Here’s a feature about folk musician, Seth Lakeman, which appeared in The Herald recently:
When Seth Lakeman’s fourth solo album, ‘Poor Man’s Heaven,’ was released earlier this year it came with the added fanfare of a TV advertising campaign.
Traditionally reserved for only the biggest selling acts or those into which record companies have invested colossal sums of money, its incongruity served only to highlight just how far the thirty-one year old songwriter has come in the fourteen years since he made his recorded debut (as one third of the Lakeman Brothers). More importantly, it worked, with the album debuting at number 8 in the album charts.
While the brothers made three albums together, and Seth also worked with British folk luminaries, Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon (his sister in law), it was only really with his second solo album, ‘Kitty Jay’ (released in 2005) that Lakeman’s music started to enter a wider consciousness.
Recorded at home in Devon and released on the tiny label, iScream, which he had formed with his brother Sean, it was not only a more cohesive and adventurous record than its predecessor, ‘The Punch Bowl,’ but one which came as a distillation of his previous work and influences.
“I started playing very young. I had picked up a fiddle by the age of six and was playing clubs by the age of 12, partly because my father ran a folk club in Plymouth,” he recalls, “but it wasn’t really until my early twenties that I decided to take it more seriously and do something with it. It was then that that I started working on more song based structures and trying to incorporate stories into them.”
If the style and technique changed, it was still easy to contextualise it within the work of not only his previous collaborators but also his favourite fiddlers (Tom McConville and Stephane Grappelli) and songwriters (Richard Thompson and Randy Newman). Like many great records, it was also driven by an element of desperation.
“When I started out on ‘Kitty Jay’ it was like a clean sheet of paper,” he recalls. “I was signing on at the time, and it was a bit like entering a lottery and finding that the golden ticket fell out.”
“I did the album in two weeks at home and all I really had in mind was to do something that was based on fiddle and vocals and to be song based. In many ways the style and sound had a lot to do with my own naivety at the time, but when I came upon something that was very rhythmic and riff driven, I knew that it was the sound I had been looking for.”
However, it was not so much the record’s release, but its subsequent appearance on the 2005 Mercury Music Prize shortlist that seemed to alert a wider public to the previously insular world of Lakeman’s music.
“Until then, I was making no money and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” he says, “but that was what gave me the opportunity to go out and find an audience or for an audience to go out and find me. I think there is also a type of confidence that develop out of that type of recognition.”
While ‘Kitty Jay’ was in many ways the token folk album on the list and was never realistically likely to pick up the award, it did propel Lakeman towards larger venues with his live show and expedited the release of another album, ‘Freedom Fields,’ which was subsequently picked up by EMI, under the guise of their Relentless imprint.
Historically the attempts of artists coming from the folk scene to crossover to a more mainstream audience have failed, alienating their former fans and failing to find new ones. However, in Lakeman’s case, the timing seems to have worked out well.
“I’m quite fortunate that it seems to have grown at a comfortable, natural pace. EMI bought into the business and that took away a lot of the administrative and organisational burdens that we had, and also they managed to squeeze a few singles out from the albums.”
“Of course, it is hard to let go of something that you feel is your baby – but once you reach a certain level it becomes too big to physically retain control every aspect of what you do. So the compromise, if there was any, that I made was to make sure I retained complete control over the music while in most other areas I am kind of flowing as I go. “
By Lakeman’s account there are a number of reasons for this – what he describes as the ‘stylistically protected’ nature of his music, his ambiguous definition of his genre and the generally sympathetic nature of the record company.
“What I do is quite unique,” he says, “which makes it quite difficult for people to interfere. The songs are based on what I know, stories from this part of the world, while the music is always going to be centred on the fiddle and foot stomping rhythms.”
“While, I think I have always felt part of a British folk tradition, even if I was flying the flag for this part of the world, I have never really claimed to be one thing or the other. I have kind of paved my own way from here. I have never felt any kind of backlash from the purists, or, at least, they have always been really nice to my face!”
However he readily admits, that with the injection of capital, comes a upping of expectations.
“The bigger the record company, the bigger these will be, and it will always be a bit of a battle,” he says. “I am sure there is part of the record company sees me in the same bracket as people like Damien Rice or James Blunt, but while that is an element of what I do, I am never really going to be a radio artist. Universal lyrics are not really what I am about, and the music is always going to have a rhythmic, quirky element which is always a bit alien to being massively popular.”
