Hardwired…To Survive: In Conversation with Metallica

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Death, addiction, law suits… Through all the trials and tribulations, Metallica have somehow survived over 35 years on hard rock’s relentless road. The youthful fire which scorched a blazing path through the metal scene back in the early 1980’s still burns brightly despite all four members now being in their fifties. Here JAMES HETFIELD and LARS ULRICH talk about how Metallica evolved from wild-eyed thrash punks to one of the biggest bands on the planet.

You celebrated your sixth number one album in November when your latest record, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, topped the charts around the world. After all your success, do you still get a kick from that happening?

James: Oh man…for sure! But you know, it’s bizarre, and very surprising, yes. The older we get, the more special getting a number one album is going to get. After 35 years, that this can still happen, it’s great. It’s the oxygen we need, being in a band and playing music, so we get to live a little longer!

Lars: Even now when we put out a record, you never know what to expect. These are changing times in music so having a number one record in all these wonderful countries is an amazing thing. Obviously, we’d prefer to release records that people like rather than not but having number one records is not why we get out of bed in the morning. We want to make music for people to enjoy and if it’s successful then that’s a bonus. But you know what, the fact that Metallica can still release records that matter to people is a great thing, that hard music still matters to people is a great thing. I feel like rock groups are becoming a minority these days. There are fewer and fewer bands that a doing well on a global scale so being one of them is a privilege. It’s a good time to be in Metallica.

Hardwired… was the first album to be released on your own Blackened Recordings label. How different was this experience compared to others?

metallica-hardwired-album-artJames: It wasn’t that different at all. We went about this with the same process as we have every single time. I would say, that as it was on our own label – which is just our own label in the US, we’re still on Universal in the rest of the world – we were able to take our time, to start writing without deadlines, no one saying ‘ hey, we need it by this time.’ That was maybe the only thing which was unusual from previous albums.

Lars: The main difference was not in the recording of it but what happened on the day immediately after we were finished because we now have to do 90% of the work ourselves whereas 10 or 20 years ago, other people and other companies did most of the work. We have a much bigger infrastructure now and all these people who, for better or worse, answer to the band members rather than a CEO so we have a different post-recording set up.

Part of that set-up is being responsible for your own master recordings, which now belong to you. How did that come about?

Lars: Back in the early 90s, Cliff, one of our managers, was talking about this amazing place of total independence and creative freedom which would come from owning your own master recordings. It would offer us a total disassociation from the music business. When that was explained to us, it obviously made a lot of sense. So when we entered into contract negotiations, that was always the primary modus operandi, to eventually own our back catalogue. Any disassociation and dynamic which releases you is a great thing because you are truly free to do what you want.

James: Elektra were a good fit for us but we always wanted to own our own masters at some point – and why wouldn’t you? It’s really great to own them because they’re ours after all! A lot of bands from the 70s and 80s did not see that as an option or even care about it. We’re fortunate to have had some pretty savvy business management.

That shows a lot of foresight, to look ahead and to plan stages of your career way in the future. Did you have some idea at the time that the music industry was going to change so dramatically?

James: Hell no! We had no clue. I don’t think anyone did. At the time, the labels were like banks; you loaned them your music and they gave you money so you could tour or do whatever you wanted with it. They paid you up front, that’s pretty much how it was. We knew it would be great to own our masters but we had no idea what was going to happen with the industry.

Do you have any plans to delve back in and re-release material?

jamesJames: We’re definitely going remaster the back catalogue. We’ve always been very instrumental in the sonics, how our music sounds. That’s very important to us. Obviously there are some records that sound better than others. The soundtrack to the film Through the Never sounded great and Hardwired… also sounds fantastic. We’re very happy with (Hardwired… producer)Greg Fidelman and his sonics. So he’s going through the back catalogue and he’ll remaster them. Along with the re-releasing, we’ll try and make them all very special packages. But these days, what do you do? What hasn’t been done by someone else? There are special editions with this and that… I guess we’re on a pretty nostalgic trip these days with the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, the Master of Puppets book, revisiting the old records. So these remasters will come out with a lot of cool stuff, nostalgic pictures and stories we’ll dig up.

When looking back at your back catalogue, do you have any favourites or regrets? Any records where you now think, ‘what the hell were we thinking?’

James: There are things I would like to change on some of the records but it gives them so much character and such uniqueness that you can’t change them. I find it a little frustrating when bands re-record classic albums with pretty much the same songs and everything, and then have it replacing the original. It kinda erases that piece of history. These records are a product of a certain time in life, in the career of the band; they’re snapshots of history and they’re part of our story. Okay, so And Justice for All could use a little more low end and St. Anger could use a little less tin snare drum but those things are what make those records part of our history. So, no regrets.

Metallica started out in another age, when vinyl was god. You now have your own vinyl printing plant in Germany. Will you be joining the campaign to restore the format to its former glories?

James: Just because we grew up with and love vinyl, it doesn’t mean it’s the only and best format for us. We’re champions of getting music out any way and any how. Like Lars said, there are still fans who want to buy our music on record so we’ll cater for that but we’re excited by the challenges the digital world sets us and we like to be challenged. Saying that, I do love vinyl. It’s an experience, an event. It’s very tangible. You hold the record, take it from the sleeve, place the needle on the groove. About six months ago I was in Los Angeles visiting some old high school buddies and we just sat around, listening to vinyl…stuff like Kansas. Just the act of flicking through the boxes, smelling the cardboard, reading the sleeve notes, and listening to that warm sound. It’s a very immersive experience.

So, you’re essentially your own bosses now. Would you say it’s been a natural progression, to evolve from crazy kids with guitars to rock stars-slash-businessmen?

larsLars: I’d like to think that we’re still crazy adults, still trying to figure it all out. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a businessman but obviously when you have an organisation and bunch of people who work for you, there’s a point where you at least have to act mature. I think we do our best and I think we have a pretty decent balance in terms of how those two sides of us play out. I think it’s possible to wear those two hats but not necessarily at the same time. We have a trusted group of people who we’ve worked with for a long time who advise us on how we connect the dots, which is an invaluable thing to have. I’m 52 now, but I still feel like that crazy kid, trying to work out what’s going on at times so to have a trusted team behind us, having our own set up and being fiercely independent like Metallica is, that’s really a cool thing which we’re very proud of.

James: Lars is the more business-savvy guy and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been partnered with him in this thing for 35 years. He followed Motorhead around, he followed Diamondhead around, learning from them and other bands; how they did things, why they made the decisions they made, why is one manager better than another. He is just very inquisitive when it comes to the business side of things. To have someone with that drive and quest for knowledge, that’s been invaluable. Me? I just…didn’t want a job! I wanted to play music, create and have my therapy and career wrapped into one! So it’s good to learn from others and apply that to your own life and path but you know, deep down, we’re still rebels, we’re still risk takers, we like being challenged by life and being faced with the question ‘what do we do next with this gift we have?’ Planning and preparation is only part of it. Guts, soul and fire are also invaluable weapons.

