Dances with Wolves, Belfast and Wigan – Introducing The Nouvelles

Bright Future: : The Nouvelles, with Johnnie out front in his Shout to the Top t-shirt

Bright Future: : The Nouvelles, with Johnnie out front in his Shout to the Top t-shirt

It seems odd that a band that recently recorded a song for the Northern Ireland football team’s Euro 2016 campaign should be based in Wigan.

What’s more, this happening indie outfit are fronted by a singer who played a key role in his home nation’s peace process.

I’ll address that soon enough, but will mention first how The Nouvelles – recently touted as ‘the next big Northern band’ – have already enjoyed plenty of interest.

Formed in Manchester by Belfast’s Johnnie Jackson, their early achievements included appearances at several esteemed UK festivals and a major record deal.

But then came hiatus and time out, Johnnie taking to France to think things over before reassembling the band in Wigan, with input from producer John Kettle.

Having exorcised themselves from previous record and publishing deals, The Nouvelles set about putting their new DIY model to the test, self-releasing single Rising while deciding which offer on the table they should go with for debut album, This Modern Sound.

Meanwhile, there’s that football link, working with the Irish FA on a song for potential European Championships qualification.

That’s on hold for now, but it’s fair to say things are looking rosy at present – not only for Michael O’Neill’s national footie side, but The Nouvelles too.

Johnnie is joined in The Nouvelles by guitarist Tom Kinton, from Chester, bass player Rob Regan from Bolton, and drummer Steve Atkinson, from Merseyside, with regular guest appearances from notable deputies such as singer Robyn Xanthia.

I caught up with Johnnie during a tea break from his job as a trainee social worker, based around Greater Manchester.

Wigan Warriors: The Nouvelles

Wigan Warriors: The Nouvelles

He’s not the only one in the band working either, but as he puts it, “We’re hoping we can take a little career break soon.”

Johnnie proved an entertaining interviewee, passionate about his band, his influences and his football, and prone to fits of laughter.

There’s already been plenty of hyperbole written about the band. Is that vindication for all his band has set out to achieve?

“We’re certainly looking to be the next big Northern indie band, and we’re pretty focused on that.

“But we really just want to be able to play to 200 people, and for the last few gigs we’ve been doing that. That’s our dream. Then we can take it from there.

“Our whole priority is just avoiding this whole X-Factor circus. All sorts of people seem to be sucked into this stardom idea.

“It’s not what we’re about at all. We’re a purist indie band. One venue recently said, ‘These guys are going to be playing arenas at £70 per head soon’, but that’s not us!”

There was an earlier sell-out at Manchester Academy, wasn’t there?

“Yeah, but that was with George Borowski – the ‘Guitar George’ of the Dire Straits song, Sultans of Swing – so he attracted a few people too that night.

“It nearly got a bit too much for us around then, leading to our hiatus. There were lots of labels there that night, and we weren’t sure the right people were there or if it was the right moment.

“So when we came back, we decided to launch ourselves in Greater Manchester rather than Central Manchester. And it’s been a master-stroke.”

Nouvelles - SingleI should have told Real Lancashire advocates to look away there, because when Johnnie says Greater Manchester, he means Wigan, his band’s adopted hometown, where they also rehearse at Urban Sound Studios.

“You get an element of peace in Wigan, you can focus on it all very easily and don’t get caught up in things.

“It was fantastic in Manchester, but the master-stroke was to get out, take our time and see if we really wanted this, away from the journalists and massive fan-base.

“I went to France for six months, on the coast near Bordeaux. While I was there I gave someone a CD in a surf shop and they told me I had to go back to Manchester and finish the job!

“That made the decision for me. I wasn’t learning to surf that well anyway. I nearly drowned a couple of times, with the waves so big.”

The Nouvelles’ rebirth was helped by BBC 6 Music’s Tom Robinson playing the single on his show.

Rising was short-listed via his Fresh on the Net feature, and he follows us on Twitter now, which is great. You know you’re going in the right direction when things like that happen.

“The reaction’s been mind-blowing! It started with Tom, then we loaded it on to BBC Introducing nationally, which led to support from BBC Manchester too.”

Is the single indicative of the first album?

“I’d say we’re less commercial than that. There’s a little indie rave feel on the single, but it’s a natural extension of what we do.

“For example, there’s another tune on the album, Fade Away, which is piano-driven and a fantastic song to lead into Rising, but darker and less commercial.

Band Champion: Tom Robinson

Band Champion: Tom Robinson

“There’s an element of dance on Rising too, with Ben Hesketh playing piano, then Robyn (Xanthia) singing.

“But there’s a real cross-section across the album, and we remain keen to recreate that indie vibe The X-Factor almost killed off.

“The Smiths broke up in 1990, The Stone Roses looked like they were going to recreate the whole thing but then split up, while Oasis were more like a super-group.

“There was never really anyone who replaced that Smiths feel. Everyone’s sucked in by money, but we can avoid that.

“We’ve all got careers outside this, and range from 20-year-olds up to 40-year-olds – that brings security too.”

So where does Johnnie fit into that age range?

“Me? Gosh! I just say mid-30s now. But I’m looking well on it!

“The beauty of that 10 years’ experience – having spent five years in a rehearsal studio in Manchester and the last few getting it right – is we don’t need to worry about things a band solely in their early 20s would.

“Given the chance, a younger band might take anything offered. We’ve had loads of offers from indie labels and publishers, and have a publishing deal right now.

“We’ve also been offered a new three-year publishing and promotional deal from the fella who discovered Stereolab, one of my favourite bands.

“But we haven’t signed that yet. We want to get the album finished by Easter, and we’re talking about that to the producer, John Kettle.”

John Kettle is perhaps best-known outside the studio for work with Wigan folk-rock outfit Merry Hell and, previously, The Tansads. Was he a factor in their relocation?

“We heard about John through a mutual friend, the guitarist I wrote Shine with, Trevor Standish. He brought us down to his studio, and there the decision was made.

“We’ve been working very closely since. I’ve learned a lot from John, like how to structure songs rather than just knock out a catchy indie tune.”

Molineux Link: Johnnie's passion for Wolves inspired This Is Our Love

Molineux Link: Johnnie’s passion for Wolves inspired This Is Our Love

Johnnie uses the example of a new song, This is Our Love, inspired by his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, explaining how John Kettle’s methods changed the way the song developed.

“That turned out very much like a Stone Roses sound, and lots of our new songs have taken that direction, if you can imagine how the Roses’ third album might have sounded.”

That’s not to say The Nouvelles are copyist, despite a love for several bands from that era, including two with Wigan links – Starsailor and The Verve.

“No, we’ve definitely got our own wee sound. I call us post-Oasis, but you don’t want to make too much of that.”

If anything, I’d say Johnnie’s voice and accent suggest homegrown influences such as Ash’s Tim Wheeler instead.

“Aye!”

Then perhaps their more commercial songs bring to mind someone like Embrace.

“Absolutely – both influences. I couldn’t agree more!”

So is it fair to say we’re talking about a 1990s indie sound?

“True, and I think we’d have done all this when I was in my 20s, but I was working in the peace process over in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Link: Ash sprang from the same city

Belfast Link: Ash sprang from the same city

“Meanwhile, Tim Wheeler was busy with his band, but we were in the same bars, like Laverys in Belfast.”

So tell me more about that peace work back in Northern Ireland. What was your role in the talks with Mo Mowlam’s Government team?

“Conflict management, working on the fringes of the peace process, a junior advisor to senior players.

“I was never a leader and never wanted to be a leader. I was more a junior academic advisor.”

Understandably, Johnnie is careful of his wording, stressing independence from any political party.

He was however part of a team helping bring the likes of Loyalist politicians Frankie Gallagher and brothers David and Brian Ervine to the talks, helping pave the way towards peace.

“One of my big breakthroughs was with the Drumcree parade in the 1990s, when I was just coming out of my teens.

“Next thing I knew I was being driven around in armoured cars, mediating between the Republicans and the Government.

“I’d get out of a car at the end of a day in somewhere like Portadown, and bump into old schoolmates serving as police officers by then.

“I’m glad they did see me though – or they wouldn’t have believed me! Aye, I lost my 20s to all that.”

Talk of Northern Ireland and The Troubles inevitably got me on to the music scene there and my love of The Undertones (I say inevitable to anyone who’s read more than a few of the features on this site), leading to Johnnie mentioning how he knows Terri Hooley, the record shop and label boss who helped break the Derry five-piece.

Of course, Terri was later immortalised in the film Good Vibrations and was a character who famously cut through the sectarian divide, long before that peace process.

2013-10-16-GoodVibrations“I liked that film. It was very well balanced. It didn’t go over the top about the sectarian stuff, and didn’t make out Terri to have had a terrible life.

“Because he didn’t. He had a couple of run-ins, as we all did with the paramilitaries, but that’s just the nature of a society like that.”

Does Johnnie plan to take his band over to Belfast in the near future?

“I’d like to do a ticketed gig over at The Limelight soon. There are so many new venues over there now, but that would be our choice.

“When we were kids in the ‘90s, that’s where we went. So 200 people at a tenner a ticket – let’s get them in! But we’re going to wait for the album, then do it.”

Could he not have made it back in his home city with his first band, The Thirty Ones (who took their name from a notion for better racial diversity)?

“We had a cracking wee band, and were doing really well. With the peace process going well, we were starting to do live gigs.

“But I just thought there was a glass ceiling, and wanted more. It was a great crowd, but very dance-focused. Belfast is an eclectic crowd rather than a punk crowd.

“You had to work really hard to find the indie pubs. It’s changed over the last few years though.”

And is there a thriving indie scene in the band’s adopted hometown Wigan at present?

“I’d say it’s in crisis at the minute. We were set for a couple of nights at the Cube, but since then it’s closed down for some bizarre reason.

“That said, the Greater Manchester music scene is very strong, and competitive.”

Johnnie clearly continues to retain links with his homeland. So how did it come about that he got asked to do a song for the national football team?

Rising Sons: The Nouvelles

Rising Sons: The Nouvelles

“There’s a funny story behind that. I went back to Belfast for a visit a couple of years ago, and my friend, now a director of football development at the IFA, said off the cuff, ‘Go and write a song for the Northern Ireland football team.’

“He probably thought nothing of it, but I thought that was a brilliant idea, went away and did it. And now everybody loves it.

“Were not sure if it’s the right time for that just yet – but it’s coming, preferably on a proper label. We’re talking to Cherry Red Records. They put out football songs, so that would be perfect!”

If Northern Ireland reach the Euro 2016 finals in France, will the band recruit team manager Michael O’Neill, captain Steven Davis and the rest of the squad for a remix?

