Friday, 20 June 2008

Meet the Folkers

A one off column for Artrocker. I come off badly.

I was so close to finishing this. This piece was written and ready to hand in five days before the deadline, a completely unprecedented feat for me meaning five glorious days of stress-free self-satisfaction. Five beautiful June days to do nothing but bask in the glory of my own self-discipline. Maybe in these five days I could have been rewarding myself with nice little alternatives to writing anxiously against a clock. Maybe I could have taken some country walks. Learned to love myself. Bought the new Weezer album. Made you each a mixtape.

But it was not to be.

Half an hour before I was due to send this piece, an insider's report on the coming and goings of young British folk artists, I got a mass email from Universal music. Without even the decency of a 'hello…', or 'sorry I stole your email and added to your already indecent quantities of uninvited spam'', it asked me to download a video of one of it's up and coming young London folkies, doing an 'impromptu' duet with another, up and coming, young London folkie. I picked up the meaning of the email pretty quickly. What it wanted to infer, was that, combined, these two young folkies made up the forefront of an uber exciting, super talented new movement which MUST NOT BE IGNORED ON PAIN OF DEATH. Together they were like a mandolin toting Captain Planet, whose music and surrounding merchandise you must consume and consume immediately, else you might as well be living in a cellar communicating in grunts.


When all the vomit had left my body. I reviewed my piece. True to my brief, I had written a pretty straightforward list of the people I considered current folk artists, and the things they did. Noah and the Whale, folky enough to be playing the Cambridge Folk Festival, are due an album. Laura Marling, described by Q as a 'folky Kate Nash', has just released one. Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit – enough folk in the name alone to people a Mayday parade and an album with a Celtic title to boot. And then there's Eugene McGuinness. He must be tired of the association by now. Poor boy is skirting rock & roll, punk, even grime more than he's ever touched on folk, yet time after time he's brought up in the blogosphere alongside the Cambridge-approved, harmonium wielding Noah. Is it cause his guitar is half acoustic? I'm only feigning innocence. I know there's a reason why the same five or six bands are destined to circle each other in infinite combinations every festival they play. Someone in charge thinks that bands are more interesting as a package deal and everybody, from the PR at my old pen-pal Universal, to the moist-eyed young up-and-comings who just 'happen' to play their duets in front of video cameras, are playing along.

Man I wish I could explain how much the term 'up and coming' makes me itch. I haven't even heard every Neil Young album yet, so I don't have time for the latest single from Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong, no matter how many A&R men attended their latest show. But the hype machine in this country is obsessed with the new. Obsessed with listing who's going to be the biggest new acts of the year, the month, the week, the minute; and once they identify these hot new acts, they need to herd them into groups like cattle and give them a name. A couple of years ago they noticed that singer-songwriters were back in fashion, and dutifully, in an orderly manner, they shone the spotlight on the new Streets-inspired singer songwriters (Lily Allen, Jamie T), then the new Lily Allen-inspired singer-songwriters (Kate Nash, Jack Penate), then, briefly, the new Kate Nash-inspired singer-songwriters (every female artist available at time of press), and finally, currently, the new gang of nu-folk singer-songwriters (spearheaded by Marling, Flynn, the Whale and whatever reluctant extra has been drafted in for the sake of the article). What all the press failed to mention is that some of these singer-songwriters have appeared on every list for the last three years, and only shifted slightly from Mike Skinner to Joni Mitchell in the process. It seems that making it onto these lists is completely arbitrary. Sneeze close enough to a Myspace player and you'll probably get on one, but I digress. What I mean to say, is that the burgeoning London scene of new-folk artists is a construct, just like the fleeting, but hilarious phase of the 'Mini-Allens'. As yet, only two of these artists and their associated satellites have even released albums, let alone that path-determining second or third. When I read about people getting excited about the London folk scene, I have to wonder how exciting a collected effort of 15 singles can be? No wonder there needs to be a flow chart of who's shagging who before anyone dares dedicate us a column inch. That's why, for the rest of this article, I'm going to stop complaining and concentrate on the people who I think deserve excitement. The Professors, if you will, to the London undergraduates.