I find it hard to imagine Metallica sitting around in glass-walled offices shouting into phones with ties askew like in some HBO corporate drama…

James: There are no ties, man, and we’re very rarely in an office. As for shouting into phones, we pay people to do that. I think the bigger picture is about who’s in control, who’s running the ship and who’s just having a good time being in the band. It might be fairly obvious but Lars and I have been the two guys who put this band together; we formed this thing from day one and have had this vision. We’ve been in the driving seat but Kurt and Rob are always ready to go with us wherever this ride takes us, they’re always willing, always up for the challenge, and we’re all excited about where we’re heading.

You’ve always been fiercely proud of your independence. How important do you think being independent and remaining true to your own vision is to having a long and successful career?

james-lars-metallica-32824823-508-605James: For us, yes it has been important but for other people? I don’t know. Back in the day, when we were starting out, getting signed by a label was a huge thing. I don’t think that’s such a huge thing now. The fact that you can make your own music in your basement and press it and put it out yourself is wonderful but how far do you get with that? Do you eventually sign up with someone who’s bigger? These are all different business decision you need to make. You need to ask yourself ‘what is it we want to do?’ Do you want to tour the world, stay local? You should do what makes you happy.

Lars: We’ve always felt that we were outsiders, that we never really belonged to anything so even when we became successful, we still felt like successful outsiders. I guess we never really felt the need to play the game. The best thing about our success is that it has afforded us the opportunity to carve our own creative path. I’ll always be incredibly thankful for that. Primarily, independence for us means that we’ve never really taken money from anybody; we’ve never owed anybody anything. Our managers from very early on protected us from being in debt to anyone. As James said, when we started out record companies were like banks. You had to take money to make records, and then repay what it cost to produce that from your profits. And that’s something we’ve never really had to do so we’ve been pretty appreciative of that.

I imagine being flexible and adaptable also helps in maintaining a career. You’ve seen a lot of changes since you started out, especially with the dawn of the Internet age. How has Metallica coped with the shift to a digital world?

Lars: We’ve adapted quite well, thanks for asking! We’re sat here surrounded by technology linking us to the world, and Metallica’s music is available on numerous digital and streaming platforms and formats. I think that’s very cool. But you have to remember that there are places on this beautiful planet where people still buy CDs or vinyl, so for every move you make in the digital world, there are still fans who are still more traditional in the way they buy and listen to your music. Living in San Francisco where we’re surrounded by all the latest technology, you have to remember that there are other places in the world where the more traditional formats are still the way to go.

James: We’ve always been control freaks. As artists we’ve always felt the need to have at least some control over how our art is presented. Whether you’re an artist or a sculpture, looking to place your painting or sculpture in a gallery or museum, you’re going to have a strong opinion on how it’s hung or where it’s placed because that’s part of the artistic vision. We’ve always felt the same way. So when the floodgates opened and music was all over the internet, going for free, it scared us for sure and we didn’t know what to think about that but obviously now, it’s a great and convenient way to get your music so adapting to it is the only way to survive. I think that’s true for anyone in any walk of life. We do our best in the digital world; with Hardwired… we released a song at a time, a video at a time, a video for each song, and that works in this era. We like to surprise people and it’s hard to surprise people these days but the Internet gives us new ways to do this. It’s a new creative challenge.

The topic of free music on the Internet must be a thorny issue for Metallica, given the legal issues you had with peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster at the turn of the millennium. Do you feel that you were unfairly treated or misrepresented during that case?

napsterJames: The way people saw us then was beyond our control. What people think about us, about me, is none of my business. I knew it was the right thing to do, and as I said, it is a great and convenient way of getting music but I wish the record companies had not embraced it as much as they did and I wish it had unfolded in a different way but we couldn’t control that. The way we were portrayed…Well, we were an easy target. Someone who is established and who is concerned about their art is there to be shot at. Other artists came up to us and said that they supported what we were doing and were proud that we were sticking up for them but they would not come out of the shadows to help us. That left a bitter taste.

Lars: It was a street fight and the other guys painted this picture that it was between Metallica and their fans, and Metallica against downloading which it really wasn’t. It wasn’t about downloading, it was about choice. If I want to give away my music for free, whose choice is that? Is it my choice or someone else’s choice? So as it’s my music, I would presume it was my choice. But that choice was taken away from us. That was the real issue but they made it about us versus our fans which was a really smart move because it made us the bad guys. I do think we were misrepresented but we should have seen that coming. It was a strange summer, that’s for sure.

That strange summer included a South Park episode portraying you, Lars, crying by your pool because you could no longer afford to have a gold-plated shark tank bar installed due to people illegally downloading Metallica’s music.

Lars: That has floated across my eyeballs, yes.

And?

Lars: I’m a pretty thick-skinned person and we took a lot of hits that summer, and that was one of them. Everyone had an opinion, and it was a little weird, let’s leave it at that! Sometimes bad press is better than no press, right? Anyway we survived to fight another day.

James: South Park is no stranger to taking the piss out of anybody. I love it. It’s great to laugh at yourself. If anyone thinks of Lars that way, that’s up to them.

So you never fancied having a gold-plated shark tank bar then?

James: We’re pretty practical people. You look at us and we’re not too image conscious. We’ll put our money into a stage set or a good production or something, like making a movie. The money we’ve made from this has been reinvested in the band, for trying and exploring new things. As far as decadence goes, there’s none of that. We’d kick each other’s asses. That doesn’t fit the Metallica mould whatsoever.

The Napster case was just one of many tough times the band has been through. What’s the closest you’ve ever come to splitting up?

moLars: I would say that during period around the Some Kind of Monster documentary where it shows James going away to rehab and taking a year out of Metallica to figure out some things on his own. When he came back from that year away with a new set of tools for engaging and interacting with us, I wasn’t sure for the first six months how that was going to work out because I wasn’t sure I could adhere to those particular ways. It took a couple of years for things to really settle but we found the right balances and by the time the St Anger cycle was over in 2004 it had kinda fallen into a functional dynamic. We’ve had the best ten years together since then, when it all fell back into place around 2005 and 2006, and we really appreciate each other and what we have so it worked out but it was pretty ropey there for a while. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. I’m not a big fan of the ‘what if,’ questions because who knows what would have happened if we had split. If you turn left or turn right, things could work out differently. But we’re here, we’re talking to you and Hardwired… is out in the world. Trying to imagine a world where Metallica split ten years or so ago is a waste of energy.

At least by staying together you’ve avoided the tedious line of questioning about reforming. It seems to be the fashionable thing these days for defunct bands to get back together.

Lars: There are lot of bands that reform for a lot of different reasons and since I don’t know the internal dynamics, it’s hard to comment on. There could be someone who says ‘I’m reforming this band for $20 million’ and I’d say ‘good on ya!’ Who the hell am I to say that you shouldn’t do that. I can barely keep my own shit together! The world doesn’t need another person being critical of someone else’s decisions.