“Well … at the minute the song’s been done, and it’s up there on soundcloud …”

The team have got to do their bit on the pitch first though.

“They’re doing it! They’re doing really well, and that would just be fantastic.

343“I heard Billy Hamilton wants to be involved in the video too. He likes his Stone Roses and his indie scene. Besides, my Mum and him are pretty friendly.”

Some of that may not be true, but I ask if Johnnie remembers Northern Ireland’s last great international campaigns – those World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986, when Billy Hamilton was among the stars?

“I was only a kid at the time, but that’s when I started watching football. I vaguely remember watching the 1986 World Cup with my Dad.

“Actually, Norman Whiteside getting injured was my first real conscious memory of football.”

So why does he support Wolves? Does it go back to their Northern Ireland legend, the late Derek Dougan?

“My mum said she was one of those who actually did go out with Derek Dougan. But I think every woman in Belfast says that!

“The Dougan family lived across the road from us, while my Dad was George Best’s dad Dickie’s gardener.

“He did it for free though – he didn’t take a penny off him. I think he just did it to show off!

“And although the story’s only really broken recently, we knew for years before that George Best was a Wolves fan before he signed for Manchester United.”

Back to the music, what about another Northern Irish band that made it big on this side of the Irish Sea – Snow Patrol. Has Johnnie watched their progress with interest?

“Absolutely. Again, they were on the rise the same time as Ash and our band. We were bigger than Snow Patrol in Belfast at the time.

Snow Business: Gary Lightbody and the Snow Patrol line-up

Snow Business: Gary Lightbody and the Snow Patrol line-up

“But we always knew Gary Lightbody would do well. He’s from just down the road in Bangor. And Snow Patrol had the continuity. They didn’t just up sticks and go.”

Are The Nouvelles confident of an Easter 2016 release for This Modern Sound?

“I’d say 100 per cent. Everything’s on course, and we’ll be done by Good Friday.”

I warn him that could be a shoe-in for lazy journalists everywhere, with mentions of Good Friday plus talk of Easter and the single Rising. This comment inspires fits of laughter.

“I never thought about that! I’m not so sure that would go down so well though … being from a liberal loyalist community!”

It appears that the band are already on the way to a follow-up release too.

“We’ve already got the second album written! I was only thinking this morning about some of the great songs that are not going on this first album.

“I’ve always said how sad it is when these great musicians spend so much money and time on guitars and equipment, whereas we just dander in!

“And when you’re listening to bands like The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis and Doves, you’re going to be writing good songs.”

For more information about the band and forthcoming dates, head to www.thenouvelles.com.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, with the original’s online version found here.

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The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting – a writewyattuk review

5777a240-3b76-0132-d418-52b982339467-largeIt was supposedly a happy accident that Public Service Broadcasting stumbled upon correlations between the sublime Everest on their debut LP and a mention of George Mallory’s historic Peak XV explorations while working on their second.

Either way, it was clearly meant to be, that link via John F. Kennedy’s inspirational Rice University speech in 1962 a perfect starting point for The Race for Space, a truly stunning follow-up to the mighty Inform – Educate – Entertain.

I should warn you now I’m likely to use words like ‘stirring’ and ‘poignant’ a fair bit in this review, with that introductory track no exception, its celestial choir providing the first of many hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments on an assured long player.

If the whole notion of Public Service Broadcasting suggests a love of the retro, there’s nostalgia aplenty on Sputnik, and not just for the period when the CCCP paved a way for all those later space missions, but also the less-celebrated Balaeric Beat dancehall days, Willgoose’s backing track hinting at MARRS’ Pump up the Volume.

But it’s the overlay of the audio documentary matter that proves the catalyst, the growing synth-symphony perfectly capturing the spirit of this exciting time in our relatively-recent history. And as it reaches its climax, Wrigglesworth’s percussive mettle takes us beyond the bleep of the satellite as PSB transport us to the heavens.

Then comes the pre-emptive single, Gagarin, its brass-infused funk seemingly far removed from the subject yet somehow working perfectly with this tale of ‘60s world icon Major Yuri, conveying at least something of the love felt for this folk hero.

There’s also a perception of that feeling of just what we could achieve in this momentous period. Yet PSB stress they’re not here to give us a history lesson, and the sheer joy in this unlikely tribute also shows the band’s sense of fun and play.

There were dramatic lows in this historic race of course, and there’s a respectful nod to the three Apollo 1 crew members that died in a 1967 Cape Canaveral flight test in Fire in the Cockpit, its static-fused soundtrack suitably solemn, somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Marr’s soundtrack to The Smiths’ Meat is Murder.

EVA takes us into another area, the concept of weightlessness and all the vagaries of these out-of-this-world explorations, the wonder of that first space walk beautifully replicated in sonic form.    

Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space US coverSimilarly, Apollo 8’s journey to the dark side of the moon is perfectly re-imagined in The Other Side. A sense of the mighty task of that crew and the expectation is brilliantly nailed, and while you know the outcome, there’s no less a feeling of triumph as you relive that moment with the rest of the Houston control room.

Dream-folk duo Smoke Fairies provide apposite accompaniment to the proceedings on Valentina, adding a Sigur Ros feel to the band’s acknowledgement of Vostok 6 cosmonaut and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova’s part in the tale.

And from that 1963 landmark we reach perhaps the pinnacle, six years later, with the truly inspired Go! – the album’s second single covering the feted Apollo 11 mission.

This being Pubic Service Broadcasting, there’s no ambition to take the obvious path, with just a brief mention of the Eagle’s touchdown, the band instead opting for the crew running through their moon landing speed trial procedure, another sublime touch brilliantly dealt with. Again, it gives us a real sense of the spirit of celebration and proves a perfect album high-point.

That epochal moment is then followed by the more-pensive final program mission end-point of Tomorrow, the Apollo 17 team neatly summing up all that had been achieved ‘for all mankind’ in the years up to 1972, complemented by a stirring soundtrack that carefully builds from Tubular Bells type beginnings.

The whole concept of this album was always going to be a hard ask for Messrs Willgoose and Wrigglesworth, with a mighty fall from the heights possible after such orbits of expectation. But from lift-off to landing, they come through unscathed and have produced a mighty work to be proud of.

For a recent writewyattuk interview with J.Willgoose Esq., head here. And for this blog’s lowdown on PSB’s first album, head here

The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (Test Card Recordings) is released on February 23rd, 2015, with forthcoming tour dates and more from the band on their official website.

 

 

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When you comin’ back? The Gretchen Peters interview

Comin' Back: Gretchen Peters live at the RCC Letterkenny, Donegal, October 2013 (Photo: John Soffe) (www.johnsoffe.com)

Comin’ Back: Gretchen Peters live at the RCC Letterkenny, Donegal, October 2013 (Photo: John Soffe) (www.johnsoffe.com)

Gretchen Peters is on the crest of a wave, and loving it. After all those years perfecting her songwriting craft, getting on for 20 of those as a solo artist, it seems like the critics have finally sat up and taken notice.

The 57-year-old’s last long player, Hello Cruel World, was hailed as her ‘career best’ by NPR in America, but it seems to me that her new album has even bettered that.

Last week, Gretchen was in London, doing a little promo before returning to these shores in mid-March, and that coincided nicely with critical acclaim on both sides of the pond for her wonderful new country noir opus Blackbirds.

From the dark matter of the title track and single When All You Got Is A Hammer to the beguiling Pretty Things and Everything Falls Away, there’s certainly plenty of depth.

And it’s an album that flits around the US with its locations and themes, from the leafy New York suburbia where she grew up to her adopted country capital hometown.

She doesn’t pull any punches, her subjects ranging from domestic abuse and self-loathing to a war vet re-adapting to civilian life and a grieving widower coping with the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

Those familiar with the alt-country, folk-rock and Americana of Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Neil Young should love Blackbirds. So what did she make of the early reaction?

“It’s just been fantastic on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m so thrilled. It makes me think maybe I’m a late bloomer, which is fine with me. This whole past year has been really remarkable and eye-opening for me.”

Mortal Instruments: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

Mortal Instruments: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

That included the momentous night last October when she was inducted into the Nashville songwriters’ Hall of Fame, quite an accolade for a New York-born ‘carpet-bagger’ who only moved to Tennessee and the home of country after a spell in Colorado.

But while that honour seems to suggest this outsider has been accepted by her peers, she continues to plough her own furrow on the folk side of Americana meets country.

“I think what’s really hit home. It’s such a wonderful position to be in, getting that kind of validation at a point in your life where you feel you’re still doing your strongest work.

“It would have been very easy to feel – if I hadn’t had this new album to work on and look forward to – really happy and honoured but also worry ‘now what?’

“Instead I felt I had so much forward motion and was so focused on this coming out and I’m just so happy to be in that position.”

Blackbirds is already a hit in the UK download country charts, with her Circus Girl compilation also selling well again. But is this the album that will see her cross-over into the mainstream charts here?

“It does seem to be going that way. We’ll see. It’s certainly far ahead of where Hello Cruel World ever was.”

For many of us – myself included I might add – who have only caught up with her catalogue more recently, should we go from the start or head backwards across those seven studio albums and two live LPs?

Gretchen_Burnt_Toast“I think you go backwards. And one of the albums I’m still very proud of yet probably didn’t get heard as much was Burnt Toast and Offerings, which I jokingly but not so jokingly refer to as my divorce album.

“To me that was a turning point, paving the way for these last two albums.”

The Secret of Life from 1996 was the first album under Gretchen’s own name. So what led to that decision to go it on her own then?

“I was always my own entity. I had bands when I was coming up in Colorado in my 20s, but always under my own name.

“I always knew I was too head-strong to work in a democracy! I was so directed as a songwriter, and knew I wanted to sing my own songs and that was the path for me.”

She’d already been in Nashville a few years by 1996. Did she know her pianist (and now husband) Barry Walsh, an acclaimed artist in his own right, by then?

“Yes, and he played on that first album. He’d been playing on my demos a few years at that point, including my second set of demos. I never called another piano player after that – he had such an affinity for my songs.”

After all the album tours over the years, has she got to properly know the UK now?

“Oh yes – considering my sense of geography is terrible, I know the UK better than some people who live here!”

That’s included some memorable appearances at the Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and Cambridge Folk festivals.

“Yes, I’ve done Glastonbury twice, and sometimes almost consider the UK my home territory, having been touring here longer than I have the States.”

Furthermore, BBC Radio 2 veteran broadcasters Bob Harris and Terry Wogan are clearly big fans – something else that has probably helped open a few doors this side of the pond.

“It’s helped immensely. They’ve both been very supportive and helpful. You’re so lucky here to have people like that who champion music they personally love.

