The Loud Return of Quiet People: The Pixies Reform

A man in the queue for the The Pixies reunion gig at Brixton Academy is asked why he thinks they broke up: “They were too good. They had to stop sooner or later.” And why he thinks they got back together: “They were too good. They had to sooner or later.”

Between forming in Boston in 1986 and splitting amid animosity in 1992, The Pixies created five albums from the combination of Charles Thompson’s distinctive wail and strange lyrics versus the drawling whisper and tickling bass of Kim Deal, the guitar brilliance of Joey Santiago and the precise, infectious rhythms of David Lovering. It was rock music so distinctive and powerful that it captured the hearts and ears of nearly all those who heard it.

Despite this, they achieved only moderate success during their first incarnation. Unlike so many other acts of their era, The Pixies never managed to crossover. Splitting up just as America’s alternative scene was heading into the mainstream. But celebrated by everybody from David Bowie to Radiohead, and eulogised in the music press, they became everyone’s favourite discovery. Never truer than when it was said about the Velvet Underground, not a lot of people bought their records, but everyone who did formed a band.

The playing of their song ‘Where Is My Mind’ in the closing scene of über-alt film Fight Club further helped introduce them to a new generation. And so when they began a reunion tour in 2004, it made them a lot of money, made a lot of fans happy and forced them to face their legendary status.

That reunion has been documented in loudQUIETloud, a film by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin. Its title coming from The Pixies oft-copied sound dynamic. Likely to be as close a portrait as we’ll ever see of them, we get to witness the triumphant shows and the devotion of their fans worldwide. But we also see the blisters, the boredom and signs of the tensions that broke them up the first time around. There is little high drama though. This is more a story of four middle-aged people dealing with their own problems and priorities, while coming together to reform a strange force they were once part of all those years ago.

A fan long before he filmed them, I ask Cantor if anything about the band surprised him when he finally got to meet them: “I think what was most surprising was how utterly normal they all were. I think they’ve all been humbled by the fifteen years since they broke up, so they were just really regular, down to earth, easy-going, approachable people.” Though this was to change as their confidence in their own status grew: “As the tour went on I think they kind of regained their rock star swagger a little, which was interesting to observe.”

We talk about one of the key things the film captures, the fact that the band hardly communicate. “Well I think it’s there in the film that they don’t interact with each other,” Says Cantor. “There is an amazing dynamic when they get on stage, they have this amazing electricity, this chemistry and you think they must love each other and love their music and love their fans. But if you’re privy to what’s happening backstage you sort of think, ‘Wait a minute everything that was going on stage must have been artificial, they don’t even talk to each other’. He goes on, “The Second they got of stage they went off in their own directions and said goodnight.”

But what of The Pixies own view of their staring role and return to the stage? After several calls, a “Can you call me back in five minutes?” and a “Can you hold on just one second?” I finally get to speak to Charles Thompson, AKA Frank Black or Black Francis. Apologies and explanations out the way, I ask him how he feels about his portrayal in the film. After a long pause he says:  “Mildly inaccurate but I kind of like it. I mean, it’s a documentary, they’re not just turning the camera on randomly you know. Even subconsciously they’re kind of looking for something that fits their hunch about you.” He continues, “But in a way, maybe it’s better. For once I’m shrouded in a little mystery and you know, jeez, I don’t think I’m a very mysterious guy.”

Twelve years is a long time in anyone’s life. Did he find it difficult to go back to the old band and those old songs after such a gap? “No it wasn’t difficult. It was difficult the first time around,” he says with a slight laugh. “Once we got over the stress that led up to it, the tension, the apprehension about it all, once we all got back together in a room and said ‘Hi’ it was like all those years apart were disappearing and we were like ‘What were we doing five minutes ago?’ except 5 minutes had been 12 years, so it was kind of surreal.

Their 2004 tour was one of the fastest selling shows in music history, but Thompson appears to be little surprised by the massive popularity of their reunion: “Even when we were nobody, playing our first gig to like 50 people, I remember there was this general kind of feeling of support from people we didn’t know and we were just this band starting out, tuning our guitars for five minutes in-between songs. But even then there was this kind of reaction like ‘Whoa, you guys are really special or something’ and people seemed amused, confused and delighted all at once and it’s always been like that.”

