One of the finest debut albums last year was Chris Wade's Dodson and Fogg project, harking back to the sound of early seventies acid folk, with guest appearances from Celia Humphries (Trees), Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention, Trader Horne), and Nik Turner (Hawkwind).
Since the follow-up Derring Do is out now, I had a chat with Chris, who, as well as being a songwriter, is also a writer and has his own magazine. I've been playing since I was six or seven. I've always played in bands and messed around, but I've been seriously writing since April. I interviewed Celia Humphries around 2010, and when I started putting the album together she was the first one I asked to work with, and she agreed. Then there was Judy Dyble, with whom I worked on the first one, and Nik Turner--he did a lot on the debut and was going to do more on the new album, but at the time he was busy with his own stuff. I've got Alison O'Donnell (Mellow Candle) on one track on the new album, and Colin Jones on trumpet, and flute player Amanda Votta from Floating World. Celia adds loads to the songs that she's on. I've always been influenced by Trees' On the Shore.
I remark that listening to the albums, it's easy to see where Chris gets some of his other influences from.
My Dad always had a varied record collection, with lots of those label compilations from the early seventies --things like Bumpers, with bands including Skin Alley, Trees, and so on. I've always been a fan of proper songs that grab you, things like Donovan and early Jethro Tull. I loved (Black) Sabbath as a kid, and that sound from the late sixties and the seventies. I like my material to sound like it came from that era. The best sounding records were made in the late sixties -- a lot of later recordings take the character out.
So how do you manage to make something in 2013 that evokes a retro sound? I record everything on a digital set-up, but I have the microphone up to the amp rather than laying straight into the computer. I don't want it to sound too polished--I want it to sound like it comes from the heart, like the older recordings. I've been enjoying working on the second album one more. The first one involved getting used to the recording process, whilst on the second one I'm expanding the sound, it has the same feel but more unusual sounds, more progressive folk. I want to get the balance right between sounding natural and retro.
Is there anything particular that inspires your songwriting?
It's just a guitar and an unusual chord. I try to think of a different way to play the song-- I don't read music and so I start with the chords and create a melody line to fit. Sometimes I start with a melody line, or even a song title, and I can build on it. I'm not tied to one method of writing a song.
As a songwriter, who inspires you?
I love early Leonard Cohen--especially the first album--early Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and really early Jethro Tull. My favourite songwriter is Ray Davies: he's very English and not afraid to fail. However, his early seventies concept albums are more interesting as historical documents than to listen to.
You also started out as a writer.
I've done a few books. The first was in 2009, and I'm a huge fan of the Stranglers so I ended up doing a book for Hugh Cornwall's Hoover Dam tour, which went really well. Then I started the Hound Dawg magazine as well. I did a comedy novel, which I recorded as an audiobook with Rik Mayall, who improvised on the script. I then worked with Charlie Chuck in 2011 for a short audiobook. It's not as much fun as the music, though, doing the fiction and non-fiction. I like pushing myself and having projects to work on. Some aspects of my writing have helped the music. I did try to bring some of it over, but it might end up as comedy music, a bit Beefheart. I've done comedy music and don't think anyone would want to listen to it. I started my online mag back in 2009. It was free and I do it quarterly now, so I can take much more time over it. I've interviewed members of Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Wilko Johnson. I'd only just written the Wilko piece before he announced his illness.
Have you thought about any live performances for the record?
When I was writing, it was for me on a guitar, Nik on a flute and Celia on vocals. I have to be realistic as the other musicians on the album are all over the world. I would have to find people locally for the gigs, and people my age (27) aren't into what I'm into. It's also not much fun starting out gigging. I would like to figure out the best way of doing it live.
Prior to this, did you have any experience in music?
I had a small band before, but other than that, this is the first experience. It's been a learning process as it is self-funded, self-produced and self-promoted. The project has been a gradual process, growing through the internet and word of mouth. It's been building up and people are enjoying it. I didn't think initially that it was going to get much attention, but I've had 15 reviews and they've all been good.