“It’s not everywhere you go that presenters can share what really moves them musically.”

It seems that us Brits manage to focus less on sticking to one genre.

BlackbirdsCover“Yes, and I think that’s one of the reasons why coming over here and touring I’ve founds an audience so willing to embrace me, because I’m a bit of a hybrid.

“I’m a bit of a mutt, coming from a lot of different musical places – and that didn’t seem to work for me as well in the States in 1996 as it did here.

“I came over here and found all the qualities that ensured I wasn’t a mainstream country artist there worked for me in the UK.”

Gretchen also featured on Jools Holland’s radio show during her promo visit.

“We had a blast! That will be out in March.”

So is it just you and Barry doing the rounds over here this time?

“It is, but we’re bringing a band back for the tour. We’re working with (Canadian multi-instrumentalist) Christine Bougie, who’s toured with us a couple of times. She plays electric guitar, lap steel and drums.

“Then we’re adding a gentleman called Conor McCreanor (from Belfast) on bass, so it’s really the biggest band I’ve brought over here, and I’m excited about that.”

I’m guessing it will be a set based around Blackbirds, a few cuts from Hello Cruel World, and a few other past crowd favourites.

“That’s pretty much the size of it. When we toured Hello Cruel World we played that whole album in sequence, which was real fun and I enjoyed that, but I don’t want to repeat that.

“There will be a healthy amount of songs from the new album and a lot of other ones. I’m in a mood to revisit some of the older songs and definitely some from Hello Cruel World that people will want to hear.”

How does your Songwriters Hall of Fame accolade compare to a few of the other awards you’ve bagged over the years? You’re among pretty hallowed company.

“I think it’s at the very top, really. It’s an acknowledgement of a lifetime of work rather than any particular work, which is remarkable.

True Grit: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

True Grit: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

“The list of who’s in that Hall of Fame is mind-boggling really. It was such an acknowledgement for me from my peers for work I did primarily all by myself in a room.

“I didn’t have a lot of co-writers, and wasn’t the typical Nashville writer. To be voted in was from what I could see strictly a way of saying ‘well done’, and that means so much to me.”

You mentioned in a recent radio interview how you‘d got to know kindred spirits like Nancy Griffiths and Steve Earle along the way, and I can certainly hear the latter in your more recent work. And I like that label ‘country noir’.

“I like that too!”

Gretchen has revealed how during the summer of 2013 when writing songs for Blackbirds, she went to three memorial services and a wedding, something that inspired an awareness of the inevitability of mortality that has since coloured her work.

I guess it happens to us all, with ageing parents and so on – a realisation that getting old can be a crock of shit sometimes. She puts it better though, with a more optimistic spin, when she says, ‘You understand the fragility of life, and the beauty of two people promising to weather it together.’

She certainly wears her influences on her sleeves en route, and I’m definitely getting Emmylou Harris on a few songs. Is she a big influence on you?

“She’s a beacon! I don’t know if Americana music would exist without her. I came to her like a lot of people via Gram Parsons, through their collaborations then her records.

Gretchen's Beacon: Emmylou Harris has been a mighty influence throughout Gretchen's career

Gretchen’s Beacon: Emmylou Harris has been a mighty influence throughout Gretchen’s career

“They deeply, deeply affected me. When I started playing in clubs aged 18 and 19 years old I was singing her songs, and when I started to write I started to write like the people I admired and those writing on her albums, like Rodney Crowell. It’s a big continuum and she’s definitely the centre-piece.”

I admit to Gretchen that I was only a late convert to Emmylou, turned on by her work with Daniel Lanois and co on 1995’s fantastic Wrecking Ball.

“That’s just a great example of her evolution as an artist. And great artists do evolve. They move on and find other sounds and other things interesting.

“That was a turning point album for her and for a lot of us to see what the possibilities were. While being perhaps primarily an acoustic, country-based artist, she certainly kicked at the stalls.”

And I think that’s what Gretchen’s doing with Blackbirds, isn’t it?

“I think it definitely is.”

Gretchen worked on an album with Tom Russell in 2008, wrote alongside Ben Glover on this album and fashioned a duet with Jimmy La Fave, while Rodney Crowell was on the last. She’s also worked with John Prine. So is there any chance of a future duets album with a few compadres?

“I would love that! Duet singing is one of my absolute favourite things in the world, again going back to Gram and Emmylou – where I got my appetite for it.

“And because of the songs they sang, I went back to The Delmore Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, The Everly Brothers, and all that great duet singing.  You may have just planted a seed. I love that idea!”

Winning Duet: Jimmy LaFave, who joins Gretchen on When You Comin' Home (Photo: http://moneypennymusic.co.uk/)

Winning Duet: Jimmy LaFave, who joins Gretchen on When You Comin’ Home (Photo: http://moneypennymusic.co.uk/)

The song you do with Jimmy LaFave, When You Comin’ Home, is certainly a fine one.

“I love duet and harmony singing better than singing lead really. It’s a deep joy to me to do that … so what a great idea!”

Watch this space then.

What’s your current favourite of all the songs she’s written that have been recorded by others? And I do realise that’s like asking who her favourite child is, but sometimes artists take things in a different direction to how we might have envisaged them.

“Oh definitely. That has happened, but then in other cases an artist will stick very closely to my version – which is a compliment.

“It’s hard to pick a favourite, but one that meant the most to me was Etta James recording Love’s Been Rough On Me, because she has one of the great voices of our time, and to hear my words and melody in her voice was just tremendous.”

Is there anyone else out there you haven’t had the guile to send a song to yet?

“Well, if I had a so-called bucket list, I would love to have a song recorded by Emmylou Harris … speaking of icons.”

I mentioned that gritty quality to some of the songs on the new album, and Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and even Nick Cave spring to mind for me in places. Is that a departure for you?

“It is, and I embrace that darker musical direction, concurrently with the darker lyrical direction, and felt that the music should reflect that.

“I learned a lot and picked up a lot from one of my co-producers, Doug Lancio, who has a very natural propensity towards that grit.

“I knew I wanted that and felt I needed some of that, and drew on him for a lot.”

Then alongside that more earthy quality there’s the sumptuous Pretty Things and beautifully evocative The House on Auburn Street.  It seems like Gretchen’s really stretched out on this album.

“We did, and what I was thinking and listening to was partially responsible for that. I thought of this album as an American folk-rock album, in the sense of Neil Young plus Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel.

51y5qeLYctL“I would consider all that as the bedrock. I heard so much music in my house – jazz and rock and everything – but if there was a bedrock for me it would be that American folk-rock.

“It was hugely influential and in my DNA, so I was very consciously channeling a lot of that sound.”

It’s good to see the younger generations coming through too, although I did mention how I’d read that she’d toppled Taylor Swift from the top of the UK country charts with Blackbirds.

“I can’t even believe that’s true!”

It seems to be, but I must say it’s a breath of fresh air to see someone like her doing so well in the big market – an artist who writes her own material can only be a good role model.

“Well, I’m always rooting for the singer-songwriters. That’s the music I came up on, and means the most to me.

“I think there’s a place for everything, but especially the young women in the mainstream country world like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves. I’m excited to see them do well.

“Although I don’t really intersect with that world much anymore, I did at one point, and really love to see these women kicking down some walls and writing more lyrically-pointed songs.”

Gretchen recently said she was drawn to artists courageous enough to face ageing and mortality in their work, citing Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Lowe. That seems to be a male domain in large part though. So does this album prove women can write hard-hitting songs too?

“Yes, and I think they’re writing some of the most interesting music going on in country at the moment. The men seem to be writing about beer and pick-up trucks. That’s fine, but there’s a whole lot more to life.”

In that sense, I mention how Martina McBride’s recording of her 1996 song Independence Day made a real impact.

“It did, in a huge way. It was one of those songs you only realise with hindsight what an impact it had. And 20 years later it still has, and I still play it. But you also realise those sort of songs don’t come along often.”

Gretchen’s always been big on story songs, full of real characters, like On A Bus To St. Cloud. Was that the first great song she thought you wrote, suggesting she was heading in the right direction?

“I do feel On A Bus To St. Cloud was a real personal milestone. There were others here and there, like Souvenirs, where I felt I’d found who I was, but On A Bus to St Cloud was the first I wrote where I really felt I wouldn’t change anything.

gp500“I still love singing it, and still find new things in it, which is very rare in a song.”

I’m guessing after your results on Blackbirds, there’s more songs to come from Gretchen and Ben Glover together.

“Absolutely. I love Ben and what he’s about as an artist. For someone like me who’s not particularly comfortable with co-writing, writing with Ben was just dreamy, and I think the world of him.

“He’s working on his own album, doing his own thing right now, becoming a headliner, as he should be.”

Incidentally, the only song on the album she wasn’t involved in writing was Nashville. It’s clearly a great song, but why did you choose that?

“That song has been in my life for 10 years, and brought me to David Mead, who wrote it. And we ended up writing a singing a song together on my Burnt Toast and Offerings album.

“I’ve wanted to sing that song since I first heard it, but David’s version is so beautiful that I was put off recording it, wondering how I could ever improve on it. But eventually I just thought I wanted to sing that song, and felt it belonged on this album.”

And I suppose now you’ve been accepted as part of Nashville, it could be seen as an acknowledgment of love for your adopted home city?

“Maybe there’s a little of that, because Nashville really is my home and I’ve been accepted there in every possible way. This is perhaps a wonderful way to express that.”

Gretchen’s back in the UK in mid-March for 16 dates, including two shows in the North-West. Has she any particular memories of past Liverpool and Manchester visits?

“With Manchester I go back to maybe 1996 or 1997 playing there, with lots of good memories.

circus500“With Liverpool, I think it was only since 2013, but we’re playing the same venue this time, the Epstein Theatre, and I fell in love with that venue.

“Of course, Liverpool looms large in musical mythology for us Americans. It’s like making a pilgrimage.

“And on this tour I believe we have a day off there, and have been invited for a little tour of John Lennon’s home. I’m pretty excited about that.”

For the writewyattuk verdict on Gretchen Peters’ new album Blackbirds, head to our review here.

Gretchen  Peters plays Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on March 29 (0844 888 4411 / http://www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk/) and Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music on April 2 (0161 907 5200 / http://www.rncm.ac.uk/). 

And for details of the other shows on Gretchen’s UK tour, her past releases and much more, head to her official website here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on February 19th, 2014. 

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Blackbirds by Gretchen Peters (Scarlet Letter Records) – a writewyattuk review

BlackbirdsCoverFrom the moment the electric guitar chops signal the lead-off title track on Blackbirds, we’re in no doubt as to the underlying grit of Gretchen Peters’ latest 10-track opus.

