Welcome to this newly-built, state-of-the-art rest home for the writings of Pete Paphides.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

"A broken Britannia for a broken Britain." PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

For Polly Harvey, creation and reaction have long been interwoven. From the swampy reptilian longing of To Bring You My Love and into the febrile solitary confinement chronicled on 1998’s Is This Desire? Then to her nearest brush with the mainstream with the layered FM swagger of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. On September 11, 2001, she won a Mercury for that – although at her Washington hotel, a stone’s throw away from a burning Pentagon, celebration was the last thing on Harvey’s mind. In any case, prize or no prize, she was swift to disown that one too. Don Van Vliet – voice of Captain Beefheart, and favourite singer of Harvey’s stonemason father – had become one of four people to whom Harvey sends her records when she has finished them. Van Vliet didn’t like Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, but he loved its 2004 successor, Uh Huh Her, a record which, at its outermost extremes – Cat On The Wall and Who The Fuck? – sounded like an act of wilful hostility. Lest some of us at the back hadn’t been paying attention, an interview with Barney Hoskyns that same year saw Harvey reiterate, “My ground line when I’m beginning to write a new record is: how far can I get away from the last thing I did?”

Nevertheless, when Harvey reappeared in 2007, with the release of White Chalk, the change seemed to come from a different place altogether. Playing songs from that album in Bristol on the day of its release, Harvey seemed to have discovered a hitherto unheard voice – a high, tremulous thing, perfectly suited to the ornate, mildewed desolation of new songs such as Grow Grow Grow and Silence. Having grown up listening to predominantly American music, it was as though, finally, the West Country scenery of Harvey’s upbringing had finally overpowered her. Perhaps the moment that most strongly symbolized that shift came when she played 1995’s Down By The Water. Played not on guitar but autoharp, the bluesiest standout from To Bring You My Love suddenly sounded like an English folk song of unearthly purity: more Shirley Collins than Albert Collins.

Four years have elapsed since an album of Harvey-penned melodies (she merely provided lyrics on A Woman A Man Walked By her 2009 co-header with John Parish). Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show last May, a confident-looking Harvey affirmed that England was continuing to exert its influence on her writing. This time, however, came yet another break with the old way. For the first time, her new songs were directing the lyrical anglepoise outwards, away from the make-ups, break-ups and losses seemingly chronicled on her previous records. She told a surprised Marr that she took a close interest in politics and that the music she was now making was formed out of “the history of this nation.” By way of illustration, she took her autoharp to a corner of the studio and – sang what we now know to be the title track of her eighth album. “Let England shake,” she sang, “Weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again.”

Augmented on every song by Parish and sometime Bad Seed Mick Harvey, Let England Shake is an album indelibly coloured by ambivalence towards that very landscape and everything it stands for. “Goddam’ Europeans!/Take me back to England,” begins The Last Living Rose. The singer’s damp, clomping hymn to a Blighty of “fog rolling down behind the mountains/and on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains” isn’t dissimilar in tone to what Peter Doherty achieved on his unjustly overlooked 2008 album Grace/Wastelands. Like Doherty too, the psychogeography of Harvey’s newest songs seems to have been formed by days spent nose deep in history books. The 1915 battle for Gallipoli, which wiped out much of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps prompts no less than three songs.

To the beat of a wearied gait, All And Everyone sounds like the centerpiece of a macabre war musical. Whilst there are no real misfires on Let England Shake, it’s nonetheless overshadowed by its two companion pieces here. “The scent of thyme carried on the wind/Stings your face into remembering/That nature has won again,” sings Harvey over the muted, mournful gallop of On Battleship Hill. Mirrored on vocals by drummer and longtime associate Jean-Marc Butty, her tone of calcified sadness could be that of an aged war widow visiting the scene of her husband’s demise, caught between the beauty of the land and the horrors that once took place there. On the The Colour of the Earth, Butty gives voice to a former soldier recalling the moment his best friend ran forward from the Anzac trench, never to be seen again.

The imagery of the battlefield isn’t restricted to these songs either. In The Glorious Land, she describes a country “ploughed by tanks and feet marching.” Here and on The Words That Maketh Murder, you’re left with an inescapable sense that Harvey set out to write a cache of nursery rhymes as discombobulating in its way as that pre-school plague perennial Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses. Her success is measurable by the proliferation of songs that scratch away at your subconscious from their very first airing. To those already mentioned you can add Written On The Forehead – whose images of civil insurrection dovetail neatly into a sample of Niney The Observer’s conscious reggae anthem Blood & Fire – and, of course, that aforesaid title track. On The Andrew Marr Show, Harvey performed it over a jarringly sinister loop of Istanbul (Not Constantinople). On the album, the sample has been supplanted by the same notes picked out by Parish on a xylophone. “England’s dancing days are gone,” sings Harvey over a bleached out production that makes you think of post-war Super 8 footage shot in blazing sunshine.

Eight months since she debuted those words, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider what our Englishness amounts to. We’ve had Dizzee Rascal and James Corden’s Sun-sponsored World Cup song Shout For England challenging all-comers to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”. In Harvey’s hometown of Yeovil, the monument honouring local soldiers who had died in armed combat since the First World War saw its stone column sent crashing to the ground by local youths. We’ve had ministers from the new coalition Government shifting uncomfortably on their Commons benches whilst voices outside echoed their broken promises back at them. We’ve seen deadlines set for our withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, with no clear indication of what we meaningfully achieved there in the first place.