So does he feel they’re finally getting the recognition they’ve always deserved? “Deserve is not how I feel, I think it’s nice. I subscribe to the showbiz attitude of ‘You get what you get.’ If you’re blessed, then gather ye and say thanks and if your not blessed then try hey, try again, that’s showbiz.” He adopts a high voice, “Showbiz baby!”

Despite being cited as an influence by so many, Thompson refuses to be drawn about The Pixies legacy on music: “I’m the classic wrong guy to ask. I’m on the inside looking out and you and other people have that shared perspective that you can see things in this comparative kind of way. Whenever people bring up this ‘Oh, you influenced the so and sos’ I don’t really hear it. I hear rock music. Whether it’s Nirvana or it’s anybody, I don’t hear it the way other people hear it.”

He has his own views on what made them such a special band: “Erm, well of course there is my genius,” he says in deadpan tones. “But besides that my perception of things is that we are just regular people. Even if people exalt us, whoever it is, I think exalts us because we’re not up there trying to be all pretty, we have a diamonds in the rough kind of quality and people like that. People like an underdog you know.”  The Pixies – ordinary people who made extraordinary music.

By Kenn Taylor

My Robot Friend

By day Howard Rigberg is a computer programmer specialising in web design. By night however he transforms into an illusive carbon-based machine known as My Robot Friend.

A long time player on the fringes of New York music (He appears is the video to Le Tigre’s ‘Deceptacon’) Robot came into his own when he began making his own solo electro noise, or as he puts it: “Pop music for my weird universe”.

Robot’s second album ‘Dial O’ is out in June on Glasgow’s Soma records. A cut of precision synth-pop with a human soul that sounds something like the musical history of New York squeezed through an 808 State unit. His bleeps and fuzzes underscore everything from hip-hop MCing to a cover of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ and a vocal appearance from Anthony Hegarty of Anthony and the Johnsons.

Beyond the machine music his live performance also demands attention, including as it does 3ft neon fingers and animated videos. Robot himself dresses in a home-made electric suit complete with a mixture of neon and fairy lights snaking around his body till they reach an illuminated flashing helmet. There is also the small matter of his penis: “I have different attachments, I have ones that shoot flames and sparks, but not everywhere will let you use them so I also have one that shoots plastic snow stuff.”

For him the visual performance is almost as important as the music: “I try to make something visually different for each song…I go through different phases of concentrating on making the music or the show, at the moment I’m spending a lot of time wiring and fixing.”

So, My Robot Friend, why robots?  “Robots are machines designed to help humans, programmed in some way to serve human kind. That is kinda the way I see myself.”

By Kenn Taylor

Trick and the Heartstrings

A sure fire way to propel yourself into the musical spotlight, is to do an astoundingly different cover version of an existing tune, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Comfortably Numb’, ‘Hounds of Love’ et al, a feat being followed by Brooklyn trio Trick and the Heartstrings.

Equipped with a knack for making stylish R ‘n’B with the swagger of rock, they turned Bjork’s ‘Joga’ from a swish ice Ballard into twanging falsetto soulfunk, a change that’ll stop you in your tracks. That it’s a mere flipside to their own dirty slick driver ‘We’re the Hardest’, shows they’re no one trick ponies

They’re influenced by the likes of Talking Heads and Kate Bush, but equally by Chic and Prince. Does frontman Alex Gideon think that sort of R ‘n’ B is due for a comeback then? “I use a car analogy. When a car’s like 15 years old it’s just out of date, but then something happens about 10 years after that, it becomes good again and is seen as a classic. So yeah, maybe it’s time we looked again at The Whispers.”

They’re currently working with über producer Paul Epworth (Bloc Party, The Rapture, Mystery Jets) who put out their first 7″ on his own label Good and Evil. Alex describes Epworth as “something of a boy genius.”

Live they’re known for their high energy and choreographed moves. Choreographed? “It’s something unusual in rock but not at all in R ‘n’ B and even with rock, if you go back to the 60s and 70s it was common. Since Nirvana the fashion has been to do shows as if you don’t care. Well I do care; I want to make it the best possible show you can imagine.” They plan to hit the UK in October. We best get ready.