The Oasis documentary ‘Supersonic’ has increased the chatter on the Internet about whether Oasis will reform. As a friend of Noel Gallagher and fan of the band, what’s your take on the rumours, Lars?

noelgallagherlarsulrichu2partieshomegcxmq2hrlialLars: There may be a lot of talk on the Internet about Oasis getting back together but I don’t think there’s a lot of talk in Noel Gallagher’s head about that. Just imagine if you were Noel Gallagher and every interviewer asks you about whether Oasis are getting back together. Could you imagine how fucking annoying that must be? That would drive me fucking batshit crazy! I don’t think it’ll happen. From what I see he seems perfectly content doing what he’s doing and I think what he’s doing is great. If he is going to reform Oasis, I’m pretty sure I won’t be the first one he asks for advice.

The scenes of Oasis at Knebworth, playing to 250,000 fans over two days are very impressive but that pales into insignificance when put next to Metallica’s Tushino Airfield show in Moscow in 1991 where an estimated 1.6 million people attended.

James: Everybody you talk to about that show will give you a different figure of how many attended but I can tell you that there was a fuck of a lot of people! It was crazy. That was a wild afternoon, I can tell you.

Lars: Big shows like that are insane and it never becomes normal playing to such huge crowds. But I love playing stadiums, I love playing festivals, I love playing small theatres… I just love playing live to people. We’re lucky to be able to play the full range of venues and to have that choice is a privilege. The day any of it becomes normal, you have my permission to come and slap me around the head a little bit. I think the older I get, the more my eyes open to see how amazing this all is. You know, it’s 35 years since we started and this amount of people still care and still roll along for the ride.

On the topic of touring, you’ve made it clear that that from now on you won’t be going out for the long-haul but will play for two weeks and then have two weeks off to spend with your families. Does it get easier to juggle family life with the music career as you get older?

James: It does. We’re extremely fortunate to be where we are. To be able to do two weeks on, two weeks off is really great. Not only for our families but for our own sanity, and our own physical, mental and spiritual well-being. We need to do that. We can’t tour like we did in our 20s, that’s for sure. It needs to be age-appropriate touring for us these days. Whatever it takes for us to get on the stage, have fun and be at 110%, that’s what we’ll do.

I bet your families will be happy to see more of you.

dacdff7b9b39dc4832b568a86a08936fJames: You’d have to ask them! I’m totally into embarrassing my kids; wherever, whenever, as much as possible. I’ve got three teenagers now and life’s a little different. I’m very involved in their lives and I love each and every one of them to death and really want their dreams to be realised, and hopefully be part of those dreams. I try not to hover too much, enable them too much, allow them to struggle when they have to struggle. I’m less strict than my wife but we’re a great team; I learn from her, she learns from me. We definitely have different parenting skills but I think the kids benefit from both.

And you’ll get some time to yourself? Maybe do a little skateboarding, James?

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a board, man. We played the House of Vans in London at the end of last year and that was very cool to see those kids doing their thing. Some of the crew had a go but those days are done for me, for sure. I’ve got other passions now. We all need ‘you’ time. You need to get away. There’s still a lone wolf in me who loves solitude, loves going solo whether it’s music, hunting, hiking or camping, whatever – just getting out on my own. Or getting in the garage and tinkering with something, getting really detailed and lost in a project, I love doing that.

How to become a rock star in 2016: Three tips by Lars Ulrich

Find like-minded people like yourselves who are passionate

We’re all very different characters but at the core of it, we’re a band that have been going forward together. James and I are perhaps at the steering wheel with Kirk and Rob sitting in the back but we all get a say in where we’re going. We’ve seen band members come and go but even those who are not with us now have shared the passion of being in Metallica. Passion means you’ll fight about stuff from time to time but you’ll be fighting for the good of the band. Finding people ready to do that, to get in the trenches with you and go the distance, that’s the solid base you need.

Stay true to your own vision and ideals

We’ve made choices and music that have not always been popular with everyone but you know, that’s not really why we make these choices. We’ve done what we’ve done because we’ve believed in every single part of it. If we always made music to a template of what has brought us success in the past, we would sound the same and never progress, and that would be like a kind of creative death. We could just slip the same record into a different sleeve and take the rest of the year off. We welcome challenges and set ourselves challenges to keep things interesting for everyone involved. People will try and tell you to go another way and will sell it as the best thing for the band, but you – the band – should be the only ones making those decisions. Don’t let anybody talk you out of them. Listen to those you trust but stand firm together.

Stay committed

Stay the course. Hang in there. If you’re talented, someone will find you.

This article first appeared in an edited form in The Red Bulletin Magazine.

 

Back in the Bright Lights: The Return of Interpol

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It is the curse of every band with a highly acclaimed and much loved debut album that each subsequent release will be compared to that first artistic statement. Critics will await new material with a certain morbid fascination, eager to remark on how close to total extinguishment the band’s early creative fire has become while fans will nervously check their calendars in the breathless hope that when the next album drops, their lives will change again. And so it is with Interpol as they prepare to release their fifth album, El Pintor, in September with the glare from 2002’s Turn On The Bright Lights still blinding supporters and detractors alike.

“We’re fiercely proud of the first record and realise that it has a very special place for a lot of our fans in our catalogue but we never judge our other material against that,” says Paul Banks, the band’s frontman. “It’s great that we have a record that’s special to people and it’s understandable that some people don’t come along with us on our journey when they’re so beholden to that. I mean that’s cool, if that’s what you love about the band then keep listening to the first record but we need to get out there and make new stuff.”

Forming in New York City in 1997 with singer Banks sharing guitar duties with founding member Daniel Kessler, augmented on bass by Carlos Dengler and Greg Dundy on drums, Interpol quickly built a reputation as a band that worked hard and played hard, combining a dedication to touring with an equally committed devotion to the Big Apple’s nightlife. By the time debut album Turn On The Bright Lights was primed and ready, the band – now with Sam Fogarino on drums – were already on first name terms with many of post-9/11 New York’s cocaine and couture set and were being heralded as one of the most pivotal outfits to emerge from the city’s vibrant underground music scene along with bands such as The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The release of Turn On The Bright Lights saw Interpol’s career go into warp drive. Originally seen as a less conventional band than The Strokes or The White Stripes which had effortlessly stepped out of the indie clique into the mainstream spotlight, Interpol now had a calling card with such a zeitgeist-defining appeal that it would become acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded and influential albums of the post-millennium rock scene. With its staccato bass, urgent, jittery guitars and unsettling lyrics often delivered in a bone-dry monotone, Interpol’s debut quickly had them labelled as post-punk revivalists, constantly compared to bands like Joy Division.