Of course, as she applied the finishing touches to these songs, Harvey couldn’t have known the degree to which England would start to shake by the end of 2010. Nevertheless, there are moments here where it’s hard not to feel that you’re listening to an uncannily timely piece of work. “I live and die through England,” she sings on England. A wordless harmony, almost North African in tone, does nothing to detract from the enveloping spell of this post-Empire lament. “I have searched for your springs,” she continues, “But people stagnate with time/Like water or air/Undaunted, never failing love for you, England/Is all, to which I cling.” Of all her many guises – doomed blues siren; righteous rock vixen, tormented Victorian ghost – this may be her most powerful to date. A broken Britannia for a broken Britain. It turns out that, more than ever, Polly Harvey was made for these times.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

“Nothing is the same as it was.” Ali Campbell and UB40, 2008

It’s been several years since Ali Campbell moved out of Birmingham, but the accent remains intact. In January, when the 49 year-old singer found himself back there, he was staying at the Hotel du Vin in the city centre. His brother Robin drove there to pick him up and – he notes this with some amusement – the two found themselves lost amid the regenerated city’s vastly altered landscape. “Nothing is the same as it was,” he says.

Like much of what he’ll go on to talk about the words chime with an accidental sort of poignancy. Two months isn’t a long time – but then two months ago, no-one had any reason to suspect that, after so long together, the most successful reggae band in British history was on the cusp of an acrimonious split. Right now though, UB40s ex-frontman – how strange to type those words – is no longer on speaking terms with Robin or the rest of the group. As Campbell himself says, “It takes a lot for eight members to stay together for 28 years. If you think about it, there’s only U2 – and there’s twice as many of us.”

And yet, there’s seemingly no going back. In February – the last time Campbell and the rest of UB40 exchanged glances – 30,000 Ugandan fans were gazing on at them, many unaware that the band were honouring their final live commitment. By that time a storm of claims and counter-claims had already broken out between the two parties. UB40 said that he had placed the promotion of his solo album Running Free over his duties with the band. On January 29th, a statement from Campbell’s solicitors stated that the singer had left to seek “a resolution to numerous ongoing long term issues that have arisen with the business managers of UB40.”

Come the very end, there were no awkward goodbyes. Since being treated for alcoholism, Campbell has kept a car waiting at the end of every UB40 show, lest he be lured into the recreational habits that come with the after-show party. In Kampala, it meant that he could simply run off stage and, effectively, out of UB40. But that was February – and if truth be told, by this point, the feud had already assumed a personal tone.

Taking exception to UB40’s contention that his “management” grievances were a smokescreen for his desire to put his solo career first, Campbell struck back, implying sour grapes. On Running Free’s arrival in UK top ten last October, he said that Paul McCartney was quicker to offer his congratulations than any of UB40. “All I got [from the band] was a text off Norman [Hassan, trombonist] that said, ‘Well done Piggy.’” Campbell’s nickname, presumably? “Yes. Well, it used to be.”

The hurt comes out in brief bursts. During the course of a one hour conversation, Campbell says things about his bandmates that I suspect he doesn’t really mean (a trait you hope he learns to curb before more excessive remarks end up being published). His bullish demeanour is heightened by the news that the group’s keyboard player Michael Virtue has also announced his departure, citing similar grievances. Just as telling though is the sense of a man keen to reassure himself that he has made the right decision. He points across the corridor to a studio where Chrissie Hynde – who duetted with UB40 on their version of I Got You – was recently rehearsing. “She came in, saw my band and said how brilliant they sounded. Then, she says, ‘I’ve f***ing had it with my band as well. Martin [the drummer] is still there, but she says she got rid of the others last week. She said, ‘We went into the studio and it just sounded like The Pretenders… and who wants to hear that apart from four f***ing fat lesbians in Ohio?’ I wanna do what you’re doing.”

Campbell may have inspired Chrissie Hynde to find a new band, but the fact is that plenty of people remain fond of Campbell’s old one. Whatever you think of their 80s mutation into a living reggae-lite jukebox, their first two albums – Signing Off and Present Arms – deserve to be acknowledged alongside more feted Midlands contemporaries such as The Specials and The Beat. As it happens, they rediscovered their militant edge in fine style on 2005’s Who You Fighting For. When it comes to talking about the group’s collective infancy, Campbell needs no encouragement. “Back then, Birmingham was multiracial. We’ve gone backwards in that respect. If you go back to our old stomping ground – Balsall Heath and Sparkhill – black kids hang around with black kids and white kids stick with other whites.”

Campbell says that the values promoted by ensuing forms of music have changed the social scenery. “You would never have a band emerge now, in the same way that UB40 did in 1979. But that’s the problem you’ve got now. Hip-hop came along and we inherited the segregation that it promotes.” All the more reason, you think, for them to stay together in 2008. By the same token, it’s nice to see him revelling in nostalgia for happier times. Like all bands starting out, he remembers UB40 as a band of simple pleasures. His friendship with Hynde dates all the way back to 1980 when The Pretenders toured with UB40 and “shared their rider with us.”

Two years later, substance abuse had killed off two members of The Pretenders, but UB40 had ingested nothing stronger than beer and weed. That all changed, remembers Campbell, with the release of UB44 in 1982. Prior to recording it, they embarked on a tour of Europe. Belgium provided their introduction to cocaine. “You go there and the hotels have glass dressers with grooves for coke and little scoops for heroin – from the 1920s. So we were all getting into the history of it. I remember going out and trying [cocaine], and just going out and laughing at the top of our voices – you know, that big elation thing you feel for the first time. Two years later, we were in Bogota with the crew f***ing marking out the stage with coke like [it was] chalk, ’cos we all had that much Peruvian flake, you know?”

Conspicuous by his abstinence was Campbell’s brother Robin. The younger brother likens himself to their father, womanizing Scottish folk singer Ian Campbell – “I did everything to excess” – while he likens the comparatively timid Robin to their mother. “He smokes weed now, but he didn’t start until his 30s.” says Ali, now a near-teetotal father of eight children (four from a previous marriage).

How to square the affectionate glint with which Campbell talks about UB40’s past with the open warfare being reluctantly conducted by both parties through publicists, solicitors and newsprint? In pop there’s no shortage of precedents for this sort of thing. For a year at the end of the 60s, The Bee Gees used the press to level all sorts of accusations at each other. In 1970, a heartbroken Paul McCartney left The Beatles before going on to sue them for the dissolution of their contractual relationship.