What about the name?
'Dodson and Fogg' is from a Dickens book (The Pickwick Papers). I didn't want to put it out as 'Chris Wade'--it sounded a bit dull--so I looked through a list of Dickens characters, and thought it would create speculation. People are talking about it as if the project were a duo. I love the name 'Jethro Tull' as it's a bit weird, very old fashioned and English. It fits in well with the whole seventies thing, and the album cover came from the 1700's. I liked the style. It's very yesteryear.
How do you feel about piracy?
I'm not bothered about piracy. It's inevitable, as before the internet people used to tape records, and it's never not going to happen--you can't avoid it. As long as people are listening to it. If people hear it and like it, further down the line they'll buy it. I'm on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and been played on BBC radio. There's a thrill about hearing yourself on the radio, and getting a mag and seeing the reviews also gives you a proper thrill. I always think you do this for yourself first, and if other people like it, then even better. And have you thought about a vinyl release? I would love to do vinyl, but there's got to be the demand for it, otherwise I'll end up with a house full of vinyl that nobody buys. Vinyl is coming back, and it would be so nice to have a vinyl record...
Derring Do and Dodson and Fogg are both available on Chris Wade's website www.wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com
Many thanks to Chris Wade for his time.
The Fierce and the Dead
One of the most innovative bands to hit my radar last year were the fantastic Fierce and the Dead, who really came into their own when they worked with Knifeworld and Trojan Horse on last year's successful (and creatively-named) Stabbing a Dead Horse. Guitarist Matt Stevens is well-known for his solo work with pedals and loops. When you mix his skill with musicians as intuitive and exciting as Kev Feazey (bass, guitars, synth), Steve Cleaton (guitars, pedals), and Stuart Marshall (drums, percussion), you get a creative and unique sound that is the Fierce and the Dead. After speaking online, Matt and Kev were kind enough to answer a few questions about the band.
How did you meet? When did you form?
Matt: We're all from a place called Rushden and we've been friends since school, really. We all moved down to London seperately and ended up getting the band together down here. We formed in 2010 during the making of my second solo record, when I needed a rhythm section. It immediately felt like a band, so we carried on from there. Since then we've put out a record every year: an EP or an album.
What are your musical influences, individually and collectively?
Matt: All over the place. My favourites are Husker Du, Carcass, My Bloody Valentine, Wilco, Miles Davis, Voivod, Mahavishnu Orchestra. US punk, death metal, jazz, indie rock, power pop, psychedelic music. All sorts. Not a lot of instrumentals, but when I was a really little kid I used to love my Mum's Shadows 45s.
Kev: We're all from the same place and were lucky enough to have been exposed to a pretty broad spectrum. We grew up listening to Black Flag, Tortoise, DJ Shadow, King Crimson, etc.
Tell me a bit about each of you--musical history, experience, etc--all the roads that led to the Fierce and the Dead.
Kev: We played in various punk, metal and indie bands, then Matt started doing more experimental stuff on his own, and we started doing what we really wanted to do--moving forward by referencing the music we originally grew up on.
Matt: Stu, our drummer, was in hardcore bands and a brilliant surf band called the Mantawrays. This is Steve's (who joined the band last year) first proper band. So it's quite a range of experience. I've been doing solo guitar gigs with a loop pedal for the last five years and building an audience doing that, which gave Fierce and the Dead quite a head start, really--the audience was there. We are so lucky to have that goodwill and people ready to listen. You can never take that for granted.
How did the recent successful Stabbing a Dead Horse tour come about?
Matt: We just got chatting online with the other bands whose music we really like anyway, through Twitter and Facebook. We all have a point to prove, I suppose, about playing progressive music rather than regressive "prog" and we have similar influences, even though the bands all sound really different. Some dates were less busy than others, but by the time we got to The Lexington there were nearly 250 people there. There was a real momentum to it, which was just crazy. It was great to meet up with so many people I'd only spoken to online previously. We had a lot of support.