Now, some 12 years since their break-through, Interpol are ready to deliver El Pintor, an album that, unsurprisingly, has been held up to the high watermark of their debut and has not been found wanting. Many of those who have already heard it have compared it favourably to Turn On The Bright Lights, not only in quality but also in delivery and energy.

interpol1“People who have heard the record are saying this is the best music we’ve made since the first album,” says Banks. “I’m not going to agree or disagree with that because it’s all opinion. We always set out to make the best record we can and hope that people respond to that. El Pintor is definitely a more immediate rock record than the previous one and has a lot more in common with Turn on the Bright Lights than say, Our Love to Admire or Interpol.”

“That’s not to say the new album is a simplification of our sound,” he adds. “It’s just more of a fucking rock onslaught, man. Songs like ‘Ancient Ways’ and ‘All the Rage Back Home,’ they’re still born of Daniel’s experimentalism but with a massive pair strapped on. Just listen to ‘Same Town New Story’ – now that’s a rare bird.”

Fans will be encouraged by the early indications of a more direct and electrified sound. Many feared that energy and drive was a thing of the dim and distant past.

After 2004’s slightly more pop oriented Antics, the second album which avoided the dreaded sophomore slump and gave the fans hope of the band’s ability to potentially deliver another future masterpiece, Interpol finally succumbed to the lure of the majors and left indie label Matador for Capitol Records in late 2006.

The third album, Our Love to Admire, was pitched by Capitol as the record that would turn Interpol into arena headliners. To that end, Our Love to Admire was a far more polished affair but one which, shorn of the rough edges, exposed the band’s limitations for the first time. Despite it becoming the band’s highest-charting and biggest-selling effort, it was given the cold shoulder by many. In response, as if waiting for the chance to knock down what they had helped to build up, the critics instigated the first waves of a backlash.

“I was always really disappointed about what people said about the band at that time, I think they really missed the mark,” says Banks. “I stopped reading all press after I read something bad about the third record so I never read anything about the fourth. I think artists are more thin-skinned than most people think and probably more thin-skinned than most other people full stop. I used to be a lot more sensitive about the criticism than I am now. For me, the press became something we just had to tune out. Because the negative stuff was a little harsh, in my opinion. The ultimate barometer for us is the reaction of the crowd. When the crowds at our shows are bigger and they’re all singing the songs, that’s the critique that matters.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “I think music criticism has worth and it has a place but it won’t change what I do as an artist. As long as the fans are satisfied and I’ve expressed myself the way I wanted to through that music then little else matters. It’s all opinion and it’s very unlikely that you’ll see eye-to-eye with everyone. I rarely ever read any reviews because, for the most part, a critic is given the record and expected to churn out an article to a strict deadline – which means they maybe listen to the record once. I said a couple of years ago that our music requires repeated listens for people to really understand it and I stand by that to a certain extent because there’s a lot going on in there that most people won’t get from hearing it once and to dismiss it so quickly is a little insulting.”

tumblr_lkixhhhRm51qcvf0to1_500For their fourth, self-titled album, main composers Kessler and Dengler (right) made the decision to push Interpol away from the radio-friendly accessibility of Our Love to Admire and take the band into what the flamboyant and charismatic bassist termed “sturm und drang” – a stormy symphony more akin to a grand Teutonic opera than a 21st century rock record. Pushing the orchestration to its limits and reducing the guitars in favour of layers of keyboards, the band hoped that the challenges they had set themselves on 2010’s Interpol and the return to Matador prior to the album’s release would push them out of their mid-phase comfort zone and into a return to form.

“For the last album, Daniel came in with some really experimental stuff, a lot of electronics and leftfield orchestration and then Carlos took Daniels stuff and pushed it another five degrees,” says Banks. “Carlos always took the experimentalism that little bit further, going into really sophisticated orchestration. That last album was like fucking math! But that’s not a criticism of Carlos or that approach.”

“I’m really proud of that record but it’s quite out there, it’s not a lightweight album and I think people are still taking their time to get their heads around it,” he adds. “In a way, I feel that the self-titled album is the definitive Interpol record as it’s the most complete and cohesive album that we’ve made. Not because it is a summation of what we’d done before that but because it’s a good representation of where we were at that point and because it was the most evolved.”

Others didn’t see it that way. While the band’s supporters lauded Interpol’s bravery in releasing an art-rock opus at a time when albums needed to contain at least two killer singles to be deemed a success, sections of the press savaged the fourth album, calling it bloated and self-indulgent. The overall feeling of implosion was compounded by Dengler’s decision to quit the band in the wake of the album’s release.

Banks is reluctant to open up too much about Dengler’s departure, citing previous betrayals by the media after confiding in them in the past, but he makes it clear that it was an amicable parting of the ways. “I’m his biggest fan and I think Carlos is a genius but I made a decision very early on in this band that I was willing to put up with a whole lot of crap from people if they were what I considered to be a genius,” he says. “The benefits that come from that level of creativity far outweigh any annoyance which can arise from someone being an asshole. So I will say that I miss Carlos, I miss the energy that he’s taken with him but it was a departure that was more like the ending of a marriage where one person says, ‘it’s not working – I have to leave’ rather than a brother betraying you.”

Banks rejects the idea that the return to an edgier, more stripped-down sound on El Pintor was due to the absence of Dengler’s experimental influence. “The fact that El Pintor is more direct is not a reaction to Carlos leaving the band in the way that we thought, ‘okay we’re free of the complicated shit, let’s get back to basics’ because we never go back, we never try to replicate. If Carlos’ departure has influenced anything on this album, it’s the fact that we had to work out what we were going to be like as a band without him and we discovered an exhilaration in that, an excitement from working out how to be a three-piece. So of course we’re a different band now but whereas before we were a molecule with four atoms attached to it, we’re still that molecule but with three atoms now and as a result we’re creating a different energy. There is a different dynamic in the studio, of course, because of that. Three is a good number for debates because unless someone perennially sits on the fence, two are going to have to come down on the same side of the argument at some point and shit gets sorted easier that way.”

images_uploads_album_ole-1069_interpol_-_el_pintor1Interpol as a trio have worked in much the same way as Interpol the quartet would have done in approaching the writing and recording of El Pintor, according to Banks. “Daniel comes in with what he’s been working on, just as before, and we work on that as a band, feeding into that and seeing where we can all take it. Usually what develops is just based on feel. It organically develops from Daniel’s vision. It’s really hard to try and set a specific target in terms of a sound when you’re in such a collaborative band. We start with the raw material of Daniel’s ideas and then listen to each other as it starts to grow. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and our music so we trust in that spark of creation and let it develop, let it build. It always finds its own way.”

“The writing is already done before we even step into the recording studio so our process is to develop the material and get sharp with it in the rehearsal rooms,” he adds. “We never write in the studio because writing an album when you’re in the studio is fucking expensive. No-one except those bands which have millions behind them can do that because endless studio time requires a massive budget, and when you’re writing on that particular clock, you’re burning through the dollars. A rehearsal room is like a hundredth of the price of a studio so we’ve got all the songs ready before we start running the tapes.”