It always confuses me that the most exciting artists are the ones who are collecting the least amount of hysteria. Seriously, if you ever see a hysterical crowd, just look in the opposite direction and you'll probably find something good. The last time I saw the Mountain Goats play, I cried so hard I finally understood Beatlemania, yet I was only one in an audience of sixty. The Mountain Goats have released fifteen full-length albums, three of which I consider essential tools for a complete existence – and still i was able to stand at the front of the stage, and have John Darnielle look me in the eye from two feet away. That was a good day for me, but it's not so good for the people who will never know the power of that feeling. What misery they must be in! How horrible it must be to never hear the lyric 'how much better can my life get?/ 900 cubic centrimeters of raw whining power/ No outstanding warrants for my arrest', from the song Jenny, and never laugh at its depiction of complete joy. And what is bleaker than hanging on in a dead relationship? Surely it's never hearing that bleakness reflected in the song No Children. 'Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises/ we're pretty sure they're all wrong', sings Darnielle, and I have to wonder what it's like not to hear it. Similarly, I hate to think what my life was before I discovered Diane Cluck, and I guess Laura Marling must feel the same, given that her album is a very loving tribute to the great lady.


If Diane Cluck knew how dangerously close to being in fashion she is now, I wonder if she would be pleased or horrified. From her scratchy home recording on the first Anti-folk compilation, to the second album she decorated and distributed entirely by hand, Cluck has always been the kind to shy away from attention. Her pure focus on the creative side of music (to her, it seems, music industry is being industrious about music) has led to a pretty low profile over the years, but in spite of having no website, no label and no distribution, she has a deeply devoted following across the world, all the more special for how hard people have worked to find her. Last year, after a serious miscarriage of judgement saw her booked to play at the venue owned by the Fly, I watched amazed as, surrounded by photographs of the Kooks and the Fratellis, she turned a beer-sozzled stable of a room into a glowing magic den. Furthermore, I've never been to a show where even the bar-staff weren't slack jawed and drooling by the end of the night. There's just something about her clear voice, her cool, easy delivery, and the way she sings as though in the throes of hypnosis, that knocks all the thoughts out of your head, and the fact that she's so elusive, so content to remain obscured in legend, makes it somehow even better.

It's weird. When I first started listening to Diane Cluck, I wasn't particularly knocked out. That was the year that Joanna Newsom's first record came out, and I was much more impressed by how clever and pretty it was. That was also the year when a lot of folky records were coming out of the West Coast, and people were starting to pinpoint Devendra Barnhart as the head of some twisted hippy movement. In amongst the immediately obvious talent of Newsom, the dark brattiness of Cocorosie and the well-established but rediscovered comforts of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Diane Cluck was just a quiet throbby blur in the horizon. Over time, however, my interest in folk has proven to be a bit of a fad. Cocorosie loses interest on repeated listens (although say that to John Darnielle and he'll hurt you), Barnhart looks like a pervy tree, and my admiration and awe for Joanna Newsom never matured into love. Diane though, is a different thing all together. Somehow over the years, the occasional listen grew into a deep obsession, creeping up on me like her voice creeps over her rambling lyrics and thick earthy rhythms. It's really, really hard for me to describe the effect she has, so I suggest you go out and get your hands on some music. Start with Oh Vanille/ Ova Nil, and make sure you at least download the song My Teacher Died from the album Countless Times. Finally, no matter what you thought of those other songs, find the EP Diane Cluck, and listen to it in full, especially the songs Monte Carlo, You are Like Elvis, & Ambulance. Find these things now, and discover Diane Cluck, before the spell is broken and she disappears into dreams.

