eyes of one secually charged, geeky adolescent ‘I’.

“I was drunk I didn't let on/As I stood before your door at dawn/Guess I might have awakened the dogs/Cause the shadows started coughing them out/ So I put my hands into my hair/And I pulled and let it hurt/There's a light going out somewhere/
Thought I could hear it through the woods,” he sings on One for the Catholic Girls, and you can just imagine Connor listening to this through an old cassette deck and thinking, “this is how music is supposed to sound.”

If Joyner acknowledges his part in the birth of the Omaha sound, he doesn’t mention. He does however, shed some light on how he separated from the others, purposefully sticking to the shadows while they rocketed onto the world stage.

“All those guys were friends who went to the same school and lived in the same neighbourhood,” he says, “it was a tight clique, so it made sense for them to start a label devoted to championing their music. I was more of a downtown person and a product of a broken home and the public school system and all those guys are recovering Jesuits, frustrated Catholic kids from another part of town with a slightly different upbringing. Our scenes were certainly different but I loved them and their energy and I loved that they all stuck together and supported each other. It's been that way ever since. Amazing devotion. And once they started performing and recording, we've supported one another, performing and recording together. It's very midwestern, this Omaha sound, and by that I mean there is small town loyalty and support and everyone is very polite. We're all ambitious in our own ways but not at the expense of one another. It really is a lot like a family dynamic when I think about it.”

One last member of this family to include is David Dondero, who I meet a while back in Edinburgh. By some coincidence he is playing down the road from Tilly while we’re on tour, and we arrive in some stinking old man’s pub just in time to see him quietly pack his guitar away mid-song and walk out. I don’t see him in Omaha, I’m not sure that he lives there, but in my head he belongs with the others, in a mythological small town littered with fast food outlets and gas stations, where the only way out is to sing.


It’s two months later and the Lightspeed Champion record is mixed, mastered and packed neatly into little plastic sleeves. We go to watch Bright Eyes play Koko, standing with our arms crossed in what I hope is a ‘we know them’ pose. At one point Mike turns on the distortion pedal.

“That is so Mike.” I say.

“Totally.” Sighs Dev.

When I get home I tell my flatmate, “I think we should start a scene. Be a bit more like a family.”

“ok.” He agrees, climbing down the stairs. We sit in silence for ten minutes.

“I wish you were bright eyes.” I tell him.

“I wish you were dead.” He replies, and walks out.

Later, in bed, I resolve to take him out of my top friends, and plot my route back to Omaha. Until Graham Coxon walks in my house and asks to borrow a snow-blower, this town is dead to me.