Following his current tour (and accompanying single “Solomon Browne”) it is time to commence work on album number five for Lakeman. Listening to him describe his music and its direction highlights the crossroads at which his career stands. On the one hand he has successfully defined a sound that he is happy to continue to work within, on the other, he talks of expanding the scope of it by engaging a third party producer (his previous albums have been largely produced primarily by his brother, Sean).
“I don’t see it changing that much,” he says with regards the future. “While it is too early to tell song wise, I know that the vocals are not really going to change, when I started singing, I was basically trying to mimic the sound of the violin.”
“There will be a long batch of writing after the tour, and I think it will be next Spring before we are back out. There is stuff to do in Australia next March and I also have a lot of songs left over from the ‘Poor Man’s Heaven‘ sessions that I would like to go back to.”
There are contradictions too: at various points he suggests both that he would like to go back to the naïve approach of ‘Kitty Jay,’ at others he suggests that album number five may be the time to engage a producer of some reputation.
“I’d love to work with someone like Tchad Blake or Brad Jones, maybe even someone like John Leckie, who would probably strip everything right back. It would be great to work with a real guru like that at some stage. I think so far the records have moved from a very naïve sound to one that is much closer to the live sound, maybe there is another step to take.”
Where it leads may be open to speculation and interpretation, but with a growing reputation as a recording artist, and with nearly twenty years of honing himself as a live performer, now may well be the time to see Lakeman at his peak.
By his own admission, the shows are a ‘high energy, ninety minute combination of the three most recent records,’ and that is a rich reservoir to call upon. (John Williamson)
“It’s almost like we have come full circle,” says Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, as he reflects on his band’s 2008 activities, which combine the re-issue of their Chemikal Underground debut from 1997, Mogwai Young Team, with the release of their new album, ‘The Hawk Is Howling,’ which comes out in September.
Both have seen them back in collusion with the Glasgow based label, the former project instigated by them, the latter recorded primarily at their recently upgraded Chem 19 studios in deepest Lanarkshire.
It also makes for an appropriate moment to reflect on the band’s past, their durability and the endless possibilities that their singular path has allowed them to pursue in between their six ‘official’ albums – the remixes, the soundtracks and the general flexibility of use afforded to their largely instrumental music.
In addition, it has provided a platform for some consistently amazing live shows – the prop on which their recorded output has remained consistently viable at a time when many of their nineties’ contemporaries have long since vanished from view.
For a band which has always seemed relentlessly focused on the future and pushing various boundaries, it is, nevertheless, slightly surprising to find Braithwaite embracing the repackaging of their earliest work with such enthusiasm, especially as he admits that ‘Mogwai Young Team’ was possibly the least pleasurable to make of their records.
“I think with that record it was a one-off experience,” he says. It’s generally pretty easy making records – as a band we are really good friends, probably more so now than we were , so it has never really been a problem. But with that record, for various reasons, recording wasn’t a lot of fun.
“I cannot really remember why – probably a mixture of doing it on a budget and having a deadline. Again, I am not sure why – we had already put a compilation of singles that year, so if I had been managing the band I’d have told us to go on holiday for a few months. I think it was self-imposed, there was a lot of attention on Glasgow at that time, and maybe, in hindsight, we just realised it was our moment.”
Now able to ‘separate the music from the experience of recording it,’ he stands up for the songs on the album, many of which have been central to their live shows and the process behind the reissue.
“The original idea was suggested by Paul (Savage), who recorded the album,” he explains. He didn’t think it was mastered that well, and we thought that if we were going to remaster it would be good to add something to it as well. I’m not very technical, but do know the new one sounds better – a bit bigger.
“That’s why it took a little while, we had to go through a lot of old things – there were a couple of old, unreleased things, some bootlegs, some live recordings. We wanted to find a good live version of Mogwai Fear Satan from around the same time, but discovered that we didn’t manage to play one of those until 2000!”
His wider recollections of the period are ones of the type of music that were driving the band forward as they gained momentum, and their constant surprise at their ever increasing popularity.
“Much of what I remember was just traveling, playing and listening to music. Although the recording of the album wasn’t particularly fun, the touring and the playing at the festivals for the first time was great. We’d grown up on the Nirvana film ‘The year Punk Broke’ and I remember buying a Best of Black Sabbath cassette at a service station on the M6 and listening to it more or less non-stop for six months – so from where we were standing the album was a great success.
“It made the top 75 and sold 10 000 copies. At that time, we couldn’t get our heads round that, that was the equivalent of filling the SECC or something. It was good for us because it gave us a platform to go on and make more records.”