UB40’s implosion may yet turn out to be temporary. Right now though, a dream-team comprising Kofi Anan, Terry Waite and a resurrected Mo Mowlam would to struggle to establish common ground between the conflicting utterances currently being issued by both parties. Campbell’s story centres on two bones of contention: (i) his alleged attempts to access details pertaining to the band’s finances; and (ii) his decision to make a solo album at the same time as UB40 were recording their 24th studio album, entitled 24/7. Leaving aside (i) for now, Campbell insists that his solo tracks were recorded in his spare time, without compromising the band’s schedule. For a while, relations between Campbell and the band must have been amicable – at least amicable enough for the singer and UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers to co-write nine songs for Running Free.

However, Campbell now alleges that his album plans became an issue for members of UB40, who thought its release would detract from 24/7. In a bid to placate his colleagues, Campbell says he then tried to convince the band that publicity for his solo album would have a positive effect on the fortunes of 24/7. A further sticking point may have been Campbell’s decision to enlist guest vocalists such as Smokey Robinson, Mick Hucknall, Lemar and Katie Melua on his solo album. UB40’s album was also planned as a set of collaborations. If Campbell describes the clash of projects as surmountable, the same cannot be said of his problems with those running the band’s business affairs. “Every single band member knows I’ve got gripes with the management and I’ve had them for years. But their statement is that I’ve left to pursue a solo career and [I think] I’ve become bigger than the band is all about protecting… management”

And so two issues that – in Campbell’s mind are separate – are intertwined in the eyes of his ex-mates. Rightly or wrongly, UB40 see his business grievances as a smokescreen for his own personal acquisitiveness. Responding to Campbell’s words, UB40 ¬– via their publicist – emailed to say they were “disappointed that Ali Campbell continues to use and hide behind a variety of allegations against the other band members of UB40 and their supposed ‘management Svengali’s [sic].’ Ali Campbell's departure from UB40 has always been about promoting his solo career.”

Campbell, obviously begs to differ, alleging that the group are happy to live on their monthly allowance for the sake of a quiet life: “I want to find out where the rest of the money’s going.” As part of the statement sent to The Times, drummer James Brown suggests that Campbell – who once claimed to have bought his wife a £2000 pair of Gucci jeans – may have become too used to living beyond his means, “The truth is UB40 were no longer prepared to fund the extravagant lifestyles of the other two band members. After being given an ultimatum by both Ali and Michael [Virtue] to sack our staff, some of whom have worked with us for nearly 30 years, we chose to ignore their ultimatum and they chose to leave.”

Campbell’s representatives dispute James Brown’s words. They say Campbell requested four weeks off this June, for a UK tour – and that prior to asking UB40 for this time, he checked with their agent to ensure there was no conflict with a planned UB40 tour of America. It seems, though, that – with the release of 24/7 to avoid a clash with Campbell’s solo promotional duties – the singer’s decision to play solo shows in June this year compounded existing tensions. Prior to last week, fans were still holding out hope of a resolution. But on Saturday, Brian Travers posted a notice on the group’s message board from which there may be no return. Angry at what he sees as the behaviour of “someone that could sell us out quite so easily”, he accused Campbell of “turning into an egomaniac” and using the dispute to “sell tickets for his upcoming tour.” On the afternoon of our meeting, Campbell had already read Travers’ posting and pledged to “never share a stage with him again.”

Of course, if people have to move on, they will move on. Campbell asks if I want to see his new band and beckons me into the rehearsal room. Once in, it isn’t hard to see what so enthused Chrissie Hynde. Eight or nine skilled musicians busily run through Campbell’s imminent Royal Albert Hall show. Scheduled to appear among these venerable reggae sessioneers are most of the guest singers on Running Free – Smokey included. Fans will no doubt go home happy. But when Campbell opens his mouth to sing the lines, “All I can do, I’ve done/But memories won’t go”, will Red Red Wine have ever sounded sadder?

"We cared as much for Supergrass’s maturity as Aled Jones’s label cared for him after his balls dropped.", 2010

Farewell, Supergrass, creators of Alright and a few other hits that don’t quite spring to mind at this moment in time. Before Monday, when news of their split came appended to the obligatory announcement of a farewell tour, many of us didn’t know that the Oxford quartet were still together. Once we did, however, we paused to reflect upon how we would remember the Britpop veterans fronted by Gaz Coombes. Naturally, our thoughts turned to Alright, and the video that accompanied it: three bezzie mates let loose with three Chopper bikes on the grounds of Prisoner village Portmeirion.

For Supergrass, of course, this was the problem. Alright was released 15 years ago – a gorblimey pop moment so evocative that, try as they might, the group never usurped it in our affections. Over the course of six albums, Supergrass went to great lengths to convince the world that their muso chops transcended the childlike charms of that song. They matured, but ultimately, so what? We cared as much for Supergrass’s maturity as Aled Jones’s record label cared for him after his balls dropped.

Perhaps it felt to Supergrass that their predicament was unique. In fact, they’re far from alone. Steve Harley still kvetches about a music industry that “thinks I’ve only written one song.” Toploader’s inability to rustle up a tune as memorable Dancing In The Moonlight finished them off in no time. Prior to appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, Sisqo was last seen singing Thong Song in a Hitchin nightclub. To varying degrees, the same problem unites all these musicians. However, quite what their attitude is towards it probably depends on the work they have done in coming to terms with their albatross.

In fact, the five stages of dealing with one’s albatross are uncannily similar to the five stages of grief that follow bereavement or news of a terminal illness. These were identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death & Dying. First comes denial. Just as the newly-bereaved often attempt to carry on as if nothing had happened, groups whose massive hit is still fresh in the memory will often place it early in the set, as if it wasn’t the reason that people had bought their tickets in the first place. Unfortunate consequences sometimes ensue when this happens. In 1996, watching Weezer in the wake of their breakout hit Buddy Holly, I saw a Denver concert hall empty out within a minute of the song’s final note.