Ok, so maybe earlier I overstated the arbitrariness of the yearly lists. It is a fact that last year's London accent has softened into almost American tones, and in place of what was bright and brassy is now reflective and melancholic. And while I still think that tastemakers can be pretty non-discriminate with their predictions, there's more than enough finger-picking and fiddle going on to indicate a trend. With all this in mind I'm excited to say that I know why this is happening. The answer is a band called Beirut. Three years ago, the folkiest thing we had in British indie was Patrick Wolf, who followed up the camp electro of his debut with a collection of Cornish Sea Shanties. Then Zach Condon came along with The Gulag Orkestra, inspired by his travels around the folk of Eastern Europe, and in his wake came the renewed interest in mandolins, rattles, trumpet solos and ukeleles. It would have been impossible to predict the effect the album would have – back then it was just generally liked by anyone who heard it, and being a retro record wasn't described as groudbreaking – but its steady growth and strong live follow-up meant that for the next two years record labels were happily collecting anyone who could mimic that success. I mentioned that two of the folk brat-pack (I just read that phrase on the Internet) have released albums already, and both contain at least a song on which Condon's influence is, to put it mildly, strong. Likewise, the rise of Noah and the Whale, who manage to marry being interesting and organic with very, very successful, is a testament to the doors opened by Beirut, as is Marling's slow evolution from Reading teen pop sensation to Gibson-strumming siren. Two years ago, I can hardly imagine a label being cool with her wish to tone it down a notch and get to the heart of her emotions. Thank Zach, that we never found out what the word 'Mini-Allen' meant.

Not Drowning - the Wave Pictures

Published in March in the Stool Pigeon

“It’s hard to imagine a world where Tom Waits is a superstar,” sighs the Wave Pictures’ Dave Tattersall, “It’s a nice world, and I don’t know where it went.”

It’s early January, and the Wave Pictures are talking Golden Ages. Holed up in an studio beneath East London’s Duke of Uke, the band are laying down tracks for their new album, three months before the next is due for release. Apparently this is how it used to be done, and how it should be done. “Neil Young used to make two albums a year,” says Dave, “He’d write a song every two weeks then record the last ten, and it would be awesome.”

You get the feeling that Dave and his bandmates would rather live in simpler times. Moving to London over a year ago, they still carry themselves with the wide-eyed wonderment of three boys from the country, and most of the trappings of Myspace-era indie are completely alien to them. Dave listens mainly to vinyl that pre-dates the eighties and the other two wander around like a pair of 1950’s shopkeepers on loan from Brighton Beach. Don’t take them for naive though – the band have a stronger sense of identity than any band you’ve met, borne out of the isolation of their rural upbringing. “You develop a stronger sense of who you are when you don’t know anybody else,” says Dave, who started playing with bassist Franic six years ago, “For better or for worse we are a band who were completely unfamous for six years.” He adds, “that’s why we’re here recording when nobody asked us to, because it’s what we’ve always done.”

Things have changed recently for the Wave Pictures, the communal move to London made it easier to play shows, and a deal with independent label Moshi Moshi has them tipped for big things in 2008. This concept of course, means nothing to them, which is part of their appeal. Word is spreading about the group of boys so far from image-led, branded indie superstars, and their live shows are starting to attract not so much a fanbase but a community. “I guess this could be a year of life-changing success for us,” hypothesizes drummer Johnny, “but either way we’ll still be making music.”

That music, by the way, is 60's influenced surf pop with lyrical candor the Magnetic Fields couldn't touch. It's partly shocking, partly charming and it’s also fucking great. The golden age is back, riding in the wake of the Wave Pictures.

Mountain Goats Piece

Published in the Stool Pigeon Jan 2008, under the title 'Summit Meeting'

“OK,” says John Darnielle, “Give me the Dictaphone and I will ask you some questions.”

It’s ten minutes into the interview, and I’ve already flaked. I didn’t want to write this article. I didn’t want to write this article because the Mountain Goats are to me what Michael Jackson is to Japanese people, and when you feel that level of hysteria for a person the last thing you want to do is humanize them. Steadily releasing albums for the best part of a decade, first on cassette then on 4AD, they’re the kind of band with a following so cult, you can’t imagine them with faces, let alone with a voice, body, knife, fork and napkin. John is the chief songwriter and only constant member, and he’s in the UK for some Christmas shows ahead of the new album release.

“I would rather you interviewed me about how much I love your band,” I joke. Ten minutes later, after I forget how to speak, he leans across the table, gently extracts the tape deck from my hand and asks, “Where did you grow up?”