Another album (‘Come On Die Young’) on Chemikal Underground elevated their status still further, and brought with it the inevitable interest from larger companies, with the band joining PIAS, with the larger recording budgets and longer term security that came with it. Ironically, their a&r man of the time, John Niven, has recently fictionalised his experiences in the nineties’ recording industry in the excellent ‘Kill Your Friends’ – begging the question if any of it was a bit close to home for Mogwai?
“Oh yes,” acknowledges Braithwaite. “There was one particular part, that I dug him up about – where he says that you can convince any indie muppet that you are a great guy by telling them how much you love ‘Marquee Moon.’ He tried that one on us, but I know John loves music and it was probably true, but he probably had a list of ten albums, which he would use depending on what type of person he was trying to impress!”
With the release of ‘Rock Action’ and the launch of their label of the same name, Mogwai secured both their musical legacy and short term financial needs, but the rush to spend the new found cash is one of Braithwaite’s few regrets.
“It was the first time we had money,” he says, “and not just to spend on ourselves but we had money to make records. What we ended up doing, which was a catastrophically stupid thing to do, was spend a fortune making our third album. Even around that time there people around us who kept telling us how big we were going to be – how we would be playing arenas and all that – but I think we were always quite self-contained, we knew our limits. In our heads playing the same places that Sonic Youth play was a massive success.”
Although only seven years ago, it was on the cusp of huge changes in the recording industry and ones which have changed both the band’s expectations and the way in which they run their own label, Rock Action, which has new albums pending from James Orr Complex and Remember Remember.
“I think record labels just now are running scared and they don’t quite know what to do,” he says. “In a weird way, with established bands like us, it seems to be that everyone is making money except the labels. It is usually their own fault. I think smaller labels, like Drag City, are doing things that are more interesting and friendlier to punters”
“Our accountant has asked us why we run a record label in the past. We never set out with any massive goal of making any money, which is good, because we haven’t. Sometimes you get a wee surprise -the last Part Chimp album did really well. We have also had a bit of help: Errors got some money for recording and we got some money from the Music Futures’ Fund.”
The technological changes, both in terms of recording and releasing music, in the years between ‘Mogwai Young Team’ and ‘The Hawk Is Howling’ are manifold, but Braithwaite can still joke at the attempts to prevent advance leaking of the record.
“I think the main difference is that you cannot give all your friends a copy of the album before it comes out any more,” he says, “but it is weird when you think back and consider all the technology stuff, it all seems so quaint, even the having to find a phone box to phone your mum and dad when we first went on tour. It’s bizarre.”
“Having said that, It’s still pretty exciting. Musicians are easily amused though. I still remember when we got he vinyl back for MYT and what a big event for us that was. I’m still amazed that I can take such amazing pleasure from picking things up and looking at them from every angle. Its a real privilege to be in that position.”
Originally in the Herald, 2nd August 2008
The Vaselines make it to New York – for the first time:
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
In the world of the Blue Nile, things move in slow motion, and the fact that their work remains a constant source of fascination has often been down to scarcity of recorded output and public profile.
Yet this may be changing, as it is only eight months since they last played, two years since more or less the same line up played at the same venue and a mere four years since the release of their last album, ‘High.’
This relative ubiquity does not, however, produce evidence of productivity. Here, there are only two unrecorded songs – ‘Runaround Girl’ and an incongruous closing cover of ‘Strangers In The Night’ and the majority of the show is simply a band playing brilliantly within its comfort zone.
This means songs that have been embedded in the audience psyche for, in many cases, over twenty years. The opening salvo of , ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops,’ ‘Heatwave’ and ‘Over The Hillside’ is indicative: the songs sound as alien and engaging on first hearing, both timeless and a very much product of their time.
The bass parts and characteristic synthesiser washes were only really acceptable in the eighties, and even the best of the later material, ‘Stay Close’ and ‘She Saw The World’ adhere to a roughly similar template. Throughout, Paul Buchanan’s voice adds deep rooted soul to the machinery which makes such a formula so unique and special.
While it is tempting to posit that they should be challenging themselves and moving in more challenging or contemporaneous directions, it only takes songs like ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘Headlights on the Parade’ and ‘Downtown Lights’ to dismiss such a notion. On this occasion, playing it safe seems exactly the right thing to do.
Originally published in The Herald – here’s visually shaky, but sonically decent footage nicked from You Tube
Classic Grand, Glasgow
Andrew Butler has seen his collective drawn from the New York club, art and fashion scenes mushroom in both popularity and acclaim since the release of their debut album in March, yet aside from a few hometown warm-ups, this British tour is their introduction to playing live.