What is different, of course, is that there are now three members – which meant either someone from within the band had to take over bass duties for the album or a new recruit had to be found and bedded in. The band decided it would be easier to keep responsibility for the four-string in-house. “When Carlos left we had this initial thought of ‘shit, you know, we’re going to have to start auditioning for bass players if we’re going to make this new record,'” says Banks. “It was only because I’d played bass on both my solo records that I felt capable to step up when Daniel suggested it. I don’t think I’d have been keen to do it had I not had the experience before but I really enjoyed it and I play bass on all the album tracks.”

Banks agrees with the notion that El Pintor marks the beginning of the next phase of Interpol but is reluctant to speculate as to where the band may go from here. What he hopes is that Interpol can continue to evolve and confound expectations.

“No-one was wrong when they said that we were post-punk revivalists but it was a simplistic label, a reduction of what we are as artists,” he says. “I’m honoured in a way that people took the time to try and define us but definitions change. What we are now is a rock band. That’s what we are and what we do. We’re happy with that. As we grow, perhaps we can become something undefinable.”

A Q&A based on this interview with Paul Banks appeared in CLASH Magazine

This full-length feature also appeared on PULUCHE.COM

In Conversation: John Lydon

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Virgin Records may be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first album release this year, Mike Oldfield’s debut ‘Tubular Bells’, but no commemoration of the label’s legacy would be complete without some involvement from one of its most notorious sons: a certain John Lydon.

Here, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten talks about his former label, the general state of the music industry and the world in general.

Your relationship with Virgin Records has been a famously tumultuous one, with numerous love-ins and bust-ups scattered throughout your career, both with Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited. So what made you agree to honour the label’s 40th anniversary on your current tour with PiL?

Let’s face it: if Virgin is going to celebrate their years as a company they can hardly avoid me. It has been a love-hate relationship, but I’ve got to say I really enjoyed working with Virgin. It’s not common to find someone like Richard Branson, who threw his whole company behind the title ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’, and backed it to the hilt with a huge poster campaign.

He heard people bitching about it, about us using foul language, and he backed it. He backed me in court when we were fighting to use that. As a result, we made “bollocks” part of the English language, which it always was, but we fought for and won the right to use it. It was not a small thing at that time.

Did that support from Virgin allow the Pistols the freedom to embrace the chaos? There were legal challenges and a lot of establishment scaremongering going on around the band and the label at the time of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’.

All of the things we were getting accused of – and actually getting up to, let’s be honest – carried heavy penalties and it was good to have that kind of company behind you. They were like the cavalry, backing you up – not so much with horses, but tanks. Knowing that made it easier to be us, knowing you could rely on them.

When we got raided on the Thames (on the promotional ‘God The Save The Queen’ boat trip in 1977), I was quite happy to point at Malcolm (McLaren, manager) and Richard when the police asked who the Sex Pistols were. I knew they’d take care of things. But I also did it as a stich-up. I was hardly an angel, let’s not mess about. Everybody seemed to get arrested that night apart from Johnny Rotten.

But the relationship with Virgin eventually turned sour. What, in your opinion, changed?

When the record company started, the staff were like your friends. But that all changed. Virgin was set up to be an alternative to the other record companies. At the time, the EMIs and such were very corporate, very stiff and most people had to wear shirt and tie except a few trendy ambassadors in fake hippie gear, and it never really worked. Virgin was very loose in comparison, but then it went very corporate on us.

The company started to be manipulated and run by the accounting department, and that’s not any way to run any business because that’s the death and ruination of originality and dexterity. You can’t be approaching it with a tried and tested, and therefore staid, financial model. And be under no illusion, I’ve earned Virgin a pretty penny over the years and introduced them to all manner of things, not just the Pistols and PiL. It’s a shame they haven’t shown more gratitude.

You’ve been locked in a long-running dispute with various labels including Virgin over the rights to your own music, which is one of the reasons why it’s taken PiL nearly 20 years to put out this latest album (‘This Is PiL’). Are you free to talk about what happened now?

Well, I was denied access to my career for a large period of time. Record companies came up with these blanket agreements where everyone would get the same low fee and you wouldn’t have the rights to your songs. They could be thrown into any old advertising campaign and you could end up selling second-hand mattresses or something. This kind of thing created a real tension between me and the labels. And that’s just one of the many, many issues.

You always ended up getting challenged by the accounting department because you wouldn’t agree to go along with that or the release of ‘Best of’s or compilations and you were stopping them earning money off you. These end up being black marks against you. If you make shit, you’ll earn the money but that would contaminate what I feel is the purity of PiL.

It’s taken nearly two decades for me to get out of that, and I haven’t made any rubbish just to speed the process up. We’ve had to form our own label. We have distribution deals, but we’re self-funding so everything is reliant on filling the halls, the venues, for the gigs because that’s our future, where our money is earned. Nobody makes money from records anymore, and haven’t for a long time. The only reason I’m now able to freely use my own material is through persistence.

We were all still linked to that original Pistols deal. There was no renegotiation on that. I was trapped from what seemed to be a great promise from the beginning. The deal with Virgin, for instance, turned into a musical death trap for me. It was a shackle; they wouldn’t release records from me, they wouldn’t fund me, so I could literally not function and I had to go outside of music to raise any kind of money at all.

And that’s difficult because you can’t compromise your integrity. In the creative industries you have to be able to hop to new things regularly. Not being allowed to is one of the causes of the general malaise in the music industry that is felt today.

To what extent was your involvement in endorsements such as the Dairy Crest (Country Life) commercials and your appearance on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! linked to your situation with the labels? You got quite a lot of stick for doing both from people who questioned your motives.

Well, the money for the butter ads wasn’t huge but it helped me put something up against the outstanding debt, and I could start crawling my way slowly and surely out of those constraints. I could then basically buy myself out of those restrictive contracts. When I worked with the butter people, they gave me a free hand. I enjoyed working with them very, very much, and there was a lot of mutual respect. But it wasn’t done for any scandalous reasons. It was quite anarchistic of them to want to connect themselves to Mr Rotten.

Then when I did I’m A Celebrity… I could have easily taken that money and put that money into PiL, but I agreed to do that for charity reasons so that’s where all that went. There’s no greed in me. But that’s not the kind of story that gets printed about me. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’m A Celebrity… is heavily linked to the newspapers. It’s so tightly knit with the headlines and the scandal weaving, it’s very hard to get any truth printed.

Do you still find that people have an agenda for working with you, or are looking to exploit you in much the same way as they did with the Pistols?

There are a lot of arseholes out there who want to grab onto me and create a controversy by using my name for their own good, and that’s never been my way. I attack governments, institutions – these are the things that I find oppressive in life, not personal tit-for-tats or brawling in a discotheque. This celebrity culture, which is corporate at its rotten core, is my enemy. The only enemies I have these days are institutions that try to manipulate me or my words.

