The National’s Bryce Dessner: 10 years of the MusicNow festival

MusicNow-compilationPerhaps all rock stars, at some time, get the urge to bring the artists and the musicians they love together in one place and present them to the public. Some are happy to curate established events and use them as kind of living mixtape of favourites. Others – like Bryce Dessner, the guitarist with the US rock band The National – have a larger, longer-term vision which results in the establishment of a completely new festival. Dessner began satisfying his own personal urge ten years ago this month after holding a series of discussions with Murray Sinclaire, an arts benefactor and businessman in his home town of Cincinnati. Those discussions led to the creation of the MusicNow festival.

“It really just started as a conversation about honouring our hometown and the long tradition of great music that we have in Cincinnati,” Dessner says. “Murray acted as a sounding board to my ideas on bringing a really intimate, arts-driven, homemade feeling festival to the city which would combine Cincinnati’s classical traditions with the amazing indie, punk and rock scene that has existed here for a long time. I wanted it to be the antithesis of the huge commercial rock festivals we have here, like Lollapalooza – which are great but are a certain kind of experience, and for MusicNow to act as a kind of alternative space for artists to really develop new work and new collaborations.”

As MusicNow took shape, Dessner held on to an unshakeable tenet at the core of his vision for the festival: artists would be provided with an environment in which they could collaborate and experiment without the pressure they may get from their own big tours and shows. Over the festival’s decade of life, this tenet has provided the basis for eclectic and exclusive performances from artists such as influential American composer Philip Glass, Grammy Award-winning Tuareg troupe Tinariwen, Big Apple troubadour Sharon Van Etten and Burmese musician Kyaw Kyaw Naing.

“MusicNow has always fostered works in progress and given artists the confidence to take risks,” Dessner says. “By keeping it small, using volunteers, creating a family vibe… We’ve built something of a refuge for creativity here. You can almost see the weight fall off the shoulders of some artists who may be expected to perform a certain way on the commercial circuit but who feel free to present radically different works here or allow work to develop organically in front of a live audience.”

As with any experiment, reactions cannot always be predicted and some audiences attending the early days of the festival got more than they bargained for from artists such as Detroit balladeer Sufjan Stevens who arrived with a certain reputation but immediately used MusicNow’s climate to play with perceptions.

“There was always a risk at the start that the audiences could be confused by some performances, especially as we offered them only the most oblique hints of what might happen when they arrive at the show,” says Dessner. “But this became part of the festival’s identity over time. You may think you know Bon Iver but you may not expect him to workshop and perform a whole new album in front of you as he did in 2010. You may know composers David Lang and Nico Muhly but you probably never expected them to unveil world premieres here alongside works by Krzysztof Pendereck, the Polish master, and Alexander Scriabin. But they did, without fanfare, last year. That potential for unexpected magic is now what draws people to MusicNow.”

“I’ve played a bunch of times myself, both as a collaborator and as a solo artist,” says contemporary classical music composer Muhly. “Each time, I have presented things that were not just new to Cincinnati, but new to me: pieces with the ink still drying or pieces in desperate need of a set of ears other than my own.”

music-bryce-dessnerBryce Dessner has high hopes of more magical moments from this year’s anniversary roll call. Sufjan Stevens returns to the festival for a third time, along with Will Butler from Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire, Seattle-based solo artist Perfume Genius and Brooklyn alt-country rockers The Lone Bellow. Dessner’s band The National will also perform, collaborating with the full Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to the alternative music talent on show, Dessner has commissioned works from last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music winner Caroline Shaw and Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center will also play host to Ragner Kjartansson’s film, ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, documenting The National’s MoMA PS1 performance in which they played their song ‘Sorrow’ for six hours straight in front of a live audience, as part of the festival.

Once this ten-year anniversary has passed, Dessner admits that he may finally take stock of what the festival he created a decade ago has truly achieved before moving ahead with future programmes – although what direction these will take is anyone’s guess.

“I always saw it as a ten-year thing so I’m not sure what happens next,” says Dessner. “I’m open to ideas. What I do know is that we’ll continue to champion cutting edge, progressive programming and hope that people will continue to be inspired by that.”

MusicNOW Festival. March 11 – 15, 2015

This article first appeared in The Economist.


Tales from the Front Row: Sir Alan Parker on his career in film


alan_parker_bw__fullTales from Down the Front goes Down to the Front Row for a third time to talk to yet another Hollywood legend. This time, Oscar-winning director and Knight of the Realm Sir Alan Parker

SIR ALAN PARKER began his career in the advertising world of the 1960s, working first as a copywriter and then as a director of commercials. He progressed to feature films from the mid-1970s, directing movies such as “Bugsy Malone”, “Midnight Express”, “Fame” and “The Commitments”. But in 2003, he said “Cut!” for the last time. Speaking to Nick Amies at the Brussels International Film Festival, where he appeared as a special guest, Sir Alan looked back at his time in the director’s chair.

You made your last film, “The Life of David Gale”, 11 years ago. Why did you decide to stop after that?

I discovered that I enjoyed not making films. It started as a break and then I discovered I liked my life as it was. I’ve been making movies since I was 24 and I’m now 70. Some directors will keep going and probably die on set, but I won’t be one of those. Making films is an extremely demanding process; as a director you work 14- or 15-hour days, six days a week for about three months and then another two years finishing the film and promoting it. You need the same enthusiasm and energy from start to finish. It’s a young person’s game, in my opinion. I’d much rather go to the pub these days.

Have you not been tempted to make another film in that time?