We certainly have a contender for a career-best outing here, the introductory number every bit as compelling as co-writer Ben Glover’s version, a musical out-rider showcasing a harder ‘country noir’ sound found throughout this master-piece of redefined Americana.

This is an artist clearly not content to sit back on her laurels after recent acceptance from her Nashville peers, and I could see Nick Cave tackling this murder ballad, its dark matter suitably chilling and a fine example of Gretchen’s rich story-craft.

This is no one-dimensional songwriter either, and Pretty Things stretches the canvas somewhat to show another side, with shades of Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed beneath it all.

It’s the chorus that sets it apart, dynamic piano touches from husband Barry Walsh suggesting a Ben Folds song in places, while the lyrical content is sharp and thought-provoking, battles with personal self-confidence brought to the microscope.

On the surface of it, we’re back into more conventional country territory with latest single When All You Got Is A Hammer, but again this is cutting-edge content. Amid the guitars and superior band feel, there’s a Steve Earle feel to this tale of a war vet’s less than triumphant hometown return, Gretchen unconcerned about upsetting any apple-carts.

Everything Falls Away brings to mind Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game tackled by Maria McKee, our accomplished songbird showing us her Emmylou Harris pedigree.

The House on Auburn Street is another vivid cinematic tale, the artist transporting us back to her New York suburban youth with a song that wouldn’t be out of place on Emmylou’s landmark Wrecking Ball album. And this is no cutesy sentimental journey.

Cinematic Tales: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

Cinematic Tales: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

There’s a real band feel on the Jimmy LaFave-assisted When You Comin’ Home, and it’s perfectly placed, perhaps reminiscent of a cut from Mark Knopfler’s 2006 All This Road Running collaboration with the afore-mentioned Ms Harris.

There’s an Hallelujah meets Londonderry Air under-current to Jubilee, and it seems fitting to mention both the Leonard Cohen influence and Irish pioneering heritage for someone who fits right in with that Transatlantic Sessions set.

As it is, the artists involved across this album suggest a who’s who of modern American roots music. But that’s not the full story, for it’s Gretchen’s songwriting craft – the lyrical and musical – that brings everything together.

We’re into country territory again with Black Ribbons, but this is no flippant take on the genre – rather another characterful portrait, the tale of a fisherman coming to terms with his wife’s death and aftermath of the BP oil spill on Gulf of Mexico waters.

It’s a strong enough premise from that alone, but when you factor in the band ethic and acknowledge we have a stonking song, you get the bigger picture.

While the song subjects see Gretchen flit around her home nation, this is an album that should appeal on this side of the Atlantic too, and conversely that comes through on her interpretation of David Mead’s Nashville, the only cover here.

I could see Cerys Matthews attempt this pensive yet emotionally-charged song, and there’s something of the songcraft of Boo Hewerdine there too. But for all that it’s a love song to Gretchen’s adopted hometown, and one that certainly sells Tennessee’s state capital to this wordsmith.

That might have been the perfect conclusion, but Gretchen’s not finished yet, a stripped-down The Cure for the Pain bringing us back to that over-riding theme of our inevitable fight against mortality, with all the skill of Bruce Springsteen’s best work.

While Gretchen highlights the darker side of life, this hospital bed-tale suggests a little light among the shadows, accepting the ultimate outcome while celebrating the good throughout life’s journey.

And that leaves us with a return to Louisiana for her semi-acoustic take on Blackbirds rounding things off, every bit as strong as the electric version.

Darker Side: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

Darker Side: Gretchen Peters (Photo: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/)

Early sales, critical acclaim and attention suggest Gretchen’s reached a new album high with Blackbirds, and if 2012’s Hello Cruel World was her ‘career best’, I feel she’s topped that here.

Clearly, Gretchen and her hubby work well together, and with Ben Glover’s co-writing and Doug Lancio’s co-production she’s moulded a long player that deserves its place among the defining albums of not just alt-country but Americana too.

Furthermore, on the back of her recent Nashville Hall of Fame honour, we have here an album boldly showcasing an artist not afraid to revel in her own creativity and cross that country line.

For a writewyattuk interview with Gretchen Peters, complete with tour date details and links to the artist’s website, head here.

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Exploring the gravitational pull of Public Service Broadcasting – a writewyattuk interview

PSB_Space_8321

Taking Flight: Wrigglesworth and Willgoose let loose in the control room

I’m not alone in my fascination for all things space-related, and was captivated as a child by the later Apollo missions, at least one of which I vaguely recall catching on telly at primary school in the early ’70s.

And it appears there was a similar attraction during the later manned flight era for J. Willgoose, Esq., the pseudonymous mastermind behind indie favourites Public Service Broadcasting.

Willgoose’s first space memory involved the Challenger space shuttle disaster. But he has happier recollections too.

“I remember being on holiday in Florida one year, when my Dad was adamant he heard a massive sonic boom one morning.

“When he read the news and saw it was the space shuttle returning home he was very happy.”

Why this talk of space? Well, for PSB’s latest album, Willgoose was granted further unique access to historically-important British Film Institute footage, going back in time to explore the period when the USA and USSR fought to gain the upper hand on a whole new frontier.

And the result is The Race for Space, out on February 23, the stunning follow-up to Public Service Broadcasting’s acclaimed 2013 debut LP Inform – Educate – Entertain (with this blog’s review of that album here).

I can’t pretend to have followed the band since the very beginning, and while I was vaguely aware of the ROYGBIV single through BBC 6Music, it wasn’t really until I heard the startling Spitfire one afternoon on the Radcliffe & Maconie show that I was hooked.

downloadOnly then did I feel a compulsion to dig back into the back-catalogue, taking in The War Room EP and watching the accompanying promos. Again, those World War Two films – not least the Humphrey Jennings classics – always stir something deep within for this scribe, no doubt transported back to afternoons in front of the black and white TV watching war flicks and documentaries with my Dad in the ’70s and ’80s.

There have been many great hairs on the back of the head moments from PSB since, not least when that first album dropped through the letterbox.

And it’s fair to say this new album takes us to a whole new level – as you’ll see when I post my review of The Race for Space on the release date. But before then, here’s the result of my recent chat with the enigmatic, self-styled ‘director-general’ of the Public Service Broadcasting phenomenon, officially known as nothing more than J.

Prior to that first album’s release, I witnessed a memorable PSB performance at Preston’s 53 Degrees in mid-March, 2013, a review of which was posted on this blog (with a link here).

That show will always stand out for me, while Willgoose and drummer Wriggleworth (not even a first initial this time, I’m afraid) have enjoyed many more highlights since, including festival successes at SXSW in Texas, Glastonbury, Bestival and the Green Man, and sell-outs at London’s Forum, New York’s Mercury Lounge and Rome’s Lanificio.

There were prestigious supports to The Rolling Stones, New Order and the Manic Street Preachers too, plus their current Kaiser Chiefs tour outings, the band branching out from their indie roots yet remaining cult heroes, with Willgoose coming over modest, slightly shy, and quintessentially English.

They’re not an outfit willing to re-cover the same ground either, and hopefully you’ll have already heard one such departure, the new LP’s lead single Gagarin, which features a six-piece brass section for a superbad funk-driven theme dedicated to a cosmonaut who was arguably the world’s most famous man in the early ‘60s.

There’s a bit of a ‘70s cop show feel too – or at least a James Taylor Quartet style cover of one – to Gagarin. So what came first – the tune or the theme?

“It was the idea of the tune, I suppose. I had a rough demo sitting around from a couple of years ago for a song I was writing about Greenwich Mean Time.

“The subject matter wasn’t gripping enough really, but I always held on to the riff and ended up going back to it, adapting then rebuilding it, while wondering how it was actually going to fit.

Dynamic Duo: Public Service Broadcasting's Wriggleworth, left, and Willgoose, on stage at Preston's 53 Degrees  in March (Photo: writewyattuk)

Dynamic Duo: Public Service Broadcasting’s Wriggleworth, left, and Willgoose, on stage at Preston’s 53 Degrees in March (Photo: writewyattuk)

“It doesn’t really fit, but I quite like the incongruous nature of that. We also wanted to capture a bit of the exuberance of that period. Just watching the footage of the crowds when they met Gagarin, to try and get that down rather than anything too literal.

“When we were recording that, with the six of them in a little circle, I decided to join them, listening on headphones, but had to get out within around 40 seconds. It was so loud, like being punched in the ears repeatedly! It was just an assault.”

So you walked away from your director-general role on this occasion?

“Yeah, I just scurried away, and talked down the line to them. It was much safer.”

The video is a revelation too, Willgoose and Wrigglesworth donning space suits then putting on an energetic dance routine before catching a bus home. And you can’t tell me that’s not them giving it some on the floor. Did it take a while to master those athletic moves?

“Oh crikey – yeah, that was hard work. My hips are still aching actually.”

Back to the subject matter, and Yuri Gagarin was a world hero after that first journey into outer space in 1961, wasn’t he?

World Hero: Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin

World Hero: Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin

“He was, and I find it very sad watching the footage, knowing he died only around seven years later in a plane crash.

“He seemed warm and friendly. There’s great footage of him in Moss Side, Manchester, visiting a workers’ union.

“They wanted to put the top down in the car he was travelling in, and he insisted on it – despite the rain – thinking if people have come to see me, I can stand the wet.”

While their first album involved just Willgoose and Wrigglesworth, the new one starts with a celestial choir, and includes guest vocalists Smoke Fairies too, on a Sigur Ros-style tribute to Vostok 6 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.

But don’t let their past and present subject matter make you think this is all about nostalgia. Instead, The Race For Space vividly re-imagines the super-powers’ rivalry for space supremacy between 1957 and 1972, its many highlights including the first space walk, a ride on the Sputnik 1 satellite and touchdown on the lunar Sea Of Tranquility.

It’s not just the obvious milestones and triumphs covered either, PSB tapping into stirring stories of life, death and courage along the way, all to a compelling soundtrack of techno, folk and electro-rock.

They start with a musical piece built around JF Kennedy’s landmark 1962 Rice University speech, creating a logical bridge from the first album’s highly-evocative and stirring Everest, the president name-checking pioneering British mountaineer George Mallory.

So did Willgoose already know where he was headed when the first album came out?

“I knew I wanted to write an album about the Space Race, and I wanted to start it with Kennedy’s speech.

“It wasn’t until I sat down and read the transcript to highlight the pieces I wanted to use that I noticed the link. It’s perfect. I’d like to say it was a brilliant stroke of genius, but I stumbled upon it, albeit quite happily.”

bfi-2So how did the link with the BFI come about?

“It started a long time ago, writing a song based around the Protect and Survive nuclear safety announcements. I rang them and confused them quite comprehensively.