Controversy is contrived these days, and ugly too. You’ve got this useless gossip about who’s shagging whom and all this innuendo, which has gone beyond that and into out-and-out lies printed as truth. It’s all led to a completely meaningless universe; it’s shallow, trivial… Facebook-y and Twittery… There are all these nobodies with their blogs and personal agendas clogging up the drain. Opinion without knowledge can be a spiteful, useless thing, but unfortunately that’s what gets rewarded now.

There is a way to get out of it, and that’s just walk away from it. I don’t need it. I don’t live in that world. To maintain any kind of integrity on the Internet is damn hard. We monitor ourselves religiously here and pride ourselves on putting nothing but the truth out on our website. But it’s then taken by other sites and altered. It’s a constant battle.

Would it be possible for a band like the Sex Pistols to evolve and make an impact in today’s musical climate, or is the industry set up to smother true mavericks and rebels in favour of the lowest common denominator?

I wish there was someone out there who I could consider a rightful heir, but I’m not seeing it. Corporate control is stifling creative rebellion but it’s not a conspiracy: it’s a money-making scheme. It’s cottoned on to the safe codge, the safe bet – anything that’s outside of that is pushed aside.

Can music still make a difference and be a voice for social change?

There’s been a lot of nonsense about how music doesn’t change things and every couple of years some famous person comes up with that quote when really they’re just describing themselves. It just creates this general belief that the younger you are, the less prone you are to demonstration and chaos and change you are. It’s ridiculous, as it’s an upside-down universe now. The voice of rebellion was always a young one, but not anymore. It’s us old folk.

The fact that kids have gotten everything they wanted for so long, that everything’s too easy… there’s an element of that to it. There’s no rebellion because they’ve never had to fight for anything. In the record industry, all you have to do these days to sell your record is to wear a bikini and flash your arse. And that’s just the boys. Where’s the mystery, the intelligence, the depth, the content, the point, the purpose in life? That’s all been removed. It’s all about jewellery and showing off. It’s one dimensional.

Would you say that this is unique to the music industry or is it a general attitude in society?

I weep for society sometimes, but I’m also really hopeful because things do happen which excite me. I really hope that there’s going to be a tipping point where we’ve all had enough of the lies and spin. I believe we have it in all of us to rise up.

For me, the best glimpse of this was the Occupy movement, which was a combination of all different elements that disagreed with each other but came together to face a common enemy. It was mocked by the media; but the more it was mocked, the closer I came attached to it. I think civil disobedience is a wonderful thing. I thought the uprisings all across the Arab World were thrilling, breathtaking, something not seen for a generation and certainly not in that part of the world.

What about back home in the UK? You live in Los Angeles now but you still have a very strong opinion on what’s happening back in Britain. Is England’s Dreaming now a nightmare?

This government, this Tory-Liberal coalition… they’re laughable. They’re a bunch of people ill equipped for the jobs they’ve been given. They’re the embodiment of all that class animosity which is still rampant in the UK. Both Labour and the Conservatives have said that they have strived to break down the class system, but I don’t believe that either of them has done anything of the kind. They’ve alienated all of us.

We the people, regardless of the class we come from, we are equal. This doesn’t seem to be the view of any politician out there. The thing is, we have to vote because it’s the lesser of two evils. That’s what we confront every fucking four years! We’ve fought for that right. But politics has to change from the grassroots upwards, starting with your local council elections. Get yourself involved. Don’t expect the world to do everything for you. It won’t. Unless you do it for yourself, it won’t happen – that’s the punk ethos. Make change by example, not dictation.

This interview first appeared in CLASH Magazine

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

She’s Electric interview on Puluche.com

In a departure from the usual Tales From Down the Front articles, I am posting an interview I gave to the US music site Puluche.com about the release of my second novel She’s Electric.

Nick Amies is a journalist and author based in Brussels who writes for publications such as The New York Times, The Economist and Red Bulletin magazine and is also a senior contributing writer for Puluche. While his freelance work ranges from international politics to architecture, his main passion is music. As well as his magazine work, Nick has written two novels, each set in an important period of British pop culture. Here he talks to Puluche about She’s Electric, his Britpop-era love story and ode to excess.

electricPuluche: Firstly, congratulations on She’s Electric. I found it to be an extremely interesting read. It certainly is a multi-faceted love story with a sex, drugs and rock and roll backdrop, but within a “Cool Britannia” culture which many might not know about. How does your book relate to international audiences when it’s such a Brit-focused topic?

Nick Amies: I think the emotional themes running through the book – love, loss, desperation, insecurity – are universal. When we first meet Danny, the narrator of the story, he’s a young man coming out of a long-term relationship into a world he doesn’t really understand. He’s been one half of a high school love affair as long as he can remember and now he’s on his own. He’s hurt, lonely and angry due to the break-up but also confused and lost because he doesn’t know who or what he’s supposed to be. I think that wherever you’re from, you can relate to feelings like that and it’s part of the human condition to question the reasons for our existence and what it’s all supposed to mean. As for the cultural setting, again I feel that while it’s specifically British, anyone who has ever had their life changed by music or have bought into a particular scene wholesale will identify with the characters. The music is not just a soundtrack to their lives but a way of life in itself. It comes with an identity, a fashion and a sense of belonging. Anyone who has ever been a fan of a band will know what that means. Plus being a music fan, I believe, is essentially being part of a global community. We may have different tastes but the emotions that music elicits are built into our DNA. She’s Electric is set in the Britpop era but it could have been set anywhere at any time where a musical phenomenon has moved a generation of young people.

In that case, why set the book specifically in the Britpop era?

Firstly, I followed the old advice of writing about what you know. I lived through this period and experienced a lot of things I wanted to document. Secondly, the Britpop era is extremely well suited as a setting for a coming-of-age story with all the insecurities which come with that. It was a uniquely superficial period and as such it was the best and worst time to suffer from an identity crisis, which is essentially what each of the main characters in my book are going through. On the one hand, the movement itself and its association with a new permissiveness which openly tolerated bad behavior, casual sex and substance abuse came with a blueprint. If you weren’t sure who you wanted to be, you just did what everybody else did. There was an attitude, a way of dressing, a way of behaving that was connected with the whole idea of what it meant to be young and British at the time. But on the other hand, if you were really searching for something, buying into this could really drag you further away from yourself. This is the situation facing the guys in the book. They have whole-heartedly embraced Britpop and Lad culture but, as time moves on, they realize that there is little substance behind it and that the void they have in their lives is still there behind the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Is it a very personal story then? Perhaps a thinly-veiled autobiography?