I had maybe five projects in mind in the early years after “David Gale”, but as time went by I decided that my life was better without making films. I’ve been pretty lucky though. All the projects I developed have been made into films. I’m not one of these people to have scripts knocking about in a drawer. Some ideas never came to fruition, but those which became solid projects got made.

There was talk of you filming a remake of the Marlene Dietrich movie “The Blue Angel” in the 1980s, with Madonna in the lead role. What happened to that?

Diane Keaton was keen to produce the movie, I was enthusiastic about making it and we had Madonna and De Niro pegged for the lead roles, but it just never came to anything. Everyone just lost interest in it.

You worked with Madonna on “Evita” a few years after that. What was that like?

When you make musical films you either have to work with actors who can sing or singers who can act. Somewhere along the way, you have to compromise, let’s put it like that. Madonna sent me a six-page letter detailing why she thought she would be perfect for the role, which must have worked because I eventually cast her. We had originally wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, but she had two young kids and wouldn’t leave Los Angeles.

Music is central to a number of your films. How would you describe your relationship with music, with regard to your film-making?

Music and images have such a strong connection and music can create such dramatic energy in a film. It is always my taste of music which makes it into the film and I have a wide appreciation of music, as you can see in the contrasts between something like “Evita” and “Pink Floyd The Wall”. There are only a few times where others have influenced my choice of music. Nic Cage was driving me mad on the set of “Birdy” by constantly singing “La Bamba”, so when it came to a scene where we needed him to sing I told him to just go with that stupid song he’d been driving me round the bend with.

“Birdy” is one of a number of your films whose ending is opening to interpretation. Is this a conscious use of the device on your part?

I think it’s always good to make your audience work a little. If people leave the cinema debating the ending of the film, then my goal to provoke is achieved—as long as they’re satisfied with the journey they took to get to the end. In the United States, the rule is to never let the audience leave unsatisfied, whereas in European cinema, they just don’t care. If it makes you think, then that’s good. I like open endings because they make film mysterious. And anyway, most directors don’t actually know how to end a film.


You’re appearing at this year’s Brussels International Film Festival. What’s your opinion of the contemporary film scene in Europe?

It’s becoming harder to see good and interesting European films, especially in London where I live, as the United Kingdom is so dominated by films from the United States. I have a nine-year-old son so I have to sit through a lot of big Hollywood special-effects blockbusters and, to be honest, I sleep through most of them. That’s not to say that there are no intelligent films coming out of the States or Europe, it’s just that special and original films are rare. Films are more about recouping costs and generating revenue these days than pushing artistic boundaries.

Would you say that financial constraints are hindering creativity in the film industry?

There’s never enough money. I’ve been asked this same question about funding for the last 25 years and the answer, sadly, remains the same: without cash, European cinema will die. My belief is that we need to foster new talent to keep film alive and to create new and exciting projects which will bring people into cinemas to watch them. Who wants to see the same old director making the same type of film over and over again? But for this, you need money and it’s very hard—especially in today’s climate—to ask for such large sums when you have priorities such as health, social care and education.

This Q&A originally appeared in The Economist

See other Tales from the Front Row | Film:

Fear & Loathing in Hollywood – Terry Gilliam

“Monsters Don’t Scare Me” – John Landis

45th Anniversary Album Review: The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)

al10For many, The Beatles had been omnipresent and all-powerful for most of the mid-60s, but the Fab Four truly hit their peak in 1968, the year after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had inspired a huge cultural and musical shift. That album’s combination of commercial success, critical acclaim and huge counter-cultural impact had elevated the band to previously unimaginable heights for a musical act; their opinions were sought on all manner of topics, their every move was documented, even their fashion choices were deemed worthy of front page news. By the start of 1968, The Beatles were more than a pop band – and the pressure and expectation of being something other than musicians would both inspire one of their greatest albums and ultimately lead to their demise.

Their ninth official album, The Beatles – forever known as The White Album, was recorded at a time of great turmoil within the band and one of global upheaval, revolution and war in the outside world. While The Beatles would be pilloried for not using their global influence to address the issues of the time on The White Album, on a meta-level, the tension and imploding relationships at the heart of the band powered many of the songs that critics would laud as some of the band’s best work.

The White Album is certainly the band’s most eclectic album; one which displays their artistry and range but also lays bare the fraying of the bond and the dilution of the vision. Here was a band at the peak of their powers but at war with itself. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the creative axis, would record in different studios with different engineers; George Harrison, an increasingly frustrated and underused songwriter of no little genius, would frequently let his explosive anger loose, while Ringo Starr became so disillusioned with the in-fighting that he quit the band during the sessions, leaving the others to share drumming duties on a number of tracks before he returned.

Yet despite – or in spite of – this growing animosity which created a singularly diverse collection of songs as each Beatle explored their own possibilities, The White Album is, for the most part, the complete Beatles collection. It is not, of course, a Greatest Hits record but it is a kind of Best Of…, not in the sense that it’s a cherry-picked selection from their back catalogue but it is the ultimate compilation of the styles and genres which inspired The Beatles and which became woven into the band’s musical fabric. That such a sprawling, unprecedented (for 1968) assemblage of tastes can sit so comfortably on one album is testament to that intangible greatness that made The Beatles what they were: four working class lads from Liverpool who went on to rule the world.

The White Album pretty much has it all in terms of style, which is its great strength and a large part of its enduring appeal but also one of the sticks critics have used to beat it with. It ranges from the whimsical (“Rocky Raccoon”) to experimental (“Revolution #9”); from tender (“Blackbird”) to tormented (“Yer Blues”). It takes in 1930s dance-hall music (“Honey Pie”), classical chamber music (“Piggies”) and country (“Don’t Pass Me By”). While it is admirable and impressive that The Beatles could turn their hands to all manner of genres and bend them to their own will with such proficiency, the diversity on show alienated some observers who wanted a more cohesive Beatles album. This was never going to happen with few of the songs being played by the full band and some even recorded solo.