Once denial proves untenable, that’s when anger – phase two – kicks in. “Why me?” rages the afflicted party. After a year spent having to promote Creep in America, Radiohead were angry too – having privately taken to referring to their then-only hit as “Crap”. But, unless you then go on to do what Radiohead subsequently did – breaking the curse by turning their dilemma into a metaphor on My Iron Lung – your group is then fated to enter phase three.

Referred to by Kübler-Ross as the bargaining stage, this is the bit where the “victim” attempts to strike a deal, often with God, in the hope that they may live longer or that their grief might be made bearable. Bands, of course, have no-one but their audience to turn to for mercy. This explains why The Automatic – authors of 2006’s inescapably catchy Monster – have spent much of the interim dangling the carrot of a Monster-based encore on the end of a stick fashioned almost entirely of new songs.

Both in loss and in dealing with your albatross, the next phase to kick in is depression. It’s at this point that many bands decide to call it a day. Rather than have to sing Sit Down one more time, in 2001, Tim Booth disbanded James to devote his life to teaching a quasi-Shamanic “movement meditation practice” called 5rhythms. So why, when his reformed band play the Royal Albert Hall tonight, are they almost certain to play Sit Down and – furthermore – enjoy doing so?

That’s explainable with reference to phase five – finally accepting your lot. This acceptance is ultimately the reason that so many bands reform. When old-stagers like Chris Farlowe and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker perform Out of Time and A Whiter Shade of Pale, and find the wherewithal to give those songs their all, they do so in the hard-won realisation that it’s better to be a one-hit wonder than a non-hit non-wonder.

Supergrass, of course, had lots of other hits – and, yes, if pushed, we probably [ital] could [ital] name a few. Are we to seriously believe that they’ll see out their days without playing any of them again? Of course, not. In years to come, the idea of revisiting their most famous albatross may not thrill them to their marrow. But, given time, it should, at the very least, make them, well… feel alright.

Friday, 14 January 2011

“Why are you wearing your sweater?" The Strokes, November 2005

It is, of course, tempting to dwell on the surly supersized adolescent who deliberately mumbles inaudible answers and then affects to have forgotten them when asked to repeat himself. Lest we do Julian Casablancas a disservice, we should start by remembering the good times. The way his face momentarily softens when you tell him that you think The Strokes have just recorded an album full of potential singles – enough, indeed, to reply, “I like your talk.” The way he ambles into the room and enquires “Is that a strumpet?” Such comic timing, delivered with requisite New York understatement is not hard to warm to. Needless to say, no strumpets have been delivered to The Strokes’ room at the Metropolitan (maybe four years ago, it would have been a different story). The Strokes’ drummer Fab Moretti picks up the tray – containing biscuits, by the way – and extends his arm in Casablanca’s direction. “I think you mean crumpets,” he tells his frontman. “But these are neither.”

“It gets a little confusing,” explains guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, whose friendship with Casablancas goes back to Le Rosey – the prestigious Swiss school where the two were sent in 1992. “Your biscuits are our cookies. Our muffins are your cakes. And our biscuits are… well…” “Sort of a savoury bread,” interjects the drummer, born to Brazilian and Italian parents, “Kind of a flaky, southern kind of food. The sort of thing an old lady in St Augustine would serve you. Right now though, the Metropolitan’s biscuits are helping my hangover.”

Casablancas absents himself from the room – his interview isn’t due to begin for another half an hour – it’s left to Moretti and Hammond to conduct a postmortem of The Strokes’ first UK show in two years – a reminder, if one were needed, that on the eve of their third album, the New York quintet can still elicit feverish devotion in their fans. I tell Moretti about the queues – 800 fans four days previously, snaking around the block at ULU for the chance to get in; then, a couple of hundred more on the night before the show, camped in the hope that extra tickets might be released on the day of the concert. Though still only 25, Moretti has that easy, solicitous air that will probably make a great father of him one day. He says he feels a responsibility to them. He worries that no Strokes show might be worth that sort of hardship. “But at the same time, I’m respectful of their choice. Because there are bands I would have done that for. Which ones? Guns ’N Roses, Nirvana, The Beatles. I would do it for The Beatles right now.”

And those fans lucky enough to get in would have had ample chance to digest The Strokes’ third album – First Impressions On Earth – because for the first half hour or so, that’s all they played. Such confidence in the ability of new material to hold the attention seems to tally with the diffident self-belief that radiated around the band even in 2001, when their repertoire barely extended beyond the ten songs on their debut album Is This It? If that record – and its successor Room On Fire – portrayed a band holed up in a damp New York basement in retreat from pop’s encroaching tendrils, First Impressions… is a development. The sense of airless claustrophobia is still there. But pop – albeit pop of a warped, febrile variety – has, one way or another, found them. Which means that once new single Juicebox has fallen from the charts, big tunes like Electricityscape, On The Other Side and Razorblade – the one with an amusingly similar chorus to Manilow/Westlife monster Mandy – should make light work of following it.

As Moretti and Hammond bowl down towards the bar to join Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Nick Valensi (lead guitar), this seems a natural juncture for a returning Casablancas to make sense of the previous evening’s hysteria. He didn’t see the queue either, although he says that any fans who found him and told him they had been up all night had their names taken down. “They definitely got in the show,” he says, “But then I saw another girl later that day who said she was also in line. But she didn’t ask me, so I didn’t say, ‘Do you want to [go]?’’ He pauses. “If she reads this, I guess she’ll be kicking herself.”

Nonetheless, despite the “unreasonably high expectations” he has of himself, Casablancas enjoyed himself. It seems necessary to ask because, where The Strokes’ 27 year-old frontman is concerned, it’s not always so easy to tell: the impassive stature, the ever-present cop-shades which sit on the bridge of his nose in a barely-lit venue – all the better to focus on individual audience members without the burden of communicating? It’s a gentle line of enquiry – small talk, really – but the drop in the air pressure is enough to make the dogs across the road in Hyde Park start barking, “Um, no. No. No, no. Definitely no thought behind it.”