By Kenn Taylor

PMS

I wander in to the deserted studios of BBC Radio Merseyside at midnight on a Sunday to witness the broadcast of a show called PMS. A silver-haired security-guard lets me in “it’s an acquired taste this one” he says.

Beginning as a punk show in 1977 and now approaching its thirtieth year, the sounds played have changed much over the years but it’s managed to retain that punk spirit-pushing boundaries and playing good music with little pretension.

Presenter Roger Hill took over the show in 1982 and in his time has overseen many timeslot and name changes-the meaning of its current moniker depends on who you ask-but it has survived and achieved the accolade of being the longest running alternative show on local radio.

They play list has moved from its origins through all the musical styles of the last couple of decades to today’s diverse selection which Roger explains varies from “Welsh Rap to Tibetan folk”.

Now through the magic of internet streaming PMS has moved out from the local arena and developed a committed international audience, drawn by its constantly challenging play list. Co-presenter Joe Shooman explains: “We have become an unusual breakfast show for a few in L.A.”

Continuing to push boundaries, sonic artist Alexandre Decoupigny recently recorded the first half hour of the show live, remixed it and sent it back to be played at the end of the programme-a radio first

Joe sums up PMS: “Two hours a week we do our best to offer up the most exciting and varied sounds that the world has to offer”.

By Kenn Taylor

Frank Turner

Punk and Folk may not seem immediate musical bedfellows, but Frank Turner, one-time frontman of cult hardcore act Million Dead has made the switch, and there is perhaps more of the spirit of punk in his current work than in much of the corporate rebellion fodder that passes for it.

After the break up of Million Dead, Frank wanted to further explore the quieter side of his musical taste, so armed with an acoustic guitar he embarked on a ‘never ending tour of everywhere’ in October 2005. Sleeping on floors and travelling on trains around the UK and Europe, he wrote the songs that make-up ‘Sleep is for the Week’, a collection of eloquent and witty tunes about the joys and pains of life in modern Britain.

Retaining a Black Flag style work ethic, he has around 210 gigs under his belt so far and shows no signs of slowing down.

“I’ve got a bit of puritan workaholic streak running through me and I want more,” he says with conviction. “It would be nice to top 300 in 2007.”

There’s an undoubted political element to his music, but it’s not all preaching and gloom, Turner’s songs are filled with a humour and pathos which set them apart.

“I always though that songs are like people. If you meet someone who has no sense of humour, they’re utterly dreary twats and should be killed.” He remarks with a sly laugh. “I mean if someone had the personality of a James Blunt song, they’d be an awful, awful bastard.” Quite.

By Kenn Taylor

The Seal Cub Clubbing Club

That’s either the best or worst band name for years. But putting that aside, The Seal Cub Clubbing Club are still an exciting prospect. The strained yet alluring vocals and unique lyrics of frontman Nik Glover form a centre around which the rest of the group wrap a tightly woven net of intense prog-pop that slowly penetrates you and takes over, prompting critics to mention Beck, Radiohead and Sparklehorse in favourable terms.

Forming through groups of friends in Wirral, their first gig was a drunken party on a local beach, but they soon became noted across the UK for their powerful live shows. The key aim for Nik is to try and create moods and atmospheres rather than just songs, “Tom Waits, whose one of my biggest influences of these days, does the same thing, he just gets across, in his later stuff, how to tell a story just by the tone of his voice. It doesn’t necessarily matter what he says, it’s about the way he says it.”

Their album, recorded in France, is due out this summer. But for Nik, this is just the beginning, “I think everyone aims for uniqueness, but the test of it is if you ever get to a certain stage in life were you’re completely happy with what you’re doing in terms of being a musician, then you’re probably in a really shit band. If we can keep on being energetic and we can keep on constantly changing our music, then I’d be really happy to do it for ever.”  Amen

By Kenn Taylor

Patrick Wolf

Patrick Wolf has been skirting around the edges the music scene since 2003, gathering committed fans and receiving critical praise, yet never really moving beyond the periphery.

But his latest record, The Magic Position – an exhilarating celebration of life set against mesmerising Mac rhythms and classical swishes – has been warmly received in all quarters and it may well be the one that finally sees him recognised as one of Britain’s most important artists.