And yet, as each individual member began to explore his own talent in the midst of this discord, some magnificent music is made. Lennon sounds torn and ready to burst out of his skin – and the role of a Beatle – on “Yer Blues” and as a result he produces one of his greatest and most authentic vocals he ever put down as a member of the band, while his acerbic attack on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on “Sexy Sadie” must be the most beautiful character assassination of all time. Elsewhere, Harrison touches the hem of Krishna with the sublime “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a reminder to the band’s central song-writing duo that they weren’t the only ones blessed with genius, and serves up a serious groove on the ridiculously catchy “Savoy Truffle”. McCartney, possibly at his most twee on tracks like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Honey Pie”, gets back to his roots and displays his considerable rock chops on the peerless “Helter Skelter” and balls-out stomp of “Birthday”.

Trying to recommend only a handful of tracks from The White Album is an impossible task considering the strength of the double album’s 30 songs but it would be tragic to skip through “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, “Revolution 1”, “Dear Prudence”, “Glass Onion”… If one would have to skip any track, most people’s favourite for the chop would be densely layered eight-minute-and-thirteen-second sound collage “Revolution 9” which has inspired both awe and derision in equal measure. Its inclusion alone is evidence of the power The Beatles had at the time but also, perhaps, the waning authority of long-time producer George Martin.

The White Album went to number 1 in both the United Kingdom and the United States on its release in November 1968 but received mixed reviews from critics. In the months that followed the album’s release, relationships between the four band members and their inner circle soured further with Ringo Starr later referring to that post-recording period as the start of “months and years of misery” and Paul McCartney describing it as a turning point for the group. During that time, both George Harrison and John Lennon would privately leave the band, only to return after pleas from McCartney and Starr. The band would release a soundtrack to the animated film Yellow Submarine and the studio album Abbey Road in 1969 before their final record, Let it Be, was released in May 1970 – some five months after the official break-up of the band.

The White Album would go on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide and has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.

 This article first appeared on: PULUCHE.COM

Arctic Monkeys – AM (Review)

2013ArcticMonkeys_Am_150713In much the same way that the career of The Beatles can be summed up as pre- and post-Revolver, Arctic Monkeys are now clearly in Sgt. Pepper territory with AM. After the rough-and-ready, double-barrelled salvo of their first two albums which were littered with spiky agit-pop anthems about prostitutes, nightclub bouncers and one-night stands, third album Humbug heralded a huge paradigm shift towards a darker, rockier, more mature sound. It didn’t sit well with everyone, such was the departure from their cheeky-chappy, scallywag roots. After perhaps playing it safe with the intelligent pop of 2011’s Suck It and See, the Monkeys have returned with an album which again confounds with its change in direction but raises the bar to stratospheric levels in terms of ambition and artistry. Injecting hip-hop beats and R&B rhythms into the heavy rock sound they cultivated out in the Californian desert under the tutelage of QOTSA’s Josh Homme on Humbug, AM shows once again that this is a band which views stagnation as the death of creativity. Despite the massive leaps this album takes, it’s still very clearly an Arctic Monkeys record. The acerbic and observational lyrics which mark Alex Turner out as the most intelligent and dexterous lyricist since Morrissey’s heyday with The Smiths are still here on songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “No.1 Party Anthem” but L.A. nights and the cult of celebrity now dominate his source material. Turner somehow avoids coming on like the ex-pat rock god of endless showbiz parties and manages to narrate stories of authentic experience from the surreal, corrupted heart of Tinseltown with that knowing Northern wink in his voice. It proves you can take the boy out of Sheffield but you can’t take Sheffield out of the boy. Musically, they’re a world away from their 2006 debut. This is Arctics 2.0; a band of magpies snatching gems from every genre and not only making them their own but brushing them to a blinding sheen. Songs like “Do I Wanna Know” and “One For The Road” swagger in on beats which invite languid rhymes while “R U Mine” fuzzes with stadium metal guitars and the funky-sexy “Knee Socks” has echoes of disco scattered amongst the falsettos and chugging strings. “Mad Sounds” is almost alt-country in its mellowness and delivery but also nods a well-oiled quiff at the melancholic darkness of the Jesus and Mary Chain. The playing is faultless and tight throughout while the production is crisp and professional yet avoiding the bloated excess which can come from huge success. AM is a brave, flawless move into a league of their own.

Everything the Arctic Monkeys have done before seems to have been building up to this groovy, infectious statement of intent. All the best experiments from their previous albums seem to come together here – and often within the length of one song. The wonderful “Arabella” for instance starts off like one of their standard off-kilter ballads before trowelling on the Homme-inspired crunchy rock guitars and stadium-demolishing drums. AM is a record which is unafraid to wander off into songs which are wildly diverse from one another, giving it the feel of a late-era Fab Four album. And yet, as with the Beatles at their best, this is a cornucopia of styles which still sounds brilliantly cohesive. “Fireside” with its Spanish guitars and soft vocal, is a wholly different beast from the thrilling glam stomp of “I Want it All” and the swaggeringly excellent R&B-tinged “One For The Road”. These in turn have little in common with the brilliant “R U Mine” which is a sultry and devilishly catchy rock workout. What could be a jarring selection of disparate tunes, however, is carried off with aplomb by a band at the height of their powers. Freedom and confidence are wonderful things and Arctic Monkeys have embraced both to great musical effect on AM.