“They took a brief bit of persuading and an extra email, but came back with the double thumbs-up and ever since have been really supportive and accommodating.

“I think they like the fact we’re giving a new lease of life to stuff that might otherwise be sitting in an archive somewhere. It seems to work as well for them as us…I hope”

Is there a similar American archive link now?

“NASA material is freely available and copyright-free, so getting hold of that – at least audio-wise – wasn’t going to be a problem. The concern was getting Russian footage and being able to use that.

“But it was another extraordinary stroke of luck really, as the BFI a couple of months before I rang inherited a whole load of Russian footage, sending me a massive list and asking which I would like!”

So here’s a deep question – is there a lesson to be learned in these troubled times? And do you think the Race for Space ultimately stopped the Americans and Russians blowing us all to smithereens?

“Who knows. It’s one of life’s biggest ironies that so much technological and telecommunication progress is driven by war.

“That’s the only way this innovation and change is pushed through with so much financial support.

“The sheer amount of things that have come out of the Space Race – and all its by-products – make this the ultimate example of the creative and technological leaps that can be made during conflicts.”

Second track Sputnik, with its Pump up the Volume-like intro giving rise to another PSB instant classic and even a little trance dance at times, gets us properly up and running, and highlights – as with the first album – that heady mix of retrospective meets futuristic.

In fact, PSB have always prided themselves on ‘teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future’. With that in mind, surely Willgoose gets frustrated if he’s perceived as someone just wallowing in nostalgia and couched in a different era.

psblogo“I guess so, because that flies in the face of what we’re actually presenting really. For me, the interesting stuff happens between the lines of the past and present, such as the secondary Space Race struggle between India and China and so on.

“It’s just re-framing the past, putting it in a more modern context, I guess.

“That all sounds pretty pretentious and highbrow though. Really, we’re just sticking a beat underneath satellite noises.”

Yes. The term ‘self-effacing’ comes up quite a lot when discussing Willgoose. He’s certainly not driven by ego.

It might not help that his bow-tie and tweed jacket image suggest Matt Smith-era Dr Who, as my youngest daughter pointed out recently. The man himself takes this all pretty well though…to a point.

“Well, that is a big issue, because he became The Doctor in 2010 I think, whereas I’ve been doing this since … well, the first gig was on the 7th of August, 2009.

“So there’s a little historical proof out there that I beat him to it, and he just needs to back off really.”

There’s fighting talk. So is that essentially why Matt Smith stepped aside for Peter Capaldi?

“I think he was obviously feeling the pressure.”

There was a mighty reaction and plenty of adulation for Inform – Educate – Entertain. Those were clearly proud days.

“Yes, but it’s weird looking back with the second album waiting to come out. So much of what happened first time around just passed us by because we were so busy and caught up in the whirlwind of everything, so you don’t really have any perspective on it.

“When we got to No. 21 in the album charts it felt strange but nice, and I think we had a gig in Newcastle that night. But you don’t really take it in.

psblp“It’s all just such a strange experience and it’s only going to be in around 10 years time when I’m back to the day-job that I’ll realise that was all actually quite good and we did alright.”

There must have been moments though, such as when he heard his teen-year heroes the Manic Street Preachers were fans of PSB.

“I still struggle to get my head around that. It’s like two different worlds – my teenage world then this modern version.”

That first album set the bar very high. Did that give you a few sleepless nights working out how you could top that?

“As a kid I always got my homework done as early as possible, and I’ve carried that into adult life.

“I knew even before the last album was out that this was going to be the next album, but wanted to keep a lid on it. I just didn’t want to let on.”

You do realise I’m going to have to ask you now though. So where do you go after outer space?

“Well, I think I know … but I’m not going to tell you. I was listening to a Harry Belafonte calypso album the other day and that gave me the final piece of the jigsaw, as unexpected as that sounds.”

Wow. That’s already got me thinking … and looking forward to that. But this is not the place for speculation on that front. At least not now.

Moving on, anyone who’s seen PSB live knows just how technologically-reliant they are at times.

Talking to Bruce Foxton last year ahead of From the Jam’s  Setting Sons retrospective tour, he confessed to concerns as to using a click track on one song, let alone trying to sync as much as Willgoose does. Has it ever gone badly wrong?

“Yeah, because it’s bound to, isn’t it. Even in the Space Race they had a 99 per cent non-failure rate, but that left over a million parts that could quite easily go wrong.

Spaced Out: Wrigglewsorth and Willgoose ponder over the big questions

Spaced Out: Wrigglewsorth and Willgoose ponder the big questions

“We’re not quite up to that many, but we’ve certainly got lots of stuff being plugged in and out.

“We had one gig where we had to abandon the last song, one of the worst feelings ever. But we’ve invested in various resistant technologies since, and hopefully it won’t ever happen again. You live and learn.”

Besides, Willgoose and Wriggleworth are clearly a great team, and it’s not just them either.

“We’re the core of the band, but there’s Mr B doing – certainly in the UK, where we’ve got the space and the budget – the set design and live visuals too. And we’re adding a third touring musician, trying to expand the live musical spectacle.”

Incidentally, that will be for the tour with the Kaiser Chiefs as well as the album’s official launch parties at the National Space Centre in Leicester on February 26/27 and subsequent UK tour.”

Furthermore, PSB’s attention to detail includes the cover art, and the new LP comes in a choice of either NASA or USSR front covers, opening to a gatefold centre in which – just as in space – there is no correct way up or down.

“Again, that all comes out of the idea of playing the two sides off against each other. It’s a nice way of getting that across visually.

“Various people at various stages weren’t very happy that there wasn’t going to be a track listing, the logistics of putting the barcode on, and so on.

“But we’ve found a way through it really, and I’m glad with how it’s worked out. And there have got to be some advantages of running your own label, surely.”

Funny you should say that, I get the feeling there will be a few major companies ready to snap your hands off, but guess that wouldn’t appeal.

Live Signal: J Willgoose, Esq. in action

Live Signal: Unlikely guitar hero J Willgoose, Esq. in action

“I find it hard to see how we would fit in. It would have to be a very good sales pitch, and I’m not sure we’re quite doing our bit to go the other way.

“But hopefully with this album we’ll convince a few people we’re not quite such a flash in the pan and one-album wonder.”

So did PSB get to see much of the bigger bands they’ve supported so far?

“The Rolling Stones were in and out within about five minutes. The limos arrive and they go straight off. Fair enough though. They’ve been around so long and clearly get bored of the hanging around and people telling them how wonderful they are.

“We didn’t meet New Order either. We were straight off to another gig so couldn’t wait around and say ‘thanks for having us’.

“With the Manics, we were on the road with them for quite a long period. Again, you don’t want to over-stay your welcome, so try and keep a respectful distance, but we got on well and they were lovely chaps.”

Then there’s the choir and the guest vocalists on the album too. Have you been aware of Sussex dream-folk duo Smoke Fairies for some time?

“Definitely. I remember hearing them on Marc Riley’s show doing various sessions. Just through listening to 6Music, as I tend to when I’m around home.”

As a radio station, they’ve been very supportive of you.

Beamed Up: Pubic Service Broadcasting, the live spectacle

Beamed Up: Pubic Service Broadcasting’s dynamic duo, a live spectacle

“They have. I think it helps that we’re a bit different and they get a lot of listener response. Radio should always be about getting people engaged and responding, and we’re lucky that people do that with us.”

I gather you weren’t so sure at first as to the respectful connotations regarding the track Fire in the Cockpit. But in the end, you felt it would have been more disrespectful not to include those parts of the story.

“Yes, it was quite illuminating reading the astronauts’ accounts. They were a very pragmatic bunch and as much as they were devastated that their friends and close colleagues died in an awful way, they recognised it saved more lives than it cost in the end.

“It was a terrible tragedy but such a big part of the Space Race, and to leave that out just felt wrong and under-playing it all.”

The Other Side is another standout, on the scale of the first album’s Lit Up, and seems to sum up in less than six and a half minutes an amazing moment in history – the first NASA voyage around the dark side of the moon.

It’s one of those moments where you kind of know where it’s going, but you’re still there on the edge of the seat, for a couple of minutes transported into that Houston control room.

“I think so much of that is about the tension in his voice in the control room, and the conflict in him that you can hear him trying so hard to disguise.

“Although he talks about there being such a great tension in the air, he’s obviously trying to be the omnipotent voice of narration.

“The moment that really gets me is when they do re-establish contact, and you hear a little cheer in the background.

“It is similar to Lit Up in structure though, so I don’t think we’ll be able to play both live in the same set. But I was very happy with how that turned out.”

Suits You: PSB's new stage costumes

Suits You: Public Service Broadcasting show off their new stage costumes

Yet for all that poignancy, Willgoose has said before that PSB should ultimately be about putting smiles on faces. And illustrating that nicely, there’s the sheer joy of the Apollo 11 moon landing speed trial of Go!

“Again, with Apollo 8, the Genesis reading would be better known, but it was about trying to avoid the most famous aspects. I remember listening to those call-outs and thinking, ‘Hang on a minute!’ You can tell the story in terms of descent, landing and so on.

“Essentially, it’s superficially mundane, I suppose. They land on the moon and you just have an engineer saying, ‘We have shut down’. But I find all that so exciting, with teams of highly-skilled people working very hard to realise something so special.”

We saw all that again late last year with the euphoria for the Rosetta mission from the European Space Agency team after the Philae lander touched down, on a comet a mere four billion miles away. And then there was the confirmation early this year that Beagle 2 had in fact landed on Mars after all, 12 years after vanishing.

“Yes, it’s all coming back to the surface actually, which I’d like to say this release was planned to time with.”

I don’t doubt that. This is after all a band in touch with technological advances.  There’s no ‘one small step’ media soundbite though, true to form.

download (1)I have to say I was worried when I heard they were taking on Night Train for the last album though. That 1936 GPO Film Unit classic, with its famous WH Auden poem, is almost sacred ground. But again they found a way around it.

“Yes, it’s a risk taking on something quite well known. With most of our stuff we’re trying to bring material which isn’t so well known widely, and Night Mail is one of those films people are aware of, and the poem at the end is a big bit of that.

“I didn’t want to stay away from that piece entirely, but it fit the out-tro so well and gave it the rhythm. We ended up recreating our own rhythm of a train and I think that came out alright.”

It certainly did come out alright, as this master of understatement puts it. But I reckon there might well be a bigger reaction to The Race for Space when it finally sees the light of day.

Summing up, it’s been a busy five and a half years for the band. And I finished by asking just how many showed up for Willgoose’s one-man Public Service Broadcasting debut at a pub in Tooting, south London, that night in August 2009?