Matt: you're very active on Twitter/Facebook. Do you see social media as a significant part of your interactions with your audience? How does it influence your marketing and the way that you release new material?
Matt: I see the internet and social media as a series of tiny communities. There is the prog community, the indie rock community, the punk guys, etc. All the social web does is let us engage with these people more easily. It's all about individual relationships and getting to know people. It's good for people like me who enjoy it, but for others I think it's a bit of a grind. The trouble with it now is that it's really hard to get heard above all the noise, and as more people have become aware of this technology there is far more competition. So it's good and bad. I've done pay-what-you-want releases with the band and solo, because asking people to pay is one more barrier between you and the audience. Now we've built up that, we probably won't offer it again, but I think it's good for bands at the start of their career.
You're labelled as progressive rock. Do you think that the connotations of the prog label have changed? And is it a label that has negatively or positively impacted your career?
Matt: I'm grateful for the fact that we have a prog audience and they're lovely people, but we're not straight prog rock. It does have a negative implication-- some people consider it a dirty word, the real hipsters-- although prog is only one level of irony away from being hipster cool (by the time you read this, it could be the coolest thing in Dalston). I'm not totally a prog person. I'm a massive King Crimson, Mahavishnu and Cardiacs person, but Genesis and Yes don't do a lot for me. It wasn't something I grew up with, but I was lucky enough to grow up listening to Fripp and Zappa as well as Iron Maiden, The Zombies and John Barry. I feel at the moment that there is a new scene coming through with elements of prog and indie rock and hardcore. These are really exciting times.
Kev: We never label ourselves as progressive rock--we always try to play the music we want. But it's great that people are listening and yes, some people do have prejudices, but that is their problem.
Matt: We don't label ourselves as anything. The problem is that a lot of the middle-of-the-road so-called prog stuff is really safe and dull. I remember once that someone said to me "it's really progressive, it sounds exactly like Porcupine Tree." That not my idea of stretching the boundaries of rock music, ripping off other bands and sounding like the past. I love the idea of exciting ambitious music, taking chances.
What are your plans for both the Fierce and the Dead and as solo performers?
Kev: For the Fierce and the Dead, we'll just carry on and enjoy making music.
Matt: We should have a new Fierce and the Dead album out mid-2013, and I'm hoping to do a new solo album. I'm working on some music with my friend Emmett Elvin from Knifewworld (sp?)/Guapo/Chrome Hoof and I'm meeting up to do a record with the Italian bassist Lorenzo Feliciati who plays in Naked Truth. And some other stuff that I can't talk about yet. So, plenty going on then.
You've got to where you are at the moment without big label backing. Is it something you'd want? Or do you feel you're in more control at the moment?
Kev: We don't have a plan. As long as nobody tries to alter the way we make music, we're open to offers.
Matt: We've never said we wouldn't sign to a label, although we've had offers; just nothing that made sense financially, really. We're not really "more DIY than thou" types-- no one is an expert at everything. What's been the highlight of your career so far?Kev: The Lexington, London gig of the Stabbing A Dead Horse tour was really special. To turn up at a venue and have such an enthusiastic audience was great.
Matt: For me it's been the whole of the last UK tour. We had such goodwill from the audiences and the press, and it was a wonderful experience. How we can grow the audience from here, I don't know. If we can get to the point of playing to 200-300 a night across the UK it would allow us to be totally self-sustainable and that would be great. Playing with bands as brilliant as Knifeworld and Trojan Horse was incredible. The most exciting thing for me is what is to come.
Many thanks to Matt and Kev for their time.
English prog rock trio Thieves' Kitchen have been around in one form or another since 1999. The current three-piece line-up is Phil Mercy (guitars), Amy Darby on vocals, and Thomas Johnson on keyboards. I caught up with Phil and Amy recently to talk about the band, their influences, and the latest album One for Sorrow, Two for Joy.
I asked Phil and Amy when the album was released.