ArcticWhen one considers how dramatically the Arctic Monkeys sound has changed over the last seven years (while still managing to maintain its innate Monkey-ness), it’s very difficult to predict what will happen next. An indication of where they may fly to next will come from the band’s attitude to the AM songs after two years playing them on the road. The band confessed that by the end of the Suck It and See tour they were sick of that set of songs which partially influenced the direction they took on AM.  But what could be the reaction to this? They’ve been spiky pop upstarts, they’ve been hairy rock monsters and now they’re a greased-back groove machine.  It’s anyone’s guess what they’ll come back as next – but this writer for one can’t wait to find out.

First published on:

The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (Review)

This review was published as part of‘s Exemplar series – historical albums which score a perfect 100.


stone_rosesMany bands have burst onto the scene with a debut album which defines their entire career, and many of those albums then go on to define the era in which they were released. The first album from the Stone Roses does both and much more besides. It is an album which perfectly encapsulates the climate of growing up in late 80’s Britain; the messianic self-belief of the chemical generation, the introspective questioning of desperate and disillusioned youth, the pure and simple euphoria of being young, pretty and cool. And yet, while The Stone Roses is undoubtedly the masterpiece of the Madchester period, it is also a timeless classic which sounds as innovative and vital now as it did in 1989. Put it next to any of the classic rock albums of the 60’s or 70’s, or any of those which arrived in its wake in the 90’s and new millennium, and The Stone Roses can confidently rub shoulders with the best while towering over the rest. It manages both to sound both modern and nostalgic, tipping its hat to its influences while also blazing a trail into the unknown. All these things combine to make it an artifact of the zeitgeist. Beyond the depth, the meaning and the legacy, it’s just a fantastic sounding record. Expertly mastered by producer John Leckie, a band of clothes-conscious, mop-haired street urchins are exposed as the consummate musicians they are, something which is often overlooked when talking about the band’s story and legend. And at the heart of it all is a song-writing partnership which began in a childhood sandpit and was forged over a mutual love of The Clash. The Brown-Squire axis has never been stronger than on this record…although who knows what the future might bring.


To retreat from the world and allow The Stone Roses to be your reality for 49 minutes is to indulge yourself in a musical experience filled with rare beauty and genius. From the unearthly echoes, steadily building bass and jangling intro to ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ to the extended, psychedelic abandon of ‘I am the Resurrection’s ecstatic finale, it is a collection of songs which scales impossible heights with every passing spine-tingling, skin-prickling second. Just when you think you may have heard the best song ever, another arrives to steal the crown.

The opening track rattles into existence on the echoes of distant dirty train tracks and guided warily through sinister, echoing alleyways by Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield’s slowly building bass. John Squire’s guitar offers the first chinks of light, sending sparks over the brooding intro before taking the lead with a muscular, chiming riff. Ian Brown’s eerie, breathy vocals start swirling in the mix, offering cryptic hints at Luciferian deals: “I don’t need to sell my soul, he’s already in me…I wanna be adored…” It’s a stirring, sinister opener with hints of the band’s early days as a Goth outfit. ‘She Bangs the Drums’ then fully dispels any gloom. Drummer Alan ‘Reni’ Wren opens with a skittering Shaft-esque cymbal shuffle before Mani’s playful hook drags us in. Squire then crashes through with a sunburst power chord and suddenly it’s a better day. Ian Brown then delivers the killer blow: “Kiss me where the sun don’t shine…the past was yours but the future’s mine…” And with that, The Stone Roses became champions of the trampled youth. With the kids entranced, these Pied Pipers then conjure the mesmeric ‘Waterfall’. Driven by a Squire hook with peels like church bells, it’s a song of hope and renewal which rolls along on sweet vocals from both singer and drummer. But it’s the guitarist who takes it to the next level. Left to bring the song to its conclusion, Squire morphs and builds his earlier chiming refrain into a rolling 70’s rock riff which takes on a deeper voice and delivers a finale worthy of the song’s heroine and her determined quest for individual freedom.

The old adage “waste not, want not” applies to ‘Don’t Stop’ which is effectively ‘Waterfall’ played backwards with new Ian Brown lyrics sliding queasily through the weirdness in such a way that it sounds like his voice is also a reversed track. The slightly nonsensical lyrics add to the slightly seasick, off-kilter atmosphere. It’s a track which works in the same vein as those strange psychedelic fillers scattered through the tail-end of the Beatles catalogue. The band returns to normality with the beautiful yet scornful ‘Bye Bye Badman’. Conjuring up images of the ’68 student riots in Paris – “In this citrus sucking sunshine” describes the lemons used to counter the effects of tear gas, the same lemons on the album’s cover – it owes much to fellow Mancunians The Smiths in both music and lyrical content. John Squire’s jangly, guitar dances all over the track, subtly paying homage to Johnny Marr. Challenging the establishment, Ian Brown warns that he’s “throwing stones at you, man…I want you black and blue and I’m gonna make you bleed…Gonna bring you down to your knees.” After the anti-monarchy nursery rhyme of ‘Elizabeth My Dear’, we’re back into swaying, braying pop with ‘(Song for my) Sugar Spun Sister’. Brown takes a Byrdsian mop-topped, drug-dazed swagger across blue grass and under green skies while accusing the ruling class of being a bunch of glue sniffers. The majestic ‘Made of Stone’, perhaps the band’s most accomplished song, brings dramatic and mournful imagery to life through anthemic, rousing orchestration and inspired lyrics: “Your knuckles whiten on the wheel, the last thing that your hands will feel…your final flight can’t be delayed…”Punctuated by one of their most rousing choruses, at the time it was a triumph beyond their tender years: “Sometimes I fantasize…When the streets are cold and lonely and the cars they burn below me…”Taking a breath from all the drama, we’re treated to a lazy, warm blues shuffle with a cutting edge in the form of ‘Shoot You Down’. Reni’s drums brush around a restrained Squire as Mani plucks mellow strings and Brown the assassin lilts: “I’d love to do it and you know you’ve always had it coming.”


