Wednesday, July 22, 2009

INTERVIEW: Lewis Garland & The Kett Rebellion

“Everywhere I go, The Final Countdown seems to follow me”, Lewis Garland mutters perplexedly as we debate the merits of 80s power-rock in an Earlsdon charity shop. “I’m not a believer in divine messages, but still…”

I first met Lewis five years ago at Warwick University, where we quickly struck up a mutual rapport after sharing several stages as fledgling singer-songwriters. He’s recently released his debut album, Places We Neglect, to great acclaim in the local press. Perhaps the most striking feature of this remarkably accomplished LP is its consummate lyricism: from the sneaky one-liners and excoriating broadsides dished out to Tate-dwelling catharcissists on Art to the brutal, hilarious self-skewering of album closer Moi, the record positively brims with wit, zest and literary flair. Musically, however, he pulls his weight equally well: while Someday tugs unapologetically at the heartstrings, Moi’s cheerful self-mockery is scored to a sprightly klezmer jig.

Under any normal circumstances, the sight of two pasty middle-class boys communing in the shade on Hearsall Common would be enough to raise suspicion among Coventry’s less-enlightened inhabitants. Thankfully, the ongoing distraction of the summer heat seems to be proving an adequate deterrent from the anticipated drubbing, leaving us free to shoot the breeze on a range of topics from songwriting, label-shopping and the sheer bloody awfulness of James Blunt.

First up, then, a bit of general biog – where are you from originally?

I’m from Norfolk - a little village in the middle of Norfolk called Kenninghall. It’s where the first-ever movement against Elizabeth I started in her first week in power. That’s the most exciting thing about the village… apart from – and I realise this is irrelevant, but it’s interesting to me – they have a go-karting competition each year, made out of anything in the village, like a bath-tub or whatever, and they close down the main road. Which is nice – they don’t have brakes or wheels, so you end up with accidents quite a lot. Also, they kind of don’t tell the police they’re closing it off, but the police found out one year, so they decided to just paint lines on the road. So they had, like, fake lines on the road, so the police didn’t find out because cars just didn’t think they were allowed to go that way!

My hometown’s notable for having a racist Tory MP. She’s also now a corrupt MP who recently got embroiled in the Expenses scandal…

Racist and corrupt? Well, you might as well go the whole hog…

So, you’ve been based in
Coventry for 5 years now…?

Well, since the end of Uni. I did History and Politics, then a Masters in Human Rights a few years later, but that was in Birmingham. But I’ve been based here the whole time, because it’s so beautiful you can’t escape it...

It seemed to me like there was a very specific point a few years ago when you switched from a kind of I Am Kloot/Damien Rice mould to incorporating more folky, political elements in your music. Was there a certain point where you switched - for example, was there a specific artist you came across who got you into that type of music?

You know what’s a bit weird, I always find, is that people seem to be able to listen to something and they’ll be influenced by it and write something in that mould, and it seems like a direct influence – whereas I find that kind of thing… I was into I Am Kloot, Billy Bragg kind of stuff when I was 16. But then the real folk, and specifically klezmer, Jewish traditional music, eastern European thing I got into, I then got into [during] my last years at Uni, but it didn’t seem to come out until a couple of years later. So I usually find that if I’m genuinely influenced rather than trying to copy something, then it’ll come out naturally about three years later. I guess what I was listening to at the end of Uni is what then influenced me in my writing.

I was trying to figure out the best way to describe your style on songs like Moi – ‘gypsy folk’ was the best I could come up with.

Well, it’s klezmer – in the song I think it says something like “faux cod-klezmer tracks”, and that’s what it is: it’s a faux cod-klezmer track! It’s kind of a play on my obsession with eastern European and traditional Jewish music which I went through about 3 years ago – I was only listening to that.

How come?

I don’t know! I found out my Nan was Jewish, but I don’t think that related to it because that was after I got into it. It’s just that I’m naturally chosen and it just came through at some point! [Laughs] I dunno, I just got really into violin and followed that through, and I found the place I loved violin most was in traditional Jewish music. I’m not sure what scale it is exactly that’s used, but it doesn’t seem to be quite the same as Arabic, and it’s not the same as eastern European. I guess the music I’m into is klezmer, which is still eastern European – it’s German, although it’s Jewish… I don’t know, I can’t justify it!