I would never admit that even if it were true! What I will say is that the characters are fictitious but the experiences are very loosely based on those I and my friends were part of but everything is exaggerated for narrative purposes. Of course the cultural reference points detailed in the book such as the massive Oasis gigs at Knebworth in 1996, the 1995 Glastonbury festival and the 1997 General Election in the UK are all documented historical events. The emotional turmoil and search for identity are all written from a personal viewpoint but don’t get the idea that we were all suffering some kind of existential angst! It was the best time to be young and the most concentrated period of partying that I’ve ever lived through so we were hardly crying into our beers every night, wailing about how hard our lives were. It was a lot of fun. I think that comes across in the book. Danny and his friends live it large and enjoy every excessive minute but at some point they realize that there’s more to life than picking up a different girl every night and waking up with self-induced memory loss and that’s when the internal struggles begin.

What are the subtexts and messages in the book? What did you set out to say with it beyond reminiscing about a great time in music?

The book moves from the present to the past and back again with flashbacks from the Britpop era used to illustrate certain themes or show contrasts to the lives the main characters are leading in the present day. All of them are struggling with different aspects of their lives as adults with responsibilities and their reunion back on their old stomping ground emphasises how much things have changed. Danny is the last one to really give up on the old life and is using the reunion to see if returning to his old ways is a viable option, despite having a partner and child at home. His identity crisis has gone on the longest. I suppose there’s a message here about the risks of trying to recapture former glories or trying to relive the past at the risk of your future. I also wanted to point out that even though we get older, things don’t always get easier if you’re not prepared to leave history behind. We can only grow by letting go, which doesn’t mean we have to forget or deny the past. The sections dealing with Britpop are clearly a celebration of that time with their depictions of all the fun that was had but as that timeline moves on to 1997 it shows that the façade was beginning to slip and the party was clearly coming to an end, something the guys address with hindsight in the present day sections of the book. In short, I wanted to show that youth cultures are not built to last, much like youth itself, but you should live them to the full while they’re there just as you should embrace your youth and not pine for it when it’s gone.

electric-bmpWhy was Britpop so important to British culture?

Youth and popular culture movements tend to rise as a reaction to the socio-political climate of the time. Before Britpop, we’d had a reaction to the years of oppressive conservatism which had become entrenched in the UK under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This reaction gave birth to acid house and the Madchester music scene. Driven by the ecstasy explosion, these movements provided an escape route from the poverty and hopelessness that many parts of Britain were suffering from at the end of the 1980s. When that phase passed, British music retreated and US grunge flooded in. Britpop was a reaction to that as much as anything else. People like Blur’s Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher of Oasis said that their bands’ early Britpop output was a direct riposte to the nihilism of grunge and an attempt to reverse the flood of US culture swamping the UK. So, Britpop was important in the way that it gave the country something to be proud of again and made it okay to be patriotic. Britpop got an extra boost when Tony Blair and the Labour Party finally ended 18 years of conservative rule in 1997. Suddenly it was like the heavy curtains were drawn back to reveal a new land of hope and opportunity stretching into the distance. When things like that happen in my country, we Brits tend to go a bit mad and make the most of it without really thinking about the consequences. But before it was all revealed to be a false dawn and that we’d actually been manipulated into thinking things would be truly different, Blair’s labeling of all things cultural with the “Cool Britannia” tag revitalized everything: music, art, literature and film. Even though it turned out to be a cynical marketing plan of the government’s making, the idea to tie it all together and brand it was an inspired one. It was an identity we could all get behind and one which could be sold abroad. Britain was the centre of attention during that time and I think the music, fashion and attitude which came out of that time began to influence a lot of other cultures.

And what about the music which was at the heart of it all?

The success of the big bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp for example inspired many others to make music with varying degrees of success and quality so to be a fan of the genre at that time was to be spoilt for choice. It was a great and productive time for British music and it also exported well. The Europeans instantly understood it and quickly grew to love it, the Japanese went crazy for it immediately and even the US succumbed to a certain degree. Its popularity in the countries which embraced it can still be seen today in the way audiences welcome back the legends and react to British bands in general as a result of that Britpop Invasion.

It’s also worth remembering that Britpop happened at a time before the internet exploded. Oasis sold over eight million copies of their debut album and followed that up by selling over 22 million copies of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? without the help of Twitter, YouTube or online marketing campaigns. This was an age before the digital revolution so all those sales were actual CDs, records and cassette tapes. There wasn’t any downloading going on – legal or otherwise. So in that respect, Britpop still represents the zenith of the British music industry before it imploded. It is a high watermark that will never be reached again.

glory-bmpIs this era still relevant today?

It’s relevant in the way that punk is still relevant or the Sixties are still relevant. We are where we are musically in the UK because of Britpop. And Britpop couldn’t have happened if bands hadn’t heard the Sex Pistols or had never listened to their parents’ Beatles records. It’s a signpost on the road of Britain’s musical progress, whether people like that or not. If there had been no Stone Roses, there would have been no Oasis. No Oasis, no Arctic Monkeys and so on. So as a legacy with a continuing influence, yes it’s relevant. As a reference point on the quest of knowledge about Britain’s musical heritage, it’s relevant. But most importantly, it’s relevant in the lives of all those who love the music that came out of that era. For us, it’s as relevant now as it was then because it is such a huge part of our lives. That’s why in She’s Electric, Danny and his friends continue to celebrate those days even as middle age creeps up on them. Their lives have gone separate, very different ways but they will always have those crazy days when their friendships were formed. For the Britpop generation, it will always be relevant.

What is the true current status of the Britpop genre? The remaining bands that consider themselves a part of this movement, do they still represent the genre well compared to the originals like Blur, Suede and eventually others such as Oasis?

When the party ended, there were a lot of casualties. No-one escaped unharmed and I think that can be heard in the material that the original bands put out after Britpop came to a close. If you listen to Blur or 13 they are polar opposites of The Great Escape and you can’t compare the cocaine bluster of Be Here Now-era Oasis to the washed-out comedown of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. So whatever Britpop was musically, it stopped existing soon afterwards. But even at the height of the movement it was a very contentious thing to say that one band or another sounded “Britpop”. There was never really one style. It was more of an attitude than a sound. When that attitude became more introspective, Britpop ceased to exist. There may be bands around now which get labeled Britpop but that’s just lazy. They can’t be Britpop because there is no such thing. That particular zeitgeist – every strand of cultural DNA from which Britpop was constructed – is history. It can never be repeated or cloned.

Knowing you as a music reviewer as well, one that can be quite critical, you recently rated Arctic Monkeys latest album AM as a perfect release. Such new releases are sadly few and far between in modern music compared to previous decades. What are many of today’s bands missing compared to a release like AM where they just get it?