The run-in is a booming statement of potential greatness. ‘This is the One’ crashes into life before starting its ebb and flow, retreating to catch its breath under harp-like guitar refrains and whispered sugar-sweet lyrics before exploding again with such triumph and celebration that it leaves you utterly convinced that, yes – this is indeed the one. What that is just doesn’t matter. It is whatever you want it to be. That seems to be the point. It is the musical interpretation of just knowing; that feeling of perfect acceptance that nothing gets better than this. But of course, the previous 40-odd minutes will have taught you that behind every peak is another monumental musical Everest to behold – and there, from the summit of ‘This is the One’ we are left with the final colossus, the towering majesty of ‘I am the Resurrection’. Stomping in on Reni’s almost military-beat drums, Mani’s bass injects the groove before Ian Brown starts spitting attitude and sweet poetic put-downs: “Stone me, why can’t you see…you’re a no-one, nowhere, washed-up baby who’d look better dead…” John Squire shyly enters the fray in the background to begin with, letting the rhythm section take the lead and injecting little spiraling fills into the gaps until Brown’s holy refrain brings us to the break. Then all hell cuts loose. Reni starts playing drums like a Hindu god, covering the entire kit like only a multi-armed deity possibly could while Mani unleashes a carpet-bombing, rolling funk bass line over which Squire’s guitar squeals and squalls. The guitars gets dirtier, the drums get faster, the bass gets crazier – and then it breaks to silence…Only to chime back in before more thrashing reverb takes over once again. And then, the storm seems to ease, with a beautiful acoustic refrain filling the void – only we’re not finished yet, the drums, bass and pace quicken and we’re racing to the end again, finally fading out on an acoustic strum and the echoes of another Squire jam which could go on for eternity. It’s ballsy, breath-taking and beyond anything one would expect from a band’s first album. It nearly was the full-stop on their career. If it had been, it would have been one of the best exits since the Ascension.

Next Steps

After such an astonishing debut, some generation defining live shows and the release of the genre-busting ‘Fools Gold’ which left all their rivals in the dust, the Stone Roses dropped the mega-stardom ball and disappeared in a flurry of lawsuits and a miasma of lost focus and impetus. It would take five years for a follow-up to appear, by which time the Brown-Squire dynamic at the heart of the band had been undermined by drugs and ego. Second Coming was much-maligned but isn’t as bad as some make it out to be. It just wasn’t The Stone Roses II. The band limped on, losing first Reni and then Squire before a pale imitation self-destructed in 1996. Years of solo careers, rumors and denials followed until the band the world was waiting for returned in triumph in 2012 to old audiences and new, proving that the Stone Roses have an enduring magic and spirit that can be suppressed but never destroyed. Their debut album remains the best testament to that.

First published on:

Under the Influence: The Vaccines’ Top Five

Garage rock revivalists The Vaccines have been omnipresent in the hot lists since making their breakthrough at the end of 2010. Since their acclaimed debut album What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? was released in March, the four-piece have barely drawn breath while touring the planet with their spiky pop punk repertoire. Nick Amies caught up with them to talk influences on a rare day off.

Black Monk Time – The Monks

Considering what was happening in Britain with the Beatles and Stones, the Monks were way ahead of their time in the early 60s. Their direct approach and the raw power of their garage sound has been a huge influence on us. They had very few tools at their disposal but still managed to make an incredible noise. And they looked way-out with their weirdly shaved heads and nooses as ties. They set out to be the anti-Beatles in every way and that in itself was a ballsy move. They didn’t release that much material but what they did put out can be described as high velocity punk about a decade before the term even existed.

The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers are a huge influence on the Vaccines and their proto-punk debut album is still a touchstone. They didn’t write punk and they didn’t sing punk but they sounded punk just by the way they presented the material, the sparse intensity of it. We went for that approach on our album with the same philosophy that it’s not what you play but how you play it. Like the Modern Lovers, we stripped everything down and tried to be as direct as possible. Richman himself is also a lyrical genius so the words are also sublime and have especially influenced Justin.

Lesson No. 1 – Glenn Branca

Branca was the avant garde godfather of the No Wave scene in New York in the 70s and 80s and this album is basically performance art. It’s just noise designed to freak you out. It’s not really music at all when you have 30 guitarists just playing the same note repetitively. He was a big influence on the guitar sounds of bands like Sonic Youth and Suicide. You wouldn’t really notice it but the driving guitar lines he used have really filtered through into our material too. It’s a weird journey I guess to go from Branca’s claustrophobic avant garde noise to our pop music, but there you go!

69 Love Songs – Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt is a genius lyricist and has had a massive influence on our songs and even though there is a lot of shit on this record – it is actually 69 love songs – the good songs are absolutely beautiful pop gems. He manages to remove the barriers between the mind and the mouth and its an innocence, naivety and honesty that can sometimes backfire but on this record, or at least some of it, he gets it spot on. This album for pure honest writing and courage of subject matter alone makes it a very significant one for us and has certainly shaped our own narratives.

Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps – Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps

This is early rockabilly stuff at the very invention of teen culture. They were singing about stuff that hadn’t been sung about before. It was the post-war vibe that would explode in the 50s, all these kids reacting against the doom and gloom of the war with nothing to do but go nuts without fear of the draft. They had nothing else to occupy their minds, nothing to worry about so they came up with rock’n’roll. People were going out and maybe just cutting one tune and the stuff they came out with was just so abrasive. Punk can be traced back to this really. This album encapsulates that feeling in a bunch of great rocking songs that a band like us can really relate to.

First published in The Red Bulletin, October 2011.

Rocking with The Roller: Eye to Beady Eye with Liam Gallagher

The side door of the monolithic ebony tour bus hisses open like a space age air lock and Liam Gallagher steps out into the light but constant Brussels rain. He throws a heavy hold-all over one shoulder, lowers his sunglasses from his mop of Brian Jones hair, fixes them in the default position over his eyes and swaggers his way past gawping shoppers in the direction of the hotel lobby. It’s the exit of a seasoned pro; a man who has spent much of the last two decades alighting from heavily tinted vehicles in cities all over the world. As the singer of Oasis, Gallagher has stayed in some of the finest hotels on the planet. But he’s not in Oasis any more and while this particular Sofitel has a certain amount of glitter, it is still a gold star or two below the norm. You see, things have changed for Liam over the past two years but as he explains later over espresso and cigarettes, in his opinion they’ve changed for the better.

After eighteen years of ecstatic highs and violent lows, combustible and controversial British rock band Oasis – perhaps the last to truly deserve the battered crown of king anarchists handed down by the hell-raising likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who and the Sex Pistols – finally imploded. Only those who were there really know what went on backstage at the Rock en Seine festival near Paris on August 28, 2009 and despite vague allusions to the reasons behind the split and the conflicting accounts of the two main protagonists, the true nature of events remains a mystery. What is known beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the fight between Liam and older brother Noel, just minutes before the band were about to go on stage, was serious enough to finally rip the band apart for good.

Oasis had been close to ending on numerous occasions in the past as the Gallaghers’ often abrasive relationship – one which not only constantly threatened its existence but also powered it – regularly stretched the band to breaking point. On every occasion before Paris, the warring siblings had somehow managed to see beyond the black eyes and foul abuse to reach a rapprochement. However, this time would be different. A statement from Noel, just two hours after at least one guitar was turned into kindling, confirmed that he had quit the band as he “could not go on working with Liam a day longer”. It didn’t take much reading between the lines to see that there would be no reconciliation this time. The fears of those Oasis fans who continued to hope for a reunion were finally realised when Liam announced on November 19 of that year that the remaining members of Oasis – guitarists Gem Archer and Andy Bell, drummer Chris Sharrock and himself – would continue to record without Gallagher Senior, saying: “Oasis are done, this is something new.” Six months later, on May 25, 2010, the final nail in the Oasis coffin was hammered home when Liam and Co. announced that this something new would be called Beady Eye.

Resplendent in a camouflage wind-breaker from his own Pretty Green clothing range and with his piercing blue eyes now unshaded, Liam Gallagher sits back and wearily blows a plume of smoke into the darkening sky above the hotel’s roof garden as he once again contemplates that fateful day in Paris. “I think I wasn’t in the band for about one beer,” he says. “That’s how long it took for us to think about what we wanted to do. After that it was like, let’s keep going. What else am I going to do? Work in McDonald’s?” Liam maintains that his brother “had had enough of Oasis” and just wanted an excuse to leave. At a press conference to launch his solo project The High Flying Birds and his two forthcoming albums, Noel Gallagher rejects that idea, saying simply that he’d “just had enough of Liam.”

After the tabloid-christened Wonderbrawl in Paris, Chris Sharrock returned to his home in Liverpool while Liam, Gem and Andy headed back to London to begin work on the songs which would ultimately come together to form Beady Eye’s début album Different Gear, Still Speeding with producer Steve Lillywhite. The atmosphere, by all accounts, bordered on euphoric. “There was something in the air,” Beady Eye’s somewhat cosmic guitarist Gem Archer says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “I don’t know if it was the universe just doing it’s thing but there was something magical going on when we got down to working.”

“We always felt like we wanted to do something fantastic and new whether it was with or without Oasis,” Liam adds, brightening up as talk now moves away from the past and turns to the new musical love of his life. “We were always gearing up to do something great. That’s what you live for. There was never a doubt in any of our minds that we weren’t going to knock it on the head. We’ve got to be in there. People need us. We need it.”

With the four ex-Oasis men forming the core of Beady Eye – on tour the band is augmented by ex-Gorillaz bassist Jeff Wooton and keyboardist Matt Jones, formerly of Britpop band Ultrasound – the writing duties are shared between Gallagher, Archer and Bell. The credits also extend to include drummer Sharrock in a show of unity. Both Liam and Gem are quick to point out that Beady Eye is a collective, with everyone sharing responsibility for the direction and every aspect of the band.

“We all do our thing to make Beady Eye happen,” Liam says. “There are no chiefs here. It’s not like as soon as someone has a top idea and thinks we should do it it’s suddenly like ‘oh here we go, he’s getting too big for his boots’. We’ve been there before with someone taking responsibility for everything. It’s a bit late in the game to be fucking around with power struggles and insecurities with your mates. That’s just rubbish. Whoever’s closest to the kettle puts the fucking kettle on.”

“We’re into it to the level of thinking about what lights to take with us on tour, what to have on stage with us other than the amps,” adds Gem. “We’re deep into it all. The photos, the clothes, the artwork – we’re doing it all.”