“Quite a few, because it was free! I didn’t look out until the second-last song, glanced up, saw the room was fairly full, panicked, and looked straight back down again!”

Only you’re not by definition an exhibitionist, are you?

file6“No, and I don’t really want to start prancing around down the front with a guitar. People quite like that, the way we don’t try to be anything we’re not.

“They appreciate the dry wit. I don’t think it would work if we were leaping around.”

For more details about the new album, past releases, and dates on the forthcoming UK tour, head to www.PublicServiceBroadcasting.net.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on February 12th, 2015.

And for the writewyattuk verdict on The Race for Space, head here.

Posted in Books Films & TV, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Evergreen Bunnyman – in conversation with Will Sergeant

Meteorites' Impact: Will Sergeant, far right, and Ian McCulloch, centre/front, with the current Bunnymen line-up

Meteorites’ Impact: Will Sergeant, far right, and Ian McCulloch, centre/front, with the current Bunnymen line-up

Some 36 years after Echo and The Bunnymen’s legendary live debut at Liverpool’s cult club Eric’s, they’re still very much with us.

The band have 12 albums behind them and are starting on a 13th, and this month play dates in Newcastle, Birmingham, Belfast and Dublin before a home city return for a February 20 show at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

The original drum machine disputed to have suggested the name has long gone, drummer Pete De Freitas died in a motorbike accident more than a quarter of a century ago, and bass player Les Pattinson is now in Australia.

Singer Ian McCulloch and lead guitarist Will Sergeant resolutely remain on board though, with the latter – due to Mac’s five-year absence from 1989 – the only constant member.

And for all the up and downs over the years, when I caught up with Will this week, the 56-year-old came over as nothing less than grounded, level-headed and without ego.

Some of the darker moments between band-mates and rival groups from that post-punk Liverpool scene are well chronicled. But there’s obviously plenty of love too.

For all those world travels with his music and artwork, Will’s not strayed far from his Melling roots either, telling me proudly he’s a ‘Lancashire lad – born and bred’.

He’s based in Scarisbrick these days, with a home studio set-up, while Mac lives ‘just across town, around Woolton way.’

You probably know the rough story, but the band formed in Liverpool in 1978 and were responsible for some of the late 20th century’s most celebrated singles and albums.

As mentioned in my recent interview with Julian Cope, I only recently revisited those years courtesy of the legendary lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes’ Head On memoirs, recalling his years on that Liverpool punk and post-punk scene from 1976-82.

Early Days: The seminal and youthful Echo and the Bunnymen line-up, with Will, left, sporting his mighty fringe

Early Days: The seminal and youthful Echo and The Bunnymen line-up, with Will, left, sporting his mighty fringe

Will and Mac obviously played key parts in all that, Will’s first mention coming in early 1978 as Julian recalls how – along with Mac and Paul Simpson – they first heard game-changing Pere Ubu album, The Modern Dance.

At that stage, it seems that Will and Simmo were Industrial/Domestic, described by Julian as ‘a noise group with two guitars, through echo units’, adding, ‘We joined up the two groups one time at Will’s house and recorded a version of Satisfaction and the Big in Japan theme tune. Will played way off key all the time. It sounded great, but I thought he was so weird that I couldn’t tell if it was intentional.’

Simmo later moved over to the Teardrop Explodes faction, with Mac and Will soon playing together, Les Pattinson then joining them.

There are many fly-on-the-wall moments in music history for me, and one involves a trip to Eric’s for the night in mid-November ’78 that the fledgling Echo and The Bunnymen opened for The Teardrop Explodes, both bands’ first outing.

That proved to be a catalyst for both groups, let alone Pete Wylie in the wings, and Will returns to Julian’s story a few more times from there, not least when his band stole a march with the release of their debut album, Crocodiles, in the summer of 1980.

That album included some great moments, including the first of many great Bunnymen singles, Rescue, by which time drummer Pete de Freitas was on board. And in time, they were rightly lauded as an album band too, follow-up Heaven Up Here (1981) then Porcupine (1983) and Ocean Rain (1984) ensuring their elevation to the big time and plenty of acclaim.

This is not the place for that full history, but I will mention a triumphant return in 1997 with Evergreen after that initial termand signpost many less-trumpeted but similarly worthy cuts since.

And there certainly remains a deep love for The Bunnymen all over the world, although it’s clearly not been an easy ride.

The band’s latest LP, last June’s splendid Meteorites – their first in five years – showcases an outfit still on fine form, featuring 10 new McCulloch songs.

It’s unmistakably The Bunnymen, with several stand-outs, and should appeal to a wider audience, not least a few Elbow fans I reckon. So is Will slightly peeved that it hasn’t inspired huge sales yet?

Echo-The-Bunnymen“No. That’s finished all that stuff. We’re not in that world anymore. People aren’t that interested. There are too many other things to spend your cash on.”

Didn’t you go down the ‘pledge’ route with the latest album?

“Yeah, but I didn’t have a right lot to do with that. The management dealt with all that, rather than me and Mac.

“I’ve done my own solo projects though, and quite like it, because it puts the power back in your hands.

“You can decide what you’re going to put out, without pressure from anyone but yourself.

“We’ve since parted company with that management though, and now have part of our old management, who seem to know us a bit better.”

Even when The Bunnymen had the big company backing, they retained an indie spirit, not least thinking back to Will’s 1978 self-produced Weird as Fish.

“That’s exactly it. I never wanted to be just some lackey for a record company. That’s never going to work with me.

“I’m too much of a control freak. That’s where the tension’s been with Mac. He’s a control freak too.”

You’ve always had musical outlets, including Glide and Poltergeist (also featuring Les Pattinson).

“I’d say the Poltergeist album was a good one, considering we did it for buttons and recorded it at my house, on a computer and with a few bits of drums in a studio.

“It was done pretty cheap, but I think that’s the way forward. You don’t need these big studios anymore. It’s a whole different vibe.”

Do you get offers for soundtrack work?

“No. Never. Have you got any?”

Guitar Icon: Will Sergeant  in early live action with The Bunnymen

Guitar Icon: Will Sergeant in early live action with The Bunnymen

Afraid not. That surprises me that he’s not approached more often though.

“I got offered a couple of adverts once, but never saw the ad at the end of it. I think it was for whisky. In the end they used Fanfare for the Common Man instead.

“You can spend hours and hours and submit something, and they might not like it. But I think I’m perfect for that sort of stuff.”

Some of those bigger studio experiences have been good for Will though, not least The Bunnymen’s work in South Wales at Rockfield Studios, again with some of the odder moments chronicles in Head On.

“I loved it there. It was probably the happiest time of my life, until all the usual marriage, kids and the rest of that.

“We’d never really experienced that before. We were just scumbags from Liverpool, but then all of a sudden treated by nice people.

“You’d go to the fridge and it would be stocked full of grub, rather than getting by on half a tin of beans. It was just brilliant.

“Ultimately, you pay for everything, but we didn’t really think of that at the time.”

I get the impression from Julian’s book that Will’s first band forays into a recording career were slightly frustrated by interference from the likes of Dave Balfe, the Zoo Records associate of Bill Drummond, who in later years signed Blur (and was the subject of their first No.1, Country House). So what did Will make of Julian’s memoirs?

“I’ve never read them, and believe that book’s hard to get hold of now. I’m not a big reader though. It’s just time. I’d rather have a record on, or watch a film or some TV. I can’t concentrate – there’s always 20 things going on in my head.”

I certainly get the impression Julian was a prolific diary-writer, otherwise he might not have remembered quite as much about those days.

“Well – remembered, or just made some of it up! I know the story about the camouflage netting was a lot of bollocks – totally.

“That was me and Les. We came out of our hotel room one morning, both wearing army pants, and between the two of us from there started conspiring to make it a bit more of a uniform.

“They had us down as a band with no image, almost, so we thought we’d make a strong image, and the camou netting was just a development of that. Julian’s version is just nonsense.”

Home Work: Will lets loose at Liverpool Royal Court Theatre

Home Work: Will lets loose at Liverpool Royal Court Theatre

Was it good to be back with Les (who left The Bunnymen in 1997) for the Poltergeist project?

“It was, but he‘s moved to Australia now. I did say when he left I’ll get someone else in and carry on though.

“I think he thought it might be massive, but no one really noticed, and we’re not really flavour of the month anymore.

“There are a few diehard fans, mind. But it’s only weird instrumental stuff – it’s hardly Top of the Pops material.”

When that album came out, Will said it gave him free rein rather than just be a session player for Mac in The Bunnymen. So what changed?

“I think it was getting shot of that management. They saw Mac as the only one that mattered as far as I could tell. They’d hardly get in touch with me.

“But we’ve since met and started writing together, and it’s been alright. That’s all I want really – to be in my own band. That’s not really a lot to ask, is it?”

Sorry to remind you, but at your advancing age, do you still like to turn up the amps and let rip, or are you more mellow these days?

“Yeah, and I’ve just been blasting out some music this morning! I won’t tell you what though – it might put you off.”

You can’t leave me dangling there, Will. Come on, spill the beans!

Snow Way: Echo and the Bunnymen take to the cold cabinets of Iceland for the Porcupine promo shoot

Snow Way: Echo and the Bunnymen take to the cold cabinets of Iceland for the Porcupine promo shoot

“Mmm … it was Hergest Ridge by Mike Oldfield actually!”

We’ll, I could have been guessing a long while before I came up with that.

“Well, I loved Tubular Bells when it came out, and all of those bands from that era get slagged off, but I still love Yes, E.L.P. and all that.

“It’s the music of my childhood, y’know and I revisit all that stuff all the time.”

So what did Will first see and hear that made him think he wanted to pick up a guitar?

“Well, as soon as you’re into music, you want to play guitar, but you just think that’s for posh kids who go to posh schools and have lessons.

“You dream of being Jimmy Page or whoever, but think that’s for other people – not for you.

“It was punk that fired all that. You realised you didn’t have to be a Julian Bream style player.

“Then there were the likes of Brian Eno, just having a few knobs to twiddle and a tape recorder. You thought, ‘I can do that!’

“I bought my first tape recorder from the Freemans catalogue when I was around 15. I had a paper round, so would have been paying for it from that.

Slats Entertainment: Will Sergeant in a publicity shot for an art exhibition

Slats Entertainment: The bearded Will Sergeant in a publicity shot for an art exhibition

“Then I had a Saturday job in catering, one that became full time. That was in Liverpool and led me to find Eric’s really.”

Will’s day-job back then – as a commis chef in a department store in the city – overlapped with his time in The Bunnymen, just as his band, Pete Wylie’s Wah! line-up that particular month, and The Teardrop Explodes were finding their feet.