The 23 year old is largely unmoved by the sudden acceptance.

“It’s kind of funny. I guess I would have cared about four years ago and now it’s happening part of me is just like ‘Oh well, thanks for joining in now’ you know. Now that they are good reviews I feel like I’ve kind of gone through that already.”

The early life of Wolf reads like a rock fairytale. Born into a creative family in London, he began his musical education singing in choirs and playing viola and violin from age 6. By the age of 11 he had begun to experiment with synthesizers and four-tracks and at 14 joined the pop-art collective Minty as a theramin player, while he began to write music obsessively as an escape from school troubles.

He left home at 16 and spent some years wild and free around London, busking in a string quartet and forming Maison Crimineaux – a noisy act built around a combination of white noise and pop music. Patrick went on to study one year of a degree in composition at Trinity College of Music, during which time he recorded his debut album.

Lycanthropy, a tragic and sassy folktronica chronicle of his turbulent life so far, was released in the summer of 2003 to both critical acclaim and intrigue – who was this crazily dressed, bleach-blond young man with the amazing vocal range playing ukuleles and laptops?

His 2005 follow up, Wind in the Wires, was a darker and more expansive affair, and perhaps reflecting his mood, his hair returned to its natural black. The album generated more praise and increased his cult following, but he remained on the fringes.

Patrick shocked a few when he returned to public view at the end of 2006 with a beat heavy and joyous single Accident and Emergency, not to mention new glittery stylings and burnt orange locks. Comments were made as to whether he’d lost his way, but when the album was released it became clear that he had pulled it off once more, and perhaps now the world was ready for him.

The Magic Position not only showcased new sounds and styles but a new side to Patrick, a loved up, perhaps even contented one. He sees the album as him moving on from being influenced by his turbulent youth.

“It came out of the need to document like six years in my life and just kind of draw a line underneath a time. It was strange, it was almost like bottling a ship, you know, suddenly it’s in this bottle and you can’t access it anymore. I think Wind in the Wires was about trying to capture a solitary mode, Lycanthropy was about a struggle and this one was about love.”

The bliss that Patrick conveys on record came from a specific relationship that ended as the album was being finished, something that made it hard to continue.

“The mixing of the record came at a time I was moving house, out of a very domestic, blissful period of my life, so it was defiantly hard to feel any inspiration for the record at all, or any love for it. Luckily I found some and finished the record.”

Wolf is greatly concerned that people listen to his music before they take account of what he’s wearing, he loathes being referred to as a ‘Dandy’, but he still feels the clothes are an extension of the sounds.

“I find in England it’s strange because people look at you first and then decide whether they’re going to listen or not, and in other countries they listen to your music and then they see the whole story behind it you know. So I realize the visual is very important, I use it almost as a figurehead of the work. I don’t know, I just try and take the song and see what it needs visually, and often it’s not jeans and t-shirt”, he says with a small laugh.

We’ve seen three sides of Wolf so far, but he’s keeping tight lipped on what musical mood he’ll be moving into next. “There’s lots of ideas and I’m writing the fourth album at the moment, but I’m keeping very quiet about it because I tend to give the game away about a year and a half before and I really shouldn’t.” Oh well, we shall eagerly await the next stage in Patrick’s career. And the next hair colour.

By Kenn Taylor

Voo

A Liverpool trio who go by the moniker of Voo, have been gathering some signifcant attnetion for their gripping live performances of late. With lo-fi melodies that glide easily from tender and fragile dittys to joyous pop powerhouses, they bring to mind comparisons with The Postal Service and Smashing Pumpkins and sound unlike anything that has come out of their native city in the last thousand years.

Formed in the family home (singer/guitarist Graham and bass player Paul are brothers) over a mutual love of alternative Americana, like Hüsker Dü, the line up was completed a year ago when they met drummer John at a festival, got him drunk  and “asked him out”. Though their name harks back to an earlier sticksman, Paul says: “It was the first word said by our first drummer, it’s our permanent tribute to him.”