In terms of the lyrics - the thing that’s most striking about the album is that there’s not a word out of place. Is that your main focus, first of all - is that where your songs come from and you then build the music around them, or is it more of a symbiotic process?

I find that they’re almost completely separate things, in that I write them as separate entities – melodies will come to me and I’ll generally put lyrics to melody, but lyrics come to me completely separately. So I don’t so much write lyrics and then write music to it, or write music and write lyrics to it, but rather I’ll constantly be writing lyrics. And then if a melody comes and seems to fit an idea that I’ve come up with in my lyrics, I’ll then place that idea into the song and work it around that.

The difficulty with lyric-writing is that there’s a certain amount of basic human emotions you can get through, and then it’s just a matter of working out different ways of talking about those things. I don’t know how people can sit down and write pure relationship songs all of their lives and not think, ‘I’ve written this one before, in exactly the same way’. And so I’ve got to the stage when I have a fair few melodies, and I have ideas for nice little couplets for lyrics, but it terms of getting whole songs, having a consistent theme that works without me thinking “What’s the point in me saying this again?”

It’s strange - I mean, my main obsession has become lyrics now. I think it’s because – certainly with the political side of things – I have so much I want to say, and people kind of get annoyed when you just rant at them. And so then I got into writing ridiculously earnest political lyrics for a while – but again, really, people don’t like to feel like they’re being judged, or that you’re lecturing them in any way, and so even in a song it kind of irritates people. I think that’s why the whole ‘don’t mix pop and politics’ thing comes about, really.

Do you see yourself as fitting into the ‘protest singer-songwriter’ mode, or do you try and distance yourself from that completely?

No, I mean, I don’t do that – when I was first getting into political writing I was a Billy Bragg obsessive. But I do find you have to be so absolute about your beliefs if you’re going to write a political song which is a protest song. So if it’s an anti-slavery song, it’s fair to say most people can be pretty absolute about that view. But a lot of the political songs on that album end up being almost like an attack on myself. And that’s what I was going into before – on the EP there was very much a kind of straightforward “look at the world, look at how bad it is, here’s what’s happening” kind of song. Whereas this album seems to have moved into a thing where I’ll… like, the first track, Run to Ground, is very much looking at my thoughts as an individual in that I kind of look at other people all the time and get irritated by their failings, but then I realise that I’m just as bad and all I really do is moan about them!

If I had to pick out a theme on the record, it would be ‘the failure of idealism’ – and that runs through not just from the political songs, but also into relationships as well.

Yeah, I think that’s a really fair description of the album as a whole, though I hadn’t thought myself to tie the number of different types of song together in that way – in terms of the love songs, very few of them are straight love-songs! But yeah, I think that’s a pretty perfect description.

Looking at the package as a whole – when you talk about writing lyrics constantly, do you see the album as a kind of sketchbook? I notice you’ve done your own artwork as well.

It was initially going to be called something along the lines of a sketchbook, but we went through various phases. It was going to be called Life Drawing initially, and then the artwork naturally came from that – but I felt that was maybe a bit too obvious, a little bit too clichéd for the title, so it ended up being a lyric from [the song] Life Drawing instead.

Going back to the lyrics, you mentioned the cynicism already – the opening line of the first song states that you’re “just another champagne anarchist”. It seems like a very self-effacing album all the way through - it’s almost like the most personal songs contain the most violent attacks on your own character. Do you see yourself as mocking the idea of the self-indulgent singer-songwriter, or is it just that you feel like you have to have that sense of distance to keep your lyrics in check?

It’s fair to say I’m very much aware of the singer-songwriter stereotype, and I’m always very aware to try and avoid it as much as I can. I don’t always manage it, obviously, no-one does – because in order to be honest, you have to maintain a degree of raw emotion in there. But it’s difficult, because if you do just have that raw emotion, you can come across very much like… well, the type of singer-songwriter who tends to be bludgeoned by the media as much as he possibly can!

Such as…?