“When the rush died off at around two in the afternoon, I’d wander around in my lunch-hour and go to record shops, saw these posters, and came across Eric’s. I thought that sounded interesting, and started going on my own.”

The rest is of course history. But what amazes me now, looking back, was how short a spell of time it was between The Beatles and the Merseybeat movement then punk and new wave.

“I know. I find it amazing that I bought my first Velvet Underground record when I was around 13, a compilation. That would have been 1971, so was only around four years later, but to us kids those four years were a lifetime.

“Now that period of time is nothing to us. It’s not fair – it should be the other way round.”

So, getting back up to date, has Will learned better how to co-exist with Mac these days?

“Yeah, but we never had any punch-ups or anything like that – just cold silences and moods and all that nonsense.”

And there’s clearly that creative spark when they get together.

“Yeah, and at the end of the day – I like him, and he’s funny. Things can be difficult, but you just get through it.”

The Works: Will proudly exhibits his artwork in a welcome sideline from his musical career

The Works: Will proudly exhibits his artwork in a welcome sideline from his musical career

Outside of The Bunnymen and his side-projects, Will has made a name for himself through his art, with successful exhibitions in Liverpool and Los Angeles, and fine examples of his work on the band’s website.

Was art always important to you, or is that more a recent release from the music side?

“I’ve always been into art, and loved the lessons at school. Our art teacher was a bit of a nobhead but …”

Do you think that’s what stopped you going down that line and off to art school?

“Yeah. They were different days.”

But perhaps it wasn’t meant to be at that stage, and instead he rose to fame with The Bunnymen.

Along the way, the band worked with some big names in the studios too, something that clearly has helped Will learn his craft. I’m thinking of people like Hugh Jones at Rockfield …

“Yeah, I loved working with Hugh …”

Then there was studio engineer Geoff Emerick, best known for his work with The Beatles …

“He was great …”

itemAnd way back there was fellow Liverpudlian and The Lightning Seeds mastermind Ian Broudie too …

“I’d like to get back to working with Ian. We see him all the time, with him being back in Liverpool. He’s one of our oldest mates.”

Meteorites saw the band work with another feted producer, former Killing Joke guitarist Youth, best known for work with Paul McCartney’s The Fireman project, Embrace, U2 and The Verve perhaps. What made you choose him?

“That was through the same management. I went down to his house for about two days, did a bit of guitar, came home, and did the rest of it here.

“I’ve got pretty much the same set-up that he’s got though. So what was the point?”

I remember hearing how on Crowded House’s Together Alone he loved to get the band in the right zone with a little primal screaming in the mornings.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t there in the morning! I wasn’t that impressed to be honest.”

I’m guessing it’s going to be different this time.

“Well yeah, the way it’s going at the minute.”

Mac’s sister jokingly asked once when Will was going to learn to play the other 11 strings on his 12-string guitar. How does he rate his playing these days?

“I don’t … I just don’t.”

You certainly don’t seem to get precious about all this.

“No, it’s just a tool isn’t it. It’s like saying to a plumber, ‘How do you rate your spanner work?’ It’s just a spanner!

55629“I like the look of guitars more. Then I just experiment and mess around. I don’t know what I’m doing half of the time.

“It’s not like I’m dialling in sounds I know. I’m just flicking through, trying to find something that sounds good. It’s just instinctive.”

Getting back to those old adversaries from your formative days in Liverpool, does Will keep in touch with the other member of the feted Crucial Three alongside Mac and The Teardrop Explodes’ Julian Cope – Pete Wylie?

“I see him in town now and then. I get on with Pete, and when we meet, we’ll have a drink.

”There’s still a few of us around. There’s also Paul Simpson (The Teardrop Explodes), then Eddie Lundon (China Crisis), and the lads from The Farm …

“Everyone gets on these days, after all that weird stuff from the ’80s. Back then, you were more likely to cross the road so you didn’t have to look at Peter Coyle out of The Lotus Eaters. That’s all gone. Everyone’s grown up.”

And I see Pete Wylie’s going down the Pledge Music line music himself now, working on the superbly-titled Pete Sounds album.

“Is he? Well, record companies can’t see any money in it, so for something like us it makes sense. We are on a proper label in America though, through Universal.”

After all these years, is there a Bunnymen album or track you feel has been overlooked and deserves far better attention?

“Erm … I like Heads will Roll (from 1983’s Porcupine) …. Angels and Devils (from 1984’s Ocean Rain)… There’s loads, and a lot more I like than I don’t like.”

As an album, I love Evergreen.

“By Barbara Streisand?”

bunnymen evergreenOf course! But I prefer The Bunnymen’s version. Maybe it just hit me at the right time, and it’s certainly stood the test of time. Was that a good experience making that album?

“Yeah, it was great, having Les back and everything. Siberia (2005) was good too, and Flowers (2001).”

You mentioned Mike Oldfield earlier. From that same era, I was thinking of Jeff Lynne recently re-recording his whole back-catalogue. Is that something you’d consider? Take for example Ocean Rain, rightly held up as a classic. Would you change anything about that, given the chance?

“I don’t listen back to it enough to think about it, but generally with all our records I think I’d make Les’ bass a bit bassier.

“Sometimes they sound a bit thin. But that’s the way he likes to play, so it could pop out and you could hear the lines.

“I remember what’s-his-name out of U2 said to him, “Hey Les, how d’you get your bass to sound so trebly?” And he said, “I turn the treble up.”

What was the last great new album you loved and inspired you?

“I quite like a band called The Soundcarriers, cut from that Broadcast, Stereolab cloth, a little loungey and 60s-ish.

“I like The Black Angels, and recently bought that Jacco Gardner album. I liked the sound of the Temples album and someone told me he did that in a bedroom situation, rather than a big studio.”

So have you got a few songs towards a new Bunnymen album?

“We’ve a couple on the go. We sat down the other week. It’s a case of finding time now, but it’s something we’re looking forward to.”

You’ve a few dates coming, including a home fixture for Liverpool Philharmonic on February 20. Looking forward to that?

“I don’t like playing it, although I love the place. I like going to things there. The last I saw was The Imagined Village folk project, with Martin Carthy and so on.

Room Service: Will Sergeant in Belgium in 2003

Room Service: Will Sergeant in Belgium in 2003

“I love a bit of folk and stuff like The Unthanks, and as a solo guitar player I think Chris Wood is brilliant, with this weird, laconic delivery.

”I also saw Pere Ubu when they did the film soundtrack They Came From Outer Space …. and Harry Hill!”

Not together, I’m guessing. Then again, on reflection, the thought of seeing Harry, Stouffer the Cat and co. covering Non-Alignment Pact would be a site to see.

”But generally I don’t like playing places where the audience is sat down. You feel like you’re entertaining. I prefer it when the band and the audience are one.

“Then you’re part of it, they’re part of it, and you can inspire each other to do things.”

I seem to recall the Royal Court Theatre offered a bit of that from past jaunts there to see the afore-mentioned Crowded House and The Lightning Seeds.

“Yeah, that used to be an amazing gig. But now I believe it’s more a comedy place rather than for bands.”

After these February dates, there’s also the Gigantic all-dayer in late May at Manchester Academy, although clearly Will’s taking each gig as it comes – to amend the sporting cliché – and hadn’t looked that far ahead yet.

Wrapping up, whatever became of the original Echo and The Bunnymen drum machine?

“It got stolen, when we were in The Ministry in Liverpool, the rehearsal place we shared with The Teardrops. I’d painted it fluorescent green.

MI0003515824“There was another, and this was in the days before you could programme them, and that was used on Over the Wall (from 1981’s Heaven Up Here).

“We only used that first one rarely, on Street to Street (the 1979 version of Monkeys on that Liverpool bands compilation) and the first single (The Pictures on My Wall, also 1979).

“We also leant it to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and they used it on their first album (1980) a little. But then it just vanished.”

Finally, name-checking 1997’s Nothing Lasts Forever, ever think when you started with Les and Mac in 1978 you might still be at it 37 years later.

“No. I didn’t think anything of it. I remember an interview with The Beatles where they’d said it would last two years – and they only lasted 10 years in the end.

“I dunno. It’s been a very strange life … considering I’m just some scally who had a paper round.”

For ticket details of Echo and The Bunnymen’s forthcoming UK dates, call 0844 811 0051 or go to their http://www.bunnymen.com/ website, while you can find out more about Will’s artwork at http://www.willsergeant.com/

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt interview/feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on February 5th, 2015. For the online version of the original, head here.

And if you missed the recent writewyattuk interview/feature with Julian Cope, try this link here.

 

 

 

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What the Rambling Railwayman did next – the Geoff Burch story continues

Pompey Bound: A Class 47 diesel-electric emerges from St Catherine's tunnel, Guildford, with a cross-country service from Liverpool to Portsmouth Harbour in the mid-80s, just one of many great shots featured  (Photo: Geoff Burch)

Pompey Bound: A Class 47 diesel-electric emerges from St Catherine’s tunnel, Guildford, with a cross-country Liverpool to Portsmouth Harbour service in the mid-’80s, just one of many great shots featured in Geoff’s latest epic (Photo: Geoff Burch)

Those who have been with me for a while on this blog know it involves a broad church of interests, from comedy and football (two subjects sometimes inter-linked, I admit) to music.

There are other passions highlighted too, including nostalgia for the steam railway era, no doubt heavily influenced by my Dad’s formative years as a loco fireman.

Bob Wyatt moved on in his working life after a few happy years scratching a living ‘on the shovel’, but never lost his childhood love of steam and all things railways.

Meanwhile, others stuck with that world as a career option long after the diesels and electrics took over, including one of Dad’s workmates at the Guildford loco depot.

Geoff Burch was only just getting started when Bob jacked it in to become a postman, but kept at it, and 30 years later had progressed from loco cleaner to fireman then secondman and driver, before taking on training duties.

And while Geoff left the industry after John Major’s 1993 Railway Act led to a major overhaul – barely 25 years after Dr Beeching’s cuts proved fatal to much of the old network – he was back a few years later to pass on his expertise again.

So while my Dad’s passion for railways in time became a spare-time hobby (maybe obsession’s a better word), Geoff devoted his working hours to that noble profession too. And even when Geoff retired in 2009, he kept his hand in, chronicling his own journey from those initial days in my old hometown onwards.

The first part of that story, his 2011 publishing debut The Ramblings of a Railwayman, covered Geoff’s steam days from April 1961 to July 1967, while part two, Further Ramblings of Railwaymen (2012) looked in more depth at some of the stories and characters who worked at his side.