Phil: It was released on 29th January. It was a very low-key soft launch. There were no gigs, as we're not gigging this album--our keyboard player Thomas now lives in Stockholm, and we all have day jobs, so we made a conscious decision to be more of a studio band. The album became a project, with ideas bounced around between the three of us. When we started Thomas was living in the UK, but now we write remotely. He recorded all his keyboard parts when he was here last year. I work cerebrally anyway. Days of jamming get way too complicated.
I wondered what the band's influences were.
Phil: My musical influences are away in the past: National Health, David Stewart (not to be confused with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics), all the Canterbury stuff, Allan Holdsworth and Steve Vai, although the era of searching brand new music is long gone. I guess a lot of my influences now are the people that I'm working and writing with. Amy joined in 2001, Thomas joined in 2005, and all three of us, working together, did one album in 2008--The Water Road--with a bassist and drummer who had been with the band since the start, but who moved on once they realised they were gong to be studio-based. As musicians they wanted to gig and be out there performing live.
Amy: That's a question that I always have problems answering. I don't tend to listen to other songwriters for influences. I'm more influenced by the poetry that I write, and it's fifties/sixties poets like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath who influence my writing style. I always tend to do my own thing. I joined, like Phil said, in 2001, when the male vocalist left for family reasons. I went on a US tour in 2001 and hung around. I passed some poems Phil's way and wrote a couple of things for The Water Road, and on One for Sorrow, I did all the lyrics bar Of Sparks and Spires, for which Phil wrote some amazing lyrics. My inspiration has come from the music. I listened to it on loop whilst I worked out what I wanted to say and what the music wanted me to say. I'm inspired by things that I'm interested in-- folklore and mythology, ancient languages. At first I wrote in a very introverted style, but I was keen to be different this time, very personal but more open. Some people start writing from the music, and some start with a song idea. The album has had some great reviews so far.
Amy: We've had some lovely reviews. It's funny that however many good reviews you get for anything, it's always the bad ones that you remember. This album has had lots of nice descriptive reviews, from people who've really engaged with the songs.
Phil: What's buoyed me up and made me happy--several reviewers have spoken about the depth of the songs, and highlighted different aspects. Some like the song-craft, others the lyrics, and on the whole it seems to tick a lot of boxes for many people. How do you sell the band?
Amy: We self-produce, but how do we sell ourselves...? We've very much moved from prog rock to creative rock, and the format of the band has loosened a lot as the sound has loosened, to become more of a collective-- sort of alternative, but not really.
Phil: We hate the tag thing.
Amy: It's hard to tag, as there are people who like folk rock who'd like the album.
Phil: Categories exist for one reason, to inform people. 95% of bands whose music gets labelled progressive I find we have little in common with. It's not so much the music but more the ethos--approaching composition using sound and texture like Sanguine Hum or Big Big Train. In fact the drummer and bassist from Sanguine Hum performed on this album. They had a Canterbury thing going on, and they have a really nice sound on their new album.
Amy: We don't really listen to the radio, we tend to get on with our own thing. We don't read lots of forums. How important is the Internet to promote yourselves?
Amy: We've got a Facebook page, we've redesigned the website for this album, and Phil's been writing blog posts about creating the record. Because we don't play live at all at the moment, a lot of the exposure is online. The album sales travel really far. We've got sales in Canada, South America, Europe, and Japan, and it's such a broad coverage that we wonder how people did it before.
Phil: Self-promotion goes against the whole stiff upper lip, so we hired someone to do PR on Facebook for us, and he's doing a great job. He thinks we're terrible because all we've got is the album, we've no videos, nothing but the music. Back when I was buying records I didn't know what Pink Floyd looked like, I listened to their albums.
And of course vinyl is back now!
Amy: It's big with the indie bands, and the new folk movement as well, and then there's the audiophiles who love it. It's quite hip to do. I'm from the tapes and CD generation and bought my first (vinyl) record last week, Heavy Horses by Jethro Tull and a Leonard Cohen album. Are you going to do a vinyl version of One for Sorrow, Two for Joy?
Amy: We'd like to do one.