Well, it’s obvious to go for James Blunt, but I kind of feel like James Blunt isn’t a fair description as he’s almost like a false version of that. And so I think maybe Damien Rice is a fairer version of that, as I do think Damien Rice is honest in what he does – it’s just maybe slightly one-dimensional.

I absolutely adored the first Damien Rice album, and I remember seeing you play a few tracks from it live once – I met him, too, and he was great: refreshingly upfront about the honesty in his music. But then that second album, 9… it was almost like it was too honest, it was just too much. You came into it in the middle of this horrific break-up, and from thereon the next five tracks were just relentless. Particularly towards the end, there was some excruciating stuff on there.

It’s strange – for me that album just lacks pure melody more than anything else, which is a pretty nasty thing to say about someone based entirely on that! But no, I do love that first album – I realise it’s not necessarily a very cool thing to say these days, but I think Damien Rice’s first album will probably go down as a kind of underground classic in that sense. But yeah, in terms of avoiding the perception of what Damien Rice is, as opposed to what Damien Rice may actually be, I think is what I always try and do. Avoiding James Blunt is a difficult one, because I don’t think he’s honest at all in what he does – I think it’s purely a pop version of that style of music. As a lyricist who’s as obsessive as I am, I just get annoyed with the contradictions of a song like You’re Beautiful than anything else – you can’t “have a plan” and “not know what to do”, come on!

The way I look at it is that if you want to be a popular singer-songwriter, you’ve got to appeal to as many people as you can, and unfortunately most people aren’t that interested in subtlety…

No, and something I always notice is that being a complete lyric obsessive, there’s one member of my band who knows my lyrics, and that’s because he has to sing them! And these are a bunch of musicians – they’re not lyric-lovers, and it’s just strange when you can’t get your own band to listen to them! It’s quite amusing after gigs, because you’ll find there’ll be a couple of people in the crowd who really get it and come up and start raving on about certain lyrics they’ve heard, and then Drew will just sit there going: “Oh yeah, that says that…!”. It’s like, cheers, Drew – well done there. We’ve only played it about a hundred times…

So who do you rate, then, in terms of the current crop of singer-songwriters?

I went through a bit of a Decemberists stage. I was a bit obsessive about The Decemberists for about a year, I bought everything they did during that period of time – all the little EPs they brought out. I guess you could say it influenced the album, but I kind of got into The Decemberists after having gone in a folk direction, so I think I maybe found them as something that made think there was actually hope in doing this music, more than just copying what they do. I just like the storytelling; it’s pure cabaret in some ways.

I’m getting really into Andrew Bird at the moment - he’s an American singer-songwriter, violinist and ‘whistler’, according to him… it’s perhaps at times too pretentious in that I do have to sit there and read the lyrics to actually even know what he’s saying, on occasion! So it’s not very raw, but he’s got some good stuff in there.

Other stuff I’m getting into… I don’t know. I’m kind of going through a phase where I’m just out of my big klezmer stage and I’m just finding the real world again… Iron & Wine I’m into, but not for lyrical reasons. I was a bit obsessed with Neutral Milk Hotel last year for about six months, in that I hadn’t really noticed them – I was aware of A Hawk and a Hacksaw, but I kind of followed it back and I didn’t realise what an underground, cultish band they were at that point.

I really struggle with that guy’s voice. He can’t fucking sing! The guy can’t sing!

- No. And however much people say he can… I can listen to it now, not listening to his vocals, as yeah, they’re appalling. They are appalling, I think it’s fair to say! And I get the feeling they’re probably auto-tuned, and still appalling!

I’ve never ‘got’ Bob Dylan either – the deal-breaker was always his voice. A friend of mine once put it to me like this: she said that he knows he can’t hit the notes – but the fact that he’s trying is enough. I was like: “That’s not gonna cut it. HIT THE FUCKING NOTES!”

- Couldn’t you say that to anyone, then?

Well, exactly. Look at The Libertines. They couldn’t play!

- “They are trying, but there are lots of people who are talented, and haven’t made it!” No, I think the reason I liked Neutral Milk Hotel was because In an Aeroplane Over the Sea had a couple of lines on it I got really into. I really got him as a lyricist, and I don’t think he necessarily thinks through his lyrics that carefully – there are a lot of