If you missed this blog’s subsequent review, there’s a link here. It’s fair to say I recommended both though, and now Geoff’s back in print with another epic tome, this time covering the next 40-plus years – in the process shedding light on an often-neglected chapter in our recent social history.

Rambling Railwayman’s Recollections – Secondman, Driver and Instructor Days 1967-2009 is another heavyweight success in its field – a large format 300-plus page hardback. I’d add ‘A4 size’, but it’s not quite the size of one of Gresley’s much-loved Pacific locos.

Write Idea: The author takes a breather between signing copies of his latest epic at Guildford Museum in November, 2014 (Photo: Geoff Burch)

Write Lines: The author takes a breather between signing copies of his latest epic at Guildford Museum (Photo: Geoff Burch)

While the cover price is a formidable £25, that makes sense when you pick up this colossal tome and look at some of the evocative photography inside. It’s certainly not easy to read propped up in bed last thing at night, but I’m glad he’s taken the trouble.

Geoff, a youthful 68, was a fireman on one of the last working steam locos out of Guildford in the summer of ’67 – barely four months before my arrival at the nearby maternity home. And I reckon I can gauge (sorry) a few of my own milestone moments over the next 45-plus years while following his career journey.

The day after that emotional steam farewell, Geoff switched to nearby Woking’s mixed traction depot as a secondman, having already put in the hours to get to grips with the newer technology.

After successfully passing his rules, regs and various exams over that next couple of years he became a passed secondman, then successfully applied for a driver vacancy at Effingham Junction in late 1972 – by which time I was completing my first full school term.

Barely a year later, he was back at Woking, remaining at the Surrey town’s mixed traction depot until 1987, when he made his first foray into instructing at Waterloo’s operations training centre, something that became permanent in late ’88.

I didn’t know him then – despite the fact that somewhere down the line we’re loosely related on my Nan’s side of the family. But Geoff’s duties will have regularly seen him in contact with my Dad, at that time on alternate-week shifts loading mail bags onto trains at Guildford. What’s more, I was finding my own feet in the working world then, financing a hectic social life, based within a mile of the station, just up the line.

A month later, when I started five years of weekend commutes between Surrey and Lancashire, brandishing my young person’s railcard, Geoff reached senior instructor status, a post he held until 1994 – the year I finally moved to the North-West.

Then came that Tory Government BR business split and privatisation, Geoff taking voluntary redundancy after a railway career spanning 33 years, more or less the same period of time my Dad spent in his post-railway working days as a postie.

Clearly he wasn’t ready for the scrapheap though, and ever eager to learn new skills he put his newly-cultivated computer skills to use with Surrey Police, staying for 11 years in various training roles.

He never lost touch with his old railway colleagues though, and in 2004 rejoined the industry as an operations trainer at South West Trains’ Basingstoke base, with more posts following before Geoff finally ended his railway career in early 2009.

Right Lines: Four types of motive power at Guildford in 1968, early on in Geoff's post-steam career (Photo: John Scrace)

Platform Roots: Four types of motive power at Guildford in 1968, early on in Geoff’s post-steam career (Photo: John Scrace)

It was only at that point – just when I was finding my way into self-employment – that he threw himself heart and soul into writing and talking about his busy working life, bravely carving out a new career of sorts.

I have to say I didn’t think his latest work was ever as likely to interest me as its predecessors. The diesels and electrics just didn’t have the nostalgic power those steam locos had. But as Eurostar operations standards manager Ian Verrinder puts it in his foreword, he ‘always felt there was another important chapter to be written’ so pestered Geoff to write it, and ‘the array of previously-unpublished photographs alone should make the book a must-have’.

And as Ian adds, ‘It is the description of a time that’s now passed which will endear it to railwaymen and enthusiasts alike. The post-steam period is often neglected in favour of the more aesthetically-pleasing era that preceded it. Personally, I’m glad Geoff has produced a book that is able to redress this imbalance’.

I quite agree with that sentiment, and I was soon won over. That’s not to say it’s all to my taste, and at times Geoff’s latest epic is clearly aimed at the real railway buffs and might even be mistaken for a training manual. But for all the generations that grew up (or arguably didn’t) wanting to be train drivers, there’s an opportunity here to live your fantasies through osmosis.

I’d have preferred to have heard more about the man behind the controls and manuals – Geoff the family man, Geoff the amateur photographer and Geoff the motorbike nut and music lover. In fact, it’s that latter link that drew us together, with Geoff a fellow regular at Ben’s Collectors Records in Guildford, where both of us have been known to talk railways with the boss, Ben Darnton – whose father Leigh is among his photographic contributors.

But there’s no denying that the more technology-heavy sections are key to our railway heritage and industrial history. And the weight of responsibility Geoff and his workmates carried with regards to passenger and public safety often leaves me astounded.

Here and there, he tells us of accidents, incidents and near-misses that happened on his watch or those of his colleagues. What went wrong and what thankfully didn’t makes you realise how important it is to have such professionals involved, dedicated to ensuring this industry continues to operate safely.

Like the last two books, it’s the vignettes of everyday life at the depots and out on the track that make for the best reading, bolstered by Geoff’s choice of wonderfully-evocative images and brief biogs of colleagues and the engines they handled.

Ian Verrinder tells us he joined the industry in ‘the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Falkland Islands war and national strikes’, finding an industry ‘still coming to terms with the end of steam’, where the ‘steam men tolerated the diesel age but their memories were tied to coal and water’.

But he also remembers discussions with men without academic qualifications who ‘had more about them than many of the managers I subsequently met later in my career’. And he remembered how Geoff, 18 years his senior, would ‘treat the younger secondmen with friendliness’.

Night Train: A Class 74 electro-diesel stands at Woking in the early hours of December 3, 1977 (Photo: David Hayes)

Night Train: A Class 74 electro-diesel stands at Woking in the early hours of December 3, 1977 (Photo: David Hayes)

Geoff too mentions the animosity between some of the original ‘motormen’ and the mixed traction men, not least because of pay differentials. But despite all the internal politics, he was clearly eager to successfully serve his apprenticeship.

He talks of his first day at Woking, travelling in from Guildford on his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorbike, already with a few hours behind him as a secondman between steam firing duties.

Between freight, ballast and stone turns across London and the South-East down to Salisbury, the South Coast and back, he clearly put in the hard graft too, keeping a diary of his notable experiences en route.

Along the way, he traded up his 35mm Ilford Sportsman camera to a Practica 1B SLR with a 50mm 2.8 Tessar lens and various attachments, even taking to the air for his hobby, the results on show here including a superb aerial shot of the old Guildford loco depot.

And it’s clear from his photographic stock – from various sources and in colour as well as black and white – just how many types of motive power needed mastering.

We get a flavour of how much associated technical gadgetry he had to get his head around too – from complicated electric/diesel controllers to short-circuiting bars, switch poles and wooden paddles for emergencies, through to an array of cab controls and switches.

Then there are the scribbled crib-notes and drawings from his notebooks, detailing workings of high voltage conductor rail supplies and fuse configurations, again leaving this reader in no doubt as to the gravity of the task.

You can factor into that the difficulties associated with learning routes and overcoming signalling, wiring and braking conundrums as Geoff switched between depots, turns and routes. He also tells first-hand of occasional driver errors and accidents – sometimes down to the operator, sometimes down to the equipment, engineering works and deviations, and sometimes through passengers crossing live rails. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

But Geoff was clearly born for the job, and in May 1969 was handed his EP key (electro-pneumatic, for us heathens) – marking the passing of his driving exams. Then there were the commendations and awards for swift reactions in such emergencies too.

Much changed in Geoff’s life en route, and we see his look change towards the era of the droopy moustache and beyond, our rambling railwayman trading up to a mighty Norton Commando 750cc before finally succumbing to four wheels, shelling out on a classy teal blue MGB GT in the mid-’70s.

Boat Train: A Class 74 electro-diesel leaves Southampton's old docks bound for Waterloo in May 1975, with the P&O's Oriana in the background (Photo: George Woods)

Boat Train: A Class 74 electro-diesel leaves Southampton’s old docks bound for Waterloo in May 1975, with the P&O’s Oriana in the background (Photo: George Woods)

There are light and dramatic moments recounted, like the tale of the indignant woman who waved her brolly at him when he forgot to stop at Hersham, or the secret deal with a colleague to get a couple of hours off that rebounded on him – an act of bravery and good practise to avoid a potential disaster overlooked through his honesty, leading to disciplinary punishment instead.

Then there was the time Geoff decided to avoid a cold, lonely night on Basingstoke station before a 5.30am ballast shift, catching a few more hours’ kip before catching the 4.30am paper train from Woking. That rebounded on him when the train was diverted, Geoff forced to decamp at Farncombe and walk back to Guildford, having to explain himself to his guv’nor.

He tells the stories in far better detail of course, and many more are shared too, perfectly accompanied by that vast stock of great images that take you back to the various scenes.

Geoff continued to take on more and more diverse roles as he got to know his way around the various classes – from 33/2 to 47s and 50s, 73s, and 4VEPs, to name but a few. And his driving skills and knowledge clearly made an impression on the training staff as he was invited to join them.

He went on to travel all over the region to instruct – even on the old Tube stock on the Isle of Wight – on his way to managing a team of six trainers, ‘a dream I would have never thought possible when I joined the railway as a 15-year-old engine cleaner at Guildford 30 years earlier’.

Times were changing, however, and by early 1994 his face didn’t seem to fit with some of the bosses. He was soon officially out of a job, saying no to a sideways move and instead taking his newly-honed computer skills to help deliver IT courses with Surrey Police.

But Geoff kept his ear to the ground when it came to the railways, even realising a fresh dream when he got to ride in the cab on a Eurostar return run from Waterloo to Paris, following that the next year with a Brussels trip.

A decade after leaving, he returned to his beloved industry, joining SWT at Basingstoke as a trainer in late 2005, carrying on in various roles across the region until early 2009, when a further economic slump and restructure saw his job cease to exist – ruling out a possible return to a five-day week role in favour of early retirement.

But that proved to be the catalyst for Geoff to embark on his next great adventure – his subsequent writing sideline. And consequently, this distinguished and committed railwayman – and one of life’s good guys, I might add – has documented through first-hand experience over these past six years a key part of a story that deserves to be told – from the steam era onwards.

JacketSPINEFrontRambling Railwayman’s Recollections – Secondman, Driver and Instructor Days 1967-2009 by Geoff Burch is priced £25 plus £5 p&p and available from the author’s website here.

Geoff’s first book has completely sold out and is now only available in e-book format, but follow-up Further Ramblings of Railwaymen is still available in hardback and e-book format. To order either, and for details of Geoff’s forthcoming talks and presentations and much more, follow the same link.

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