Graham reveals that the age old theme of lost love is what inspires him most musically: “It sounds terrible, and I hate saying it, but most of them are about girls. When I was going out with my girlfriend I wrote about two songs, we spilt up two weeks ago and I have written dozens.” Paul interjects: “We didn’t engineer the break up mind you.”

Visual image is an important factor for the band too, with a lot of thought going into both sleeve art and videos, Paul says: “We are lucky to have loads of friends who are really talented people who do us massive favours in that respect…we will have to start paying them at some point.”

With a album ‘Dates, Facts and Figures’ out soon on Spank Records, their melodies will soon be able to touch a wider audience. I ask them their goal for the future. Graham says: “They keep changing, it was to get the album finished and now it’s to get on tour and just hope the car doesn’t break down.”

By Kenn Taylor

A Hawk and A Hacksaw

Listening to ‘The Way the Wind Blows’ is like taking a meandering journey through a world of traditional music. Its strange, driving rhythms and peculiar sounds seem at first odd to the Western ear. But the music slowly wraps itself around you with swirls of hypnotic trumpets, wistful accordion breaths and melancholy vocals and you find yourself in another place entirely, a place where this Gypsy music is the most natural, moving thing in the world.

This music is itself the product of many a journey. I capture Jeremy Barnes, one half of A Hawk and A Hacksaw, the duo who created ‘The Way The Wind Blows’ as he is heading across the UK to another gig. Travelling is something Barnes is well used to, having lived and recorded everywhere from his native Albuquerque to France, New York and even a stint in Leicester, where he found work as a postman. “It was horrible,” he recalls. “But I’m still proud to have the Royal Mail uniform.”

This letter delivering was in between work as a drummer with cult acts Neutral Milk Hotel and Broadcast. In 2002 however, Barnes decided to go his own way, decamping to France to record A Hawk and A Hacksaw’s self-tilted debut. A record made up of rollicking accordion, delicate plucked strings and blustering Kazoos, recalling everything from Kurt Weil to silent movie piano compositions. Essentially a one-man band, Barnes was toe-dipping in waters that would soon run much deeper.

Follow up ‘A Darkness at Noon’ was recorded in Prague before Jeremy journeyed on, this time back to Albuquerque for the first time in ten years. He explains that his movements have always been in the search for music and new horizons: “Being a travelling musician was always intriguing for me. But it was important not to feel like a travelling salesman going bus/hotel/venue/bus. I wanted to meet and work with local musicians, make it more of an adventure.”

Once back in Albuquerque he met the person that would form the other half of A Hawk and A Hacksaw, violinist Heather Trost. Heather was a member of a local Klezmer orchestra – A group of musicians who perform a transplanted version of a traditional Jewish music native to Eastern Europe pre-WWII. Barnes and Trost were obviously made for each other.

How has becoming part of a duo changed things? “Well it’s made things a lot easier. Heather is a great musician to work with and it’s made recording and composing better. The first tour was quite lonely too and I don’t have to worry about that anymore I guess.”

In further pursuit of musical adventure, Jeremy tracked down the manger of legendary Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia, who he’d been enamoured with since first hearing them 10 tears ago. Managing to arrange a meeting with him with their manager in Bucharest, Jeremy took out some money and headed over with no guarantees on anything.

The two met and, after discussions over drinks, the manager agreed to take Jeremy to the Romanian village of Zece Prajini where Fanfare Ciocarlia are based – a place of dirt roads and no plumbing that is so remote it appears on no official maps. He set up a studio in the front room of a local house and worked with Fanfare Ciocarlia to create the songs that make up ‘The Way the Wind Blows’. Jeremy says it was a magical experience for him: “I’d always been fascinated with Romanian music and culture and I’d always wanted to see a traditional village. They were so friendly and welcoming too. But I think it worked both ways, they were equally intrigued to have an American amongst them.”

‘A Hawk and A Hacksaw’ is an old phrase that in appears in differing forms in both Hamlet and Don Quixote. Basically you’re defined as mad if you can’t tell the difference between a Hawk and a hacksaw.  It’s a peculiar turn of phrase, but one that seems oddly appropriate for their music. “It’s a mad, ridiculous thing that we love doing,” says Jeremy. “And we hope it carries on.” Ends

By Kenn Taylor

Elle S’appelle

Liverpool loves to think of itself as the capital of pop music, even though that sometimes seems to rely a little too heavily on one particular band. But as we move through our year of culture, one thing seems apparent: The local music scene is the healthiest it’s been for years, with a whole array of brilliant musicians of different stripes gigging around the city and gaining national attention. One such act is Elle S’appelle, a trio who have come a long way in a short time.