It wasn’t my intention to spend any great length of time talking to Julian Casablancas about his sunglasses. Still, as if to retreat from any unintended psychoanalytic slight, I suggest that it was purely a cosmetic choice. Which, in turn, prompts the retort, “Why are you wearing your sweater? I dunno… it’s as cosmetic as your sweater is.”

Though I point out that my motives vis a vis the sweater are mainly thermal, I also don’t want to be having a weird argument about sweaters and sunglasses. And, if the ensuing, piercing silence is anything to go by, neither does he. So we try again. First Impressions Of Earth is The Strokes’ first since Casablancas married his girlfriend Juliet in January. First Impressions Of Earth was so named because, when Casablancas surveyed the track listing, he wondered what an alien unfamiliar with our world would make of it. An alien would, I venture, hear songs like You Only Live Once or the vertiginious urgency of Heart In A Cage and deduce that our ambivalence towards love isn’t enough to stop us falling in it. It’s nice to hear The Strokes’ singer swapping skinny-tied insouciance for something more vulnerable. “Ummmm… sure,” ponders the singer, smiling to himself. “I dunno… whatever you think, man.”

Rewind fifteen minutes and Casablancas’ drummer is sitting in the chair now occupied by the singer. “There are so many love songs on this album,” coos an empathetic Moretti – whose own partner Drew Barrymore found herself “papped” as she helped Casablancas’ partner shop for a wedding dress. “It’s great for him, especially given that the person he married was a very close friend of ours for a really long time, so the love was always there between them. It was just kind of… a secret love. We had known her for six years, which is kind of a long time for us young kids.”

Back in the present, Casablancas is still deriving some peculiar amusement from the word “vulnerable”: “Umm, sure. Urm, I dunno. Whatever you think, man, I dunno.” Another pause. “To me, [songs] are loosely based on specific things, but meant to be delivered in a way that, urm… won’t only... um… have an emotional response…” Then comes the inaudible murmur, from which there is no apparent return. I ask him to repeat what he just said.

“It’s not just… it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s… uh… yeah, whatever I said. I can’t remember.” Perhaps realizing that this catatonic state won’t sustain him for the remainder of our allotted time, Casablancas tries to rally. He contends, “meanings of songs have only been destroyed” when he discovers what they’re about. Sometimes, I tell him, the reverse is true. An interview with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke yielded the minor revelation that Everything In Its Right Place from Kid A was inspired by his love of order and tidiness. The song’s dreamlike, spooky sense of euphoria goes well with the compulsive-obsessive overtones of the lyric.

The Strokes’ frontman remains unconvinced. He mutters something else barely audible about the Radiohead song only having one line. That it doesn’t, seems barely a point worth arguing at this stage. His publicist walks in and tells us we have five minutes. I tell him I don’t need them. For the first time since I told Casablancas I liked his record, he registers something other than profound indifference. A smidgen of surprise, perhaps, that maybe that should have been as unpleasant for me as it was for him. “Thanks,” he says. It was nothing, I assure him.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

"Well, a person isn’t his work." Nick and Gabrielle Drake, January 2008

In two hours time, Gabrielle Drake has another interview in the West End. Not this sort of interview, she explains, but one concerning an acting role. On her way from our rendez-vous in Café Richoux, the sole of her shoe will snap in half – necessitating a search for superglue in the Mayfair streets that her brother Nick sang about on an eponymous early composition. A day later, she will email to say that her limping entrance – “like an aged Cinderella” – at the second appointment provided “a good talking point.”

The actress, who has recently garnered acclaim for her one-woman show about the life of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, doesn’t seem especially nervous about the other interview. But when it comes to talking about Family Tree – a “new” Nick Drake album, she’s a little more hesitant. Up until this point, decisions concerning the output of the singer-songwriter who took his own life, aged 27, have been relatively straightforward. Where this selection of informal early recordings is concerned, she has no way of knowing if her brother would have approved. Diehard fans – who, these days, include R.E.M., Paul Weller, Elton John, Norah Jones, Brad Pitt and pretty much every British singer-songwriter to emerge in the last decade – know the contents of bootlegs commonly circulated over the last two decades.

The irony of Gabrielle’s quandary does not need pointing out to her.
The first people to release Nick Drake’s earliest recordings into the wider world were not bootleggers. It was Drake’s parents, whose grief at losing their son was heightened by the obscurity into which his work seemed fated to languish. In the years following his death in 1974, Nick Drake wasn’t even a cult artist. For all the dewy, autumnal wonder of songs like Northern Sky and Hazey Jane I, 1970’s Bryter Layter – his most commercial album – still failed to shift more than 3,500 copies in his lifetime. So when fans occasionally made the pilgrimage to leafy Tanworth-In-Arden, where Drake spent his childhood and his final, depressed months, Rodney and Molly Drake derived some comfort from the notion that someone might have been listening after all.

Gabrielle remembers letters from Rodney and Molly Drake imparting news of such visits. In a “letter” to her brother that she recorded for a Times podcast, she explained, “Mummy became adept at improvising and adapting. Meals would be rustled up, beds made and who cared if there were no flowers on the piano?” And while Molly Drake was “improvising and adapting”, Rodney Drake took delight in compiling tapes of performances these fans could have had no way of hearing.

If Gabrielle Drake’s eagerness to explain the circumstances of Family Tree’s release is touching, it’s also not strictly necessary. In the last decade, two biographies and sundry documentaries have appeared – all attempting to identify the constituents of Drake’s elusive sound. Taking Ewan MacColl’s famous Radio Ballads and, The Everly Brothers’ evocative musical family album Roots as his inspiration, it’s a job that album compiler (and manager of Drake’s estate) Cally Callomon manages to do in 68 minutes. Two revelatory compositions by Molly Drake, both serve as reminders that sung melancholy meditations are not the sole domain of sensitive young men with guitars. And so, no less eerily that Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree seems to portend his posthumous fame, Molly’s Try To Remember – recorded approximately a decade before her son’s fatal overdose – finds her singing about loss with prescient acuity. That Molly’s blues bore a greater stylistic debt to Noel Coward than the folk and blues guitarists that Nick came to embrace merely illustrates the changing cultural climate into which Nick and Gabrielle had to try and fit in.