“With the new song, Andy [Bell] took the photo for the cover,” adds Liam. “We took one look at it, said it looked the bollocks, so we slapped our name on it, stuck the banging tune inside it and away you go.” Suddenly he’s out of his seat, comically mincing around the table. “There’s no need to ponce about with design teams full of geezers called Quentin when we know what we want and can do it ourselves.”

“It’s a top vibe, man,” he continues, sitting down and switching his face back to stony conviction. “Everyone is loving being involved in the creative side of it. It’s not like when Noel would do the lot and we’d be sitting about, twiddling our thumbs. People think I was a lazy bastard and always in the pub. I just never got the call, man. But now everyone’s getting a share of the drug. We’re all getting high from being a band and what makes being in a band great.”

To emphasise their break from the past, Beady Eye took the very un-Oasis-like step of releasing a couple of songs as digital teasers before début single The Roller was unveiled in January. Rather than it being a clever marketing ploy, the band floated Bring the Light and Four Letter Word on the Internet in a surprisingly humble attempt to gauge where they may possibly stand in the post-Oasis musical landscape. “We released the digital tracks and posted videos ahead of the first release because we didn’t even take it for granted that people would know who we were,” admits Gem. “We needed to let them know what was coming.”

“The average Joe didn’t know what was going on,” adds Liam. “People were coming up to me in the shop asking when the next Oasis record was coming out and I was all like, ‘you fucking what?’ I wasn’t getting into it because they were obviously on drugs or living in a can of beans or something. A lot of people thought Oasis was still going so we had to get the new stuff out to them.”

The reaction to the Internet teasers was underwhelming as were those accompanying the release of first single proper The Roller. Beady Eye’s début peaked at number 31 in the UK charts – the exact same position as Oasis’ début Supersonic reached back in April 1994. When the next single, Millionaire, floundered at number 71 it was open season in the British press. For Liam’s adversaries in the media, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Well-worn comparisons of the Gallaghers were once more dragged across the pages of the tabloids, with Beady Eye already condemned to failure for having what many people considered to be the less talented brother in its line-up. Liam admits the poor performances of the singles was a reality check but the media reaction was less of a surprise.

“I expected to get shit from the press before we started out because I dish it out and I thrive on that so I expect it back,” he says. “They’re always going to be gunning for me but I’m always like, ‘bring it on’ because I’ll always be gunning for them. That will always be there because we need the love-hate thing but deep down they’ve probably all got posters of us on their walls. We’ve got to be on top of our game because we’re there to be criticised. But we’re ready for it. We’re big boys.”

While certain critics ratcheted up their dismissals of Beady Eye once Different Gear, Still Speeding was released in February, the majority of the world’s music press was much more generous. The album, which debuted at number 3 in the UK album charts, was widely praised with many commentators welcoming the band’s efforts to move away from the Oasis legacy. The public’s response was equally positive with the album going gold in the UK within a month of its release.

“Of course, it was nice to get good reviews for the album but it wasn’t like we were then saying ‘we showed you’ to those who’d slagged us off without even hearing it,” Liam says. “It’s nice but we don’t care really. When the reviews are good, you know the writer got it and understood it. They say what we already know and they think exactly what we think about it. We wouldn’t have released the record if we didn’t think it was having it. Bad reviews which say ‘well, he’s no Noel Gallagher’ – I’ve got no time for them. Go back to journalism school. They’re just idiots who just want to take a pop at me because I slagged off Blur in 1992 or whatever. There’s a lot of that what goes on and always will.”

After all this time, Liam Gallagher remains a divisive figure – a situation he admits to contributing to but one he feels is rooted in the behaviour of his younger self: the Liam of smashed hotel rooms, cocaine busts and numerous punch-ups with the public and family alike. He appears to accept that whatever level of success he may reach now or in the future is unlikely to make a lot of difference to how people perceive him.

“Beady Eye’s probably not gonna change the way people see me,” he says. “Nothing I do probably will. They’ll still see me as that 20-year old who made the most of life by going a bit fucking mental. But answer me this: who wouldn’t have done the same in the circumstances? I don’t give a fuck what they think of me to be honest. I am who I am. I was Liam in Oasis and I’m Liam in Beady Eye. If I’m Liam in another band, it’ll still be me and they’ll still have to deal with it.”

“People have the wrong idea about Liam,” Gem responds. “It’s just laziness to keep up this perception of him. He’s full on in this band; from production to mixing to arranging. In addition to Beady Eye, he’s running a clothing line and making films [with production company In 1 Productions] at the same time. He’s not sat on his arse waiting to sing his bits just so he can get off again and go on the piss. He’s as fully committed and invested in this collective as the rest of us.”

Few would have expected Liam Gallagher to have the initiative to diversify but the singer has shown an entrepreneurial bent in his latter years. His Pretty Green clothing label is now in its second, award-laden year and work is continuing on his first film, an adaptation of Richard DiLello’s The Last Cocktail Party which details the rise and fall of the Beatles’ Apple Records empire. “Pretty Green and the film production thing was always probably going to happen, it was always in me I reckon,” he says. “Maybe there were fewer opportunities to explore that side of me when I was younger or maybe I just couldn’t be arsed back then. But I’m nearing 40, man. Things change. Priorities change. You’ve got to keep the brain ticking over, man, or you’ll end up a cabbage.”