Phil: It would be interesting to hear it on an LP. We'd have to go back and remaster it for vinyl. It would have to be done very carefully, and we'd have to juggle the running order.
Amy: For the next album we might consider that from the get-go--the whole approach to making an album for vinyl.
Many thanks to Phil and Amy for their time. www.thieveskitchen.co.uk
Wilson McQueen of Ebony Tower
Ebony Tower are a unique London-based progressive rock band formed by guitarist Wilson McQueen and fronted by singer Zanda King. I recently spoke to Wilson about Ebony Tower.
How did you end up getting together as a band, and where did you all start off individually/collectively on the music scene?
I have been involved with music from five years old, mainly choirs etc, but I sang on the radio at nine years old. I had my first band at twelve and formed a covers band at sixteen/seventeen, where I learned my chops. I blagged a session at BBC Maida Vale when in my early twenties, which sparked an interest in recording which has stayed with me and grown into an obsession. The band started in 1996 as an attempt to get out from the studio desk and do it live. Being original music in an environment where complex or progressive music was always marginalized, we really did it for the art of it. However, the flip side is that I always needed top musicians to cut it live and so I have never made a profit. The band mutated, with musicians being called away on world tours etc, and coming back to the band when possible.
You straddle several genres. What are your biggest influences musically, when it comes to writing and recording, and where do you get the ideas from?
The list is vast, which probably explains the eclectic nature of the music. Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Groundhogs on the one hand. On the other, punk bands like the Damned, post-punk such as Costello and Lower, and more recently the Australian bands from seven to eight years ago. (To those who don't know, check out Rook, Twelve-Foot Ninja, Bushido and of course Butterfly Effect (World's On Fire being a classic). Queens of the Stone Age--big shout-out! Most of my songs come from dreams. Dreams filter words and music.
The last EP was influenced by Lewis Carroll. What are your influences outside of music?
As much as music feeds the inner mind, so do art and poetry. In particular Elliot, Shelley, and recently Dylan Thomas who is the most musical of poets.
You play a variety of gigs, festivals and smaller intimate venues. Which do you prefer?
Festivals are a lot of fun, but theatres are the most enjoyable because the sound is usually really good. Clubs used to be the best, with people in your face and telling you how it is. This audience seems to have largely gone, however. What are your plans for the next twelve months? We need to finish the album, which is written and ready to be laid down. We really want a few more festivals, and will be gigging when we can in between.
This Magic Box Part 1 is part one of a two-part collection. Tell me more about it, and where part two takes you?
The Magic Box Part 2 is one of the songs to be recorded. It tells of a curious man who holds a magic box, which, if you concentrate hard, will tell you your future and remind you of your past. The End is the next track, which is an apocalyptic tale of death, angels, good and evil stuff. The Wizard is a 'dungeons and dragons' track with a fast metal riff. We will also be adding a few other surprises, possibly an acoustic track and a soundscape piece.
You've worked at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios. How did that come about?
Recording is my passion, and this has the best toys and some of the best people, given my budget or lack of it.
What do you prefer: live or studio work?
I would, if I could, always record live--so both.
The cover work for your EPs is visually stunning and matches the music. Do you work closely with the designer on the artwork?
The Magic Box cover is just that. The artist is my daughter Katie Staal, who is a student and a serious performer in her own right. She is steeped in what we do and often sings with the band. She is in many ways the band's muse, so we just let her loose on the project.
What do you prefer: downloads or CDs?
I rarely listen to CDs, but I do miss the quality. Eventually when everything is 24bit 96hz the CD will be unnecessary.
As an independent band, how do you go about interacting with your audience and with potential new audiences without the might of a big label or PR company behind you?
It is next to impossible. Labels are either small, or larger venture capital outfits which take a small business and inject cash to make a big business. Minor problem: there is no longer a business other than wallpaper music. PR companies do not create demand-- they only tap into the demand that is there. Where there is none they do not function. Basically musicians as artists can only be cottage industries.
Many thanks to Wilson McQueen for his time. All interviews were conducted by James R. Turner.