Moving to rural Warwickshire from colonial Burma, Gabrielle remembers that “Nick and I were both facing this 60s world, growing up in a time when it was not fashionable to be what we were.” For Gabrielle, that sense of belonging came with acting. Taught the basics of guitar by a friend at Marlborough School, Nick seemed to find himself in music. The home recordings on Family Tree give a sense of that shift. Preceding the hobo romanticism of Bert Jansch’s Strolling Down The Highway and Jackson C. Frank’s Milk & Honey we hear Nick playing Mozart on clarinet with his aunt and uncle. Prior to that, a poignant brother-sister duet on All My Trials portends a parallel universe in which Drake’s musical fortunes might have been radically different.

“It’s funny you should mention that,” smiles Gabrielle, “After All My Trials, we sort of had the thought that we should do something else – some sort of act together, but it never materialized. Do you remember Nina and Frederik? We were very fond of them at one point.” The mind boggles at the notion that Nick Drake’s first tentative steps into the musical limelight might have been inspired by a Danish calypso duo. But with Gabrielle Drake’s career taking off, it wasn’t to be. Besides, within two years, it became apparent that something dramatic had happened in Nick’s musical development.

Thanks to the recent discovery of a cassette made by an old friend, the emergence of eight previously unheard Drake performances – recorded in 1967, during a gap year in Aix-En-Provence – illustrates that change. In a letter to his parents, the aspiring folk guitarist wrote, “I’m looking around for the opportunity to start playing music in public. I went to a jazz club in Aix the other night and stood in for about half-an-hour with some other students.” Other accounts from Aix at that time portray an erudite young man, emboldened by cannabis, using the opportunity to finesse the persona of a romantic young poet. American singer Robin Frederick – whose song Been Smoking Too Long is covered on Family Tree – was resident at Aix at the same time. “His physical grace and the aura of the Bohemian poet made it easy to fall for him,” she recalls, “I remember him showing up at my door one winter night with a dark velvet jacket but no coat. And it was cold! So here was a guy that was determined to look cool!”

Gabrielle Drake says she remembers the day in her brother strolled into the family drawing room following “what we would now call a gap year” in Aix-En-Provence. His confidence had grown. So had his hair. Though usually eager to play down aspects of her brother’s life which have since become mythologised, Gabrielle acknowledges that “Aix was a pivotal point in his life.” I suggest to Gabrielle that one of the most impressive aspects of his apprenticeship is the methodical nature of it. Most aspiring artists mark their own progress by writing songs. Prior to leaving for Aix, Nick Drake had never written a song. There was no indication that a year later, he would be have written the breathtaking bulk of Five Leaves Left. It was as though the jigsaw of his influences had to be completed and scrutinised before Nick Drake could rearrange it to reflect who he had become. Only then, could he start in earnest.

“Well yes – that’s a quality he inherited from my dad,” smiles Gabrielle, as though the thought has only just occurred. Because my dad was an engineer, he was very methodical. He would say, ‘Let’s look at this properly’ and bring his mind to bear upon it, so that he could start working on it in earnest. I think that Nick probably did that too.”

Despite that fleeting plan to become the new Nina and Frederik, Gabrielle and Nick Drake never worked together. In a strange way, his death has made more of a team of them than it did in life. The promotion that Drake found so cripplingly difficult in his final years – this was a man who left the completed master of his final album Pink Moon in the reception of his record company without declaring what it was – is now left to his sister. It’s a duty which she carries out with a modicum of ambivalence. “In one way, I don’t enjoy talking about Nick too much, because every time you repeat a story it makes it less true.” Perhaps that’s why she has refused to give her assent to a film. “Any films which deal with the lives of artists end up making them smaller, not bigger.”

Besides, it might be that all the narrative Nick Drake’s life needs is the one detailed by his recorded work – from the tentative self-discovery of Family Tree to the five, final songs, recorded in 1974, which portray a beleaguered soul trying to understand a world that has somehow failed him. It feels pertinent to tell Gabrielle that one thing that distinguishes Family Tree is its frequent air of levity. It’s a chronicle of happy times. “Well, a person isn’t his work,” she smiles, “In his time, Byron attracted a litany of and would-be poets who, he wrote, ‘expect me to be in a perpetual state of poetic creation. Good God though! How would one ever shave in such a condition?’”

Twenty-three years ago, when – as Nicola Freeman – Gabrielle Drake took over the Crossroads motel, most of her interviewers had never heard of Nick Drake, less still knew that he was her brother. Now she seems relieved that his fame has gradually overtaken hers. In 2004, Brad Pitt offered to narrate Lost Boy – a Radio 4 documentary about Drake. Its producer David Barber had initially started work on the programme twelve years previously, but stalled when he couldn’t get anyone to broadcast it. “At the time, when he told me that he couldn’t interest any radio stations in it, I decided not to tell my mother. I knew she didn’t have many months to live, and why make it worse? And in way, I’m glad I didn’t tell her, because she died thinking that something was going to happen. And, of course, something did happen.” Registering the photographer’s arrival, the immaculately coutured guardian of Nick Drake’s legacy rises and declares, “I must titivate myself!” – before returning to her thread. “So, you see, hindsight has vindicated my deception!”

“I started becoming bitter, and a little bit lost in the whole game,” Plan B, July 2010

Another hot high noon in East London means that the huge glass doors across the front of The Vortex have been thrown wide open. As Ben Drew – or Plan B, as you’re more likely to know him – crosses the paved expanse in front of it, Frank Sinatra booms emphatically from the outdoor speakers. Dotted around the place, three or four small clusters of mostly young black men shoot the breeze. Despite an album – The Defamation of Strickland Banks – that has yet to leave the top ten since its release in April, and a recent supporting role alongside Michael Caine in Harry Brown, no-one recognizes him. Were he to wear the suit that has acted as his de facto uniform in the videos to Stay Too Long and She Said, it might be a different story. But, seated outside this bar in shorts and a t-shirt, 26 year-old Drew looks like almost any young white man who knows how to look after himself in Dalston: squaddie-length hair, a slight pallor and eyes that defy you to think the worst of him. If you made him smile, you’d really feel like you’d earned it.