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It’s easy to point the finger at The Man but that doesn’t change the fact that The Man has a lot to answer for in this respect. There are just too few risk takers in the music business these days and not enough labels who are confident and savvy enough to let their acts experiment. I have a lot of respect for Domino for letting Arctic Monkeys go their own way. They could have forced them to stick to the tried and tested formula of the early days but they gave them space to evolve. They could have panicked after Humbug saw the band suffer what was essentially the first bit of backlash but they let them work it out themselves and move on to great effect. I wrote in my AM review that freedom and confidence bring their own reward and for great music to be made there has to be less emphasis on the bottom line and shifting units. Bands have to be shown love and trust, not balance sheets. Reducing the number of accountants and employing more people with a passion for music would be a start.

In your opinion, is rock music in a continuing period decline?

I wouldn’t say it’s in a continuing period of decline but I would say that it is in one of the longest periodical downswings for some time. We haven’t really seen a movement crash into the collective consciousness and change the musical landscape for a few years now. We seem to be relying on individual bands to innovate and excite rather than expecting a wave to sweep in with all the added extras like the fashion, the attitude and the message to compliment the music. Usually these things grow from a scene in a particular city. I’ve been pinning my hopes on the Perth underground for a while now, with Tame Impala, Pond and others coming from this alternative community on the Australian west coast but I think there should have been more of a collective impact made by now. Perhaps growing a local scene from Down Under into an international phenomenon is harder than if you are in New York. I don’t know. Perhaps the general problem is that the opportunities previously enjoyed by those being nurtured in the traditional breeding grounds are shrinking. The question then arises about funding and support for small venues and you’re then into a political debate. But who can say for sure? Maybe it is all crap and we’ve already been condemned to an eternity of rubbish but we haven’t yet realized it. I sincerely hope not.

She’s Electric is available in paperback and Kindle versions on all Amazon’s international sites.

This interview 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: Puluche.com

Nobody’s Puppet: Miles Kane & The Return of the Wirral Riddler

miles_kane_1249265You should really know who Miles Kane is by now. Even if you missed his turn as the precocious 18-year-old guitarist in short-lived Merseybeat combo The Little Flames or his first front man gig as singer with The Rascals, you will surely have noticed him as one half of the Last Shadow Puppets alongside a certain Mr. Alex Turner. Failing that, his breath-taking work rate during his solo breakthrough year in 2011 should surely have seen the 26-year-old Wirral troubadour pop up somewhere on your radar. After releasing his début album The Colour of the Trap in late 2010, young Miles spent most of the following year on tour. Even if you didn’t catch his own shows, there’s a good chance that you may have seen him supporting the likes of Beady Eye, Kasabian and the Arctic Monkeys.

Despite a musical CV which now spans eight years in the business, and the imminent release of his second solo album, Don’t Forget Who You Are, Miles Kane somehow still finds himself saddled with the ‘next big thing’ tag. For a tender-aged stalwart of the scene, with a long list of fans and collaborators which reads like a Who’s Who of modern rock royalty, surely it must be frustrating for recognition to only now start being bestowed on his narrow shoulders.

“For me, the last five years have been all about working in bands and learning my craft so I haven’t really been that interested in whether people have been taking any notice of me during that time,” Kane says, his chirpy Scouse accent adding authenticity to this assertion. “I was too busy being on the journey, dealing with the highs and lows and taking the learning curves at speed. I’ve started from the bottom a few times and have served more than one apprenticeship. Everything that’s gone before has been driving me to this point so if people are now taking notice, I’m more than happy with that and ready for that because I’m really happy with where I am now and the sound I’ve developed.”

That sound has come on leaps and bounds since the early days as a teenager playing in and around Liverpool’s club scene, sweating through the circuit playing jangly pop alongside contemporaries like The Coral and The Zutons. Don’t Forget Who You Are takes the 60’s rock’n’roll vibe developed for The Colour of the Trap and puts it on rigourous gym regime. It’s another urgent record, full of choppy guitars and brimming with cocksure attitude, but it’s a much more muscular effort than before. The orchestration is more lush and the choruses, as you would expect, border on the anthemic, which suggests a growing confidence. But with lead single ‘Give Up’ screaming along to a heavy, crashing beat and almost metal guitars, it appears the Wirral Riddler is in no rush to lay aside the high octane rockers in favour of the cinematic, John Barry-esque theatricals of the Last Shadow Puppets which so distinguished his work with Alex Turner from anything he’d done before.

“I’d describe myself as a rock’n’roller even though there are some cinematic, grand tracks on the album,” he says. “It was great doing the big wide-screen tunes with strings with the Puppets but my heart’s in the rock’n’roll. I like to dabble with songs which people might be surprised with though, like covering Lee Hazlewood and Jacques Dutronc, and that’s one of the great things about being a solo artist that I don’t have to run that by anyone. I’m just obsessed with music and doing tunes like that lets people know that, it shows what mood I’m in.”

It seems that being a solo artist suits the perfectionist side of Kane’s character, the trait that refuses to allow him to leave the house without being immaculately suited and booted, usually in something from his favourite designer Adrien Sauvage, even to go to the shops. The dapper Miles certainly doesn’t regret his decision to leave The Rascals in 2009, even if it meant having to build a new identity from scratch.

“It felt right to go solo after two years of considering it,” he says. “I asked Alex one day whether I should quit and he said I should do it. To be fair, I’d already decided so it wasn’t a case of Alex Turner splitting up the Rascals. I could have gone on and formed another band after the Shadow Puppets but something beautiful happened with the songs I was working on to convince me to front it myself. It’s been a beautiful time for me. I’m a completely different lad. It’s a total buzz.”

Being a rock’n’roller from Merseyside, the obvious weighty legacy of a certain band hangs over Miles as it does all bands and artists from in and around the port city of Liverpool. There’s no escaping the influence of the Beatles; it’s there in every street, in every bar, in every heart. For some, fighting against the omnipotence of Liverpool’s favourite sons could be a way of asserting their individuality. For Miles Kane, however, it’s been the opposite to a certain extent.

“I’ve never felt any pressure from Liverpool’s legacy, in fact I’ve always embraced that and have never hidden that,” he says proudly. “There have been so many great bands from Liverpool and the influence is clear but you have to tread your own path. I’ve always been inspired by the great Liverpool bands and my ambition is to try and be bigger and better than any of them. Considering the Beatles are in there, that may sound a tall order but you’ve got to be in it to win it. If you don’t want to be bigger than the Beatles, what’s the point?”

With Don’t Forget Who You Are soon to be on general release, could this be the moment that Miles Kane finally goes from being the The Next Big Thing to an accepted national hero? Whatever happens, one gets the impression that it won’t matter to him as much as the quality of the music itself. People can view him how they like. How Miles Kane defines himself is through his art and that is something which won’t stop evolving, regardless of the titles awarded him by the public.

“I just don’t really want to stop working,” he says. “I put everything I have into every record and if it’s a hit or a flop, I know there’s nothing more I could have done. I just want to make every record better than the last; I want to improve my singing, my playing, my writing. I’ve always got to be at it. That’s just how I am. It’s like the music – that’s just me. No bullshit. I approach it all the same way. Full on.”