Few music films provide anything more than the most ephemeral of entertainment, yet there are a handful that serve as important pieces of social documentary as well. D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” Don Letts’ “Punk Rock: The Movie” and the early eighties’ hip-hop movie, “Style Wars” all captured a sense of the social and political climate of the time as well a s featuring some great music. 1973’s “The Harder They Come” performed exactly the same function for reggae music, and in doing so brought what had been, until that point an indigenous Jamaican music scene to the attention of the world.
Its star, Jimmy Cliff, makes his first ever visit to Scotland in a musical career that has spanned thirty eight years to introduce and talk about the film as part of the impending Trip Tych festival, and remains enthusiastic about this piece of his past.
“I look back on it and think that it does capture the spirit and feeling of the people in Jamaica at the time,” he says, “and I think that was why it was a success at the time and an important document now. The character I played was kind of a rebel on the wrong side of the law who was seeking independence and freedom, which I think was the same as a lot of the people at the time. The Rastafarian movement had a lot of the same values and was becoming increasingly important, and the music was another fresh and vibrant part of the whole Jamaican culture. So the film, I think covered musical, social, political and cultural matters.”
At the time of its release Cliff had already established himself as a successful international artist and lived in London during the later part of the sixties when he was signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and enjoying his first international hit in Brazil in 1968 with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” Even so, he had no idea of the film’s initial impact. Its opening in Kingston attracted 30 000 people trying to get a ticket and a glimpse of its star, while similar events took place around the world.
“I guess when we were making the film, we were aware of the interest in it,” he recalls, “but I thought that a lot of that was down to the fact the character was a kind of historical Jamaican figure and that not many films were made in Jamaica at that time. When it came out it was totally amazing. It did a lot to take the music (the soundtrack includes songs by The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Scotty as well as Cliff’s title track and one of his most renowned songs, “Many Rivers to Cross”) of Jamaica to the rest of the world, and I remember the opening of the film in London and Hollywood as well. The opening in Notting Hill Gate was mad, but it seemed to attract people from all over, not just the West Indian community and that was a great feeling.”
It could have been the start of a career in acting for Cliff, but a combination of his music career, which was at its peak around this time, and the lack of suitable roles has limited his subsequent output. A concert/ documentary, “Bongo Man” came out in 1980, and Channel 5 viewers may have recently caught sight of the rather inglorious appearance of Cliff with Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams in 1986’s “Club Paradise.” It did, however, re-ignite some interest in Cliff’s music in America.
“I had always loved acting,” he says, “and at school I was probably more interested in acting than I was in music, but I guess it is just the way things work out. I got noticed doing ‘The Harder They Come’ and was offered other roles, but I didn’t think that they were right. They all seemed to be like less interesting versions of the character I had already played.”
Tellingly, Cliff’s increasingly infrequent appearances in Britain (he has not played for nearly ten years) do not mean that he has stopped working. This is the first year that he has not spent the majority of his time on the road, as he has started work on a sequel to “The Harder They Come.” His global appeal is reflected in both his touring venues and the fact that, as well as London, he has lived at various times in Brazil and Senegal, before returning to Jamaica.
“I have tended to go where I have been most excited by the music and there has been a market for what I do,” he says. “Every year I tour in the States for about three months, but I also go regularly to Brazil and Argentina, the Far East and Africa.”
“The period I stayed in Brazil was very exciting because I made a few records that tried to fuse what I do with Brazilian music, and it was much the same when I was in Africa. I was really blown away by the music I was hearing young people in Senegal and Mali make. People like Youssou N’Dour: the whole scene was very young and aspiring and there was a freshness about it. I sang with a lot of these people in clubs, and felt that they were doing similar things for African music that we had been doing for the music of Jamaica twenty years before.”
Looking back on his career, Cliff is reluctant to pick out particular highlights, preferring to talk of the diversity of places, people and situations that he has encountered in the period.
“I’m at a stage now when I am never going to be able or want to do anything else apart from my music,” he says, “but when I look back on it I have enjoyed all the periods of my career for different reasons. The early period in Jamaica was a bit of a hardship, but the experience of recording for the first time and being paid a shilling for the song was something that I really appreciated. Then, coming to Britain was another challenge, because I was touring with British musicians that didn’t really know ska or rocksteady music and had to adapt to a whole new musical culture.
“The period around the film and going back to Jamaica when I had several big hits was great, but over the years perhaps the strong impact I have had in Africa is the most rewarding thing.”
With “The Harder They Come” the sequel ready to begin filming later this year, he hopes that it will have the same “grittiness” of the original and will have a similar impact on his own musical activities. It would be another remarkable twist in a pioneering life.