We met once before, I tell him. Surprisingly, he remembers. It was in the Hoxton Bar And Grill. Drew drank Jack Daniels and Coke and talked about the father who, at that point, he hadn’t seen for 15 years. “My granddad has cancer,” he said, “He’s lying in a fucking hospital bed. He’s blind and he’s deaf. He has a hearing aid in one ear, and he can hear about 20 per cent out of it. The muscles in his leg have stopped working. And my f***ing dad don’t give a shit.” It was an unusually intense encounter. Drew’s debut album Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words had already been out for a few weeks, and – though neither of us said it – we both knew that if things were going to take off for him, it would have already done so by now. The cliché about debut albums (usually cited when bands are struggling to succeed them) is that you have your whole life to write them. But in the case of a record that talked his absent father, his mother’s subsequent relationship with a crack user and the various addictions of his friends in Forest Gate, the cliché never rang truer. Drew had bared his soul – and all, apparently, to no avail. After a week at number 30, his album dropped out of the chart.

All of which, I bring up because – well, to be honest, I thought we would never hear from him again. In a life already coloured by rejection, this would surely have to be one too many. It seemed inevitable that this would be the point where his anger would turn inwards. Most of his friends in Forest Gate, where he grew up, had turned to drugs. The one time Drew had tried heroin, as a 16 year-old going to Glastonbury, he remembers asking the stranger who gave it to him why he had started taking it. “He told me about how he was molested as a kid. That was his reason.” Drew says that if he was ever going to let his circumstances swallow him up, 2007 was the year it would have happened. He scoured magazine articles in the hope that another musician might namecheck his work, but to no avail. Assurances from Radio 1, that they would playlist his single Mama, foundered when the song barely scraped the station’s C-list. His record company spent £40,000 only to release the song a week after the release of the album on which it already featured.

“I started becoming bitter, and a little bit lost in the whole game,” he recalls, in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. “That’s how I wrote Stay Too Long. I haven’t got a problem with drink, but if you’re feeling bit insecure, and you’re in the wrong environment, around the wrong people, then you’re going to get into a situation where someone really offends you to the point where you wanna smash their face in. So I kept on getting into these situations where I’d go out with my mates, and they’d go, ‘Look Ben, we’re going.’ I would just stay on, then someone who’s being introduced to me as a fan starts to take the piss.”

It’s hard to ascertain how many times Drew fell into this pattern. On the occasion that made him resolve to change, he remembers asking a stranger what he did. “I seem to spend half my life talking about myself, so when he tells me he was a hairdresser, we go outside for a cigarette, and I’m talking to him about his job. Suddenly, he’s like, ‘Don’t you think we’ve been talking about barbering a bit too long now, mate?’” Drew relives the slight. Hurt and fury blur into one red mist. “You open up to people and you give them a chance to take the piss, innit? So I ended up thinking, ‘I’m not having it from this c***. I walked past him and barged him. He said, ‘Yo man, you just barged me.’ I said, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ By this time, all these people are in the way telling me to calm down. I end up kicking a dustbin as the police get out, and then I just start shouting abuse at the police. So I’m arrested and I spend the night in a cell. They charged me and I had to go to court. Suddenly, I’m on suspended sentence. If I do anything else, I’m getting done for that, I get a criminal record, then it becomes hard to sell my music in America.”

Drew reasoned that he could either give up the drink that released his insecurities or he could tackle those insecurities head on. Looking up “anger management” in the Yellow Pages, he alighted on an address is Hackney and saw the same therapist on a weekly basis for a year. What did he learn during that time? “What did I learn?” Rotating the ice in his ameretto and coke, he chooses to address his glass rather than me. “I had stripped layers of confidence from myself to the point where I was a nervous wreck. I had no sense of humour. I couldn’t talk.”

Though he told his therapist what he did, Drew says he doesn’t know if she ever got around to hearing his music. Much of what he presumably told her over the course of a year, she could have got in condensed form on Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. “How long’s it been dad?” began I Don’t Hate You, before lyrically dismantling the father who left the family home when Drew was six. Drew’s father Paul Ballance had been a musician himself, fronting East London pub rock combos such as Dogwatch and Warm Jets – but when Ballance became a born-again Christian, Drew claims his father would use their fortnightly days together to spew passages from the Bible, using Mars bars as an incitement to pray. If nothing else, the recollections prompted the memorable couplet, “Everytime you put something in your mouth you had to pray to Jesus/Why the f*** do you think I never used to eat Maltesers?” For their creator’s ability to articulate the moment when victim turns perpetrator, other songs were chillingly reminiscent of Eminem at his best. Listen to the child on No More Eatin’ trying to explain to his stepfather why he didn’t retaliate when his bike was stolen, and the hurt in Drew’s bug-eyed refrain is one of the most unsettling sounds you’ll ever hear on an album of any genre.

By the age of 15, it became abundantly clear that whatever issues Drew was having to deal with, mainstream school was not managing to contain them. All these years later, he’s still visibly aggrieved at the memory of being upbraided by his drama teacher after an argument with a pupil over the direction of a project left his classmate in tears. She said, ‘I won’t have you making any student of mine feel uncomfortable. I was like, ‘Are you f***ing dumb, miss? Are you dumb? This girl, she’s manipulative. She’s chatting s**t to you, to get what she wants.’ I walked out, ripping all her posters off the wall, calling her a f***ing slag.”

Having already been expelled from two secondary schools – the second for throwing a chair across a classroom – he was sent to The Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit for “persistent non-attenders and excluded pupils.” It was here that Drew met Jo Bates, then a learning mentor at Tunmarsh. Bates remembers a teenager who “wouldn’t just accept what you told him.” Whilst such qualities might have been a problem in a mainstream secondary school, Bates says that Drew’s “questioning” nature was part and parcel of his creativity. Both she and Drew tell a story concerning his GCSE art project, but the differences in their recollections are telling. Bates only remembers the end result – “a huge multimedia thing that took everyone’s breath away.”