As the sky above again opens with yet another deluge, sending everyone ducking for cover, talk turns to the evening’s coming show; a late – but not headlining – slot in the Pyramid Marquee at the Rock Werchter festival. This is the latest open air show of Beady Eye’s début festival season. For any new band, an evening show at any festival would be considered a mighty step up given that debutants are usually awarded the early afternoon slots. But Beady Eye are no ordinary ‘new’ band. Surely the fact that they are four-fifths of Oasis, a band used to playing to tens if not hundreds of thousands of their own fans, would be enough to secure top billing.

“We are where we are, you know what I mean? We’re getting what we deserve right now,” says Liam. “It’s like paying your dues, man. We’re a new band. It doesn’t matter what went before. Half the people at the festival shows probably haven’t heard the record and you have to keep reminding yourself that. This isn’t Oasis, so we haven’t got a big back catalogue of songs which people have already heard over the past 18 years.”

“That’s the good thing though at festivals,” adds Gem. “You’re playing to people who may not normally come to see you. We just go out there and just try and play the best gig we’ve ever done to date and if they like it, all well and good but if not then we’re probably just not the right band for them.”

“It’s all new with Beady Eye, man,” Liam chips in. “It’s all fresh. We’re getting off on it. And we can see that the crowds are getting off on it too. They’re getting it and they’re coming out to see you which is great. We were never so far up our own arses to think that we could guarantee that either. Nothing was taken for granted.”

The festival season comes in the middle of Beady Eye’s first tour, one on which the band have returned to their roots by playing smaller venues that would never have been able to cope with the demands of housing an Oasis gig. Liam explains that this was a band decision based on the current reality and that at no time did they think that Beady Eye possessed the pulling power to continue where Oasis left off by playing colossal concerts.

“We never had this idea that just because we were Oasis we could go out there and start off in arenas,” he admits. “We always had the idea to start again, to start small. We don’t have the songs right now either. When you’re playing arenas and stadiums you’re on for an hour and a half. What we basically have is the album and that’s an hour so we’re happy with that. It’s not like we’re sitting there going ‘I can’t wait to start playing stadiums again’ and moaning about where we are. Someone was looking at us playing a venue of 8000 when we were planning the first gigs and we said no, it’s too early for that. You’ve got to have something to aim for and build up to.”

Despite fronting numerous concerts including the mighty Knebworth shows of 1996 where Oasis played to over a quarter of a million people over two days, Liam admits to a bout of nerves before taking Beady Eye out onto the road for the first time on March 4 this year. “There were a few nerves but we just wanted to get out of the rehearsal rooms and get playing in the end,” he says. “We had these tunes we believed in and wanted to get them out there but because it’s new, you never really know what’s going to happen. We didn’t know if everyone was going to start shouting for Oasis songs. We could have played it safe and took off to some tiny little foreign hole to début but we chose Glasgow Barrowlands and they were fucking immense. The jocks will call you on it if you’re shit – Glasgow’s a hard school – but they were top notch. The nerves soon went after that.”

“Big gigs are a piece of piss, you know what I mean? The crowd are miles away. With these shows we’re doing they’re right on you and you’ve got to be on it. You’re all in it together in these smaller venues, in the trenches, and it’s instant. You kick off and suddenly the whole place is rocking and you’ve got to keep that going.”

Later that evening, under the cover of canvas, Beady Eye certainly gets Werchter’s Pyramid Marquee rocking…and rolling, swaying, seething, ebbing and flowing with their Different Gear set-list. Welcoming the crowd with a chipper “Good evening brothers and sisters” it’s clear the surly, bating Gallagher of old is tucked away for the night. Throughout the evening, Liam’s banter with the audience is jovial and there are even smiles from the stage to match those beaming back from the steaming mass. Reconnecting with the fans has been key to the response the band have been getting on tour and from the opening fusillade of Four Letter Word, Millionaire and Beatles and Stones to the crescendo finale of World of Twist’s Sons of the Stage, both band and audience seem to feed off the energy generated under the sweaty canopy. The performance is as tight as you would expect from a group of seasoned campaigners the majority of whom have been playing together for the best part of a decade but there is a new lightness of spirit and atmosphere which helps these songs of hope and belief soar. It’s clear throughout the show that the shackles of the past have been cast aside.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” says Liam. “If being in a band is pressure then you’re in the wrong game, mate. We’ve been at the top and we want to be at the top again but we’re not young lads chasing the dream. We’ve all been round the block in this industry a lot of times and we know it’s hard but we’re dead relaxed, man. We’re doing our thing. We’ve got nothing to prove.”

With new material already written, Beady Eye are eager to keep the juggernaut rolling with another album pencilled in for 2012. “The thing with Oasis was that we could have made more records and it’s a shame we didn’t but with this we’re not going to sit around for five years before putting new stuff out,” the front man says. “Hopefully by the time we get the next record out, there’ll be more people digging us and knowing what we’re about.”

And what will the future hold for Beady Eye? Can it get as big as Oasis?

“We don’t go about saying we’re going to be as big as Oasis, despite some of the quotes people have me saying. I’m talking about the music. I believe in the music and the quality of it and I’m talking about that not that we’re bigger or better than Oasis. People on the whole get that. They see where we’re coming from and give us respect for that.”

“Beady Eye will evolve. It already is. We’re listening to stuff we’re putting together for the next record and it’s already changing. It’s Beady Eye and it’s our sound because that’s what we do but these tunes are blowing our minds and we just hope they’ll do the same for other people. We’ll do what needs to be done, man. If it needs to rock, it’ll rock. If it needs to swagger, it’ll swagger.” A wicked glint flashes across those heavy-lidded blue eyes again. “And it’ll be the bollocks.”

BeadyEye_RedBull_CoverFirst published in: The Red Bulletin (September 2011)

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