I hope you derive from this that John is a nice guy. I hope you also derive from it that he’s a nice guy with a lot of charisma. Not the kind of charisma that makes you shy around Nicole Kidman, but the kind that puts a picture of King Bhumibol on every wall in Thailand. My band have been touring with him for four days, and by the second we are operating a ‘John Love’ competition – points for making him laugh, points for getting a hug. By the third day I am literally Googling fart jokes to try and get ahead, because nothing makes you feel better than when John Darnielle walks into a room, pats you on the back and says, “what’s up?”

It’s this touring business that makes me so nervous. If I’ve learned anything from traveling in a van with the Mountain Goats, it’s that I will do anything to make him like me, and also that he doesn’t like being probed. I have an email in my inbox in which he refers to himself as a cave dwelling hermit, and then ‘a troll’. As much as he joins in with the after-show dork talk (Peter from the Goats knows a lot about New Order), shows you the giant Mini-Cheddar he’s just found in his packet and shares his magazines (Metal Hammer, of course), there are times when you can tell he just wants to be alone. I bet the end of the press day after the last tour of the year is one of those times. I bet if I annoy him, I won’t get a hug at the end of the meal. I am literally speechless. I can’t think of a single thing to say.

“You don’t like doing press much do you?” I muster.

“There’s worse things to have to complain about,” he says, “But it does generally feel weird. I don’t like to talk about myself this much, I kinda hope my stuff does that for me.”

If you had asked the crowd after the Glasgow show what they wanted most of all from him, they wouldn’t have asked to know his favorite color. His stuff really does say something for him. It’s strong in its complicity, and it leaves you feeling part of a greater consciousness. You don’t need to know anything about him because, just by being there, you’re already in cahoots. Witnessing 200 people burst into song at the lyric ‘St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin’, our van driver leans across and tells me,

“I’ve never seen someone control a crowd like that before.”

Our van driver, by the way, has just been on tour with Anthrax. But this grasp of mass hypnosis isn’t something that Darnielle finds overwhelming. To him, it’s just a natural case of cause and effect. “I’m a huge music fan,” he says, “and when I go to a show I get really into it, so when I see someone moving their lips to my words, it’s a kick – in another audience with another artist, that person is me, right?”

You don’t have to be a top level obsessive to know that John’s really, really into black metal, but if you’ve read his webzine, or heard old-skool hip-hop blaring from his headphones on the motorway, you’ll have an idea of how much other stuff he’s into. Tonight, as he waxes lyrical about Cocorosie’s Akon cover, I suddenly realize that as a fangirl, I’m in the presence of my king. “I’ve been obsessed with records since I could crawl,” he explains, launching into a eulogy for Lifter Puller, “but if you’re listening mainly to vinyl these days you’re probably being a little precious…”

This is the kind of discourse you’d expect to find on his Last Plane to Jakarta, recently given a thumbs up from Pitchfork for its quality of writing, and between it and generally accepted Internet knowledge, you could probably draw a map of most of his likes and dislikes. Again I wonder why I’m asking him questions, when he could be doing the same of me – ‘Actually John, you didn’t listen to Hail to the Thief cause everyone was going on about it, but once you did you got pretty into it.” but the thing that you wouldn’t know from typing John Darnielle and any combination of words (try ‘burrito’, it’s funny) into a search engine is that he talks about the Mountain Goats like he talks about other bands. “I like Get Lonely better,” he shrugs, like a friend recommending which files to download, “but most people prefer the Sunset Tree.”

At the end of the meal, I’ve asked no questions, recorded barely any conversation, and spoken entirely in an American accent as not to be difficult. But if you meet your your heroes and still love them at the ed of the day, you’ve done pretty good. Wincing my way dow Tottenham Court Road, I remember something he told me earlier, “Sometimes I finish songs and they’re not very good, and sometimes it bothers me,” he says, “But where else in your life is everything you do perfect? If you work a five day job do you kick ass at it every day? No – but once in a while you have a day when you’re really good and you’re like – man, this place would have collapsed without me today. I am awesome.”

Today, I sucked at my job, but I still think the John Darnielle is awesome. Michael Jackson fans – nil, Mountain Goats – one million.