The band played their first gig at the Liverpool Barfly on 1st June last year, and, just one week later, they found themselves named ‘unsigned band of the week’ on Steve Lamacq’s influential BBC 6 Music show. They quickly recorded their debut single, the stunning ‘Little Flame’, and were picked up by Moshi Moshi records, responsible for releasing early efforts by Bloc Party and Kate Nash. Since then, their surreal, speedy pop has been gaining them the attentions of fans and critics all over. That’s an awful lot to cope with for a band less than a year old, but drummer Owen Cox thinks they can cope with it:

“It’s been hard work, but we’ve all been prepared for it. With our old bands we knew what it was going to be like. I think we’d rather have it this way than not have any chance.”

Elle S’appelle, like many of the city’s current crop of acts, are a mixture of locals and students. Andy Donavan, bass player, singer and principal lyricist is “born and bred Liverpool”, Lucy Blakely, singer and keyboardist, is originally from Greasby, Wirral, but moved to the city to study music, as did Norwich-born drummer Owen. They’ve all been involved in making music in the city for a couple of years, but it seems as if it all came together will Elle S’appelle, which is French, by the way, for ‘She is called.’

“I think the three of us, it was just the right time and the right band,” says Andy.

“I think at the time all of our acts were coming to an end and I think we were all looking for the same thing at the same time,” adds Owen.

Their mixing of dynamic rhythms with dirty, carousel keyboards has proved to be a winner, but what really sets Elle S’appelle apart are their lyrics. Dreamy stories that create a depth that keeps you listening once the melody and beat has got hold of you. Principal lyricist Andy puts it down to his chosen reading material:

“I only really read kids books, because I like the fact that they’re aimed at kids. I find a lot of adult literature self-indulgent. I think also, I’ve never been a fan of singing about really current things. I more in my own little world, daydreaming. I don’t like singing about bouncers and clubs and girls on dancefloors. I just like, it sounds dead corny, but people finding their own meaning, just creating imagery and take or leave what it means to me. If you’re too specific, it’s just for you then.”

Despite their success, the trio are not about to rest in their laurels, they’re now undertaking the recording of another EP, and are now about to embark on ‘Bosspop’, a national tour with goFaster >> another great Liverpool act.

Andy elaborates:“I think that the tour is Elle S’appelle and goFaster >> taking Liverpool on the road. Without being cheesy, it’s about showing people what’s happening here. Everyone’s having such a great time and none more so than ourselves and goFaster >>, we share a rehearsal room, play a lot of gigs together and we just have such a laugh with them. It will be like a big holiday.”

Some are viewing Bosspop as more than a tour, rather an example of a contemporary musical movement in Liverpool that includes to varying degrees bands such as Hot Club de Paris, The Wombats, Arms At Last, 28 Costumes, Voo and National School. Lucy explains: “Bosspop is what it is as well. I think a lot of people are scared of pop music because they think it makes them less credible, but I think ‘It’s pop, it’s great, you’ve got to embrace it.’ And I think the phrase Bosspop is great, boss is such a Liverpool word and I think if we didn’t coin it ourselves, the NME, or someone just as cool, would have come up with a more shit word.”

Andy adds: “I just think we’re beating everyone to it, because it’s going to get a name.”

And, unlike many bands, are they not afraid of being pigeonholed into a ‘scene’:

“I think scene is a grossly misunderstood word,” says Lucy, “to us, it’s not really like about being part of a scene, it’s about being mates, helping each other out, having a great time, going to each others gigs and lending each other your van when it breaks down. That’s what a scene means to us, and sort of borrowing musical ideas of each other as well, and being fine with it. It’s just all about being mates really.”

Whatever it is, and whatever you call it, music is good in Liverpool at the moment and Elle S’appelle are a shining example of that. Maybe we are the capital of pop after all.

By Kenn Taylor