When Drew tells the story, you get a greater measure of the sort of sensitivity his character required. Lapsing into the vernacular of surly asbo youth, he remembers being in two minds about going through with his final exam. “My teacher was, like, ‘What’s the matter?’ I’d be like, ‘Everybody else is painting. I can’t be bothered. I haven’t got enough time. I’m late. I want to get a camera and take pictures, and I want to f*** about on photoshop.’” Drew’s project – which eventually involved a series of portraits distorted, printed onto acetate and subsequently projected – earned him an “unprecedented” A*. “They even exhibited it at East London University,” beams Bates.

Which is the better feeling – the A* or having an album go in at number one? For a second, Drew is a man bamboozled by the prospect of comparing such completely different chapters of his story. Considering how much he wanted the validation of a hit record, the sense of calm when it finally happened caught him unaware. It was a sunny day, he remembers – “my brother’s birthday, so we had a barbecue. I cooked some bream in rum and garlic.”

The Defamation of Strickland Banks was a new direction for the rapper. When he introduced the world to his sweet soul falsetto, a minority of detractors suggested the record was a calculated attempt to turn himself into a male Amy Winehouse. In fact, he had been trying to sing soul and R&B songs ever since his godfather gave him his first guitar along with the chords to Tracks Of My Tears. “The soul thing had never worked for me before,” he remembers. As the half a million people who have bought the album will surely attest, by God does it work now. Nevertheless, even when Love Goes Down, the song that opens The Defamation of Strickland Banks, appeared fully formed, it took him a while to realise that he might be the best person to sing it.

Though the songs began to come thick and fast, Drew told himself that he would sell them on to other artists. Only when he alighted on a narrative to knit them all together did he realise he had written most of his second album. On the face of it, Plan B’s second album may seem like a distancing from the raw memoir of its predecessor. In fact, there’s more of Drew in the story of Strickland Banks than one might first imagine. The album, sung from the first-person perspective of its main protagonist, tells the story of a soul singer who yields to the after-show advances of an obsessive fan. When it becomes clear that the arrangement is nothing more than a one-night stand, she then alleges that he raped her. After being tried and convicted of the charges, songs like Welcome To Hell and The Recluse chronicle Banks’ struggle to adjust to prison life – a struggle which climaxes when an attack from another inmate causes Banks to kill him in self-defence. Listen to his supercharged display on new single Prayin’, and you realise it’s the perfect conceit for someone who has spent most of his life defying people in positions of authority to condemn him. Save for the mechanics of the plot, it really isn’t such a great remove from what’s been happening to him for the last 20 years.

For the first time in his life, Drew has more options than he can action. Having been given a supporting role in Adulthood after director Noel Clarke saw him in the video to Mama, this year saw the release of Harry Brown – in which Drew starred opposite a vigilante Michael Caine. “Did I get on with him? It was fine. To be honest, we were all too intimidated by him to try and talk to him. I didn’t want to taint the experience by saying something stupid.”

On screen, it’s fair to say that it’s Drew that cuts the more intimidating figure. He says that he only accepted the role of amoral East End gang member Noel Winters on the proviso that director Daniel Barber let him change some of his character’s lines. “I said, ‘Look, there’s a hundred other kids you could get, but you’re getting me for a reason. You want realism and I can give you that… otherwise there’s no point. You can get some middle-class thespian.” If the scene which depicts Drew in his interrogation cell, hissing sexual obscenities at his female inquisitor, is anything to go by, Barber was well advised to let him.

Far from being fazed by the momentum his star seems to have gathered, Drew carries himself like a man who has spent the last few years meticulously preparing for just such a moment. In a few minutes, he’ll race off to attend a script meeting for III Manors – a film comprising six short stories, all by Drew, which he will also be directing. Plans for a Strickland Banks movie are also afoot. Somewhere amid all this, Drew is also finding time to write with other artists. He’s working on songs with French singer Sophie Delila, and produced an album by When We Are Kings – the latter fronted by his best friend and recovering heroin addict Jamie King.

Is he happy? You have to ask, because in his case, it isn’t immediately obvious. Personable as Ben Drew is, I don’t think he has actually smiled once in the two hours we’ve spent together. “I had a sort of breakthrough, if you want to call it that,” he explains. “And that helped. It came about halfway through recording the album. I realised that I had already achieved what I set out to achieve. I never gave a f*** about hit records before. When I made the first album, I just wanted to make something that reflected where I came from. I told myself to stop giving a f*** about top ten records, and concentrated on making something people would like in ten years time.”

Perhaps inevitably, it wasn’t long before his father attempted to re-establish contact. When the phone call came, Drew remembers that he was in the rehearsal studio with his band. “I remember looking at everyone there, thinking, ‘You lot don’t know how significant this phone call is.’” When I met Drew four years ago, talk turned to the fact that his father had been a musician, Drew’s animosity turned to curiosity. Someone had recently told him that one of the bands his father had been in sounded “ahead of their time – like, if it came out now, you would think it was good.” After a silence of 18 years, Drew and his father agreed to meet. After everything, what hope of a rapprochement?

“Do you want to know what happened? He denies everything. All our memories of him – anything negative, it never happened. He said it’s just distorted versions of the truth that my mother implanted in my head. He started kicking up a fuss about something that was written about him on Wikipedia… I tried to explain to him that anyone can f***ing edit Wikipedia. I’m a grown man and the guy was coming to me house talking to me like I was six years old, telling me not to swear. I’m like, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t smash your f***ing face in.” So, that’s what happened. Not a happy ending, as such – but neither, Drew is at pains to point out, should it be taken as a sad one.

Tapping a cigarette against its box, he explains, “He wasn’t in my life and it was his decision. Now he’s not in my life and it’s my decision. Finally, I got what I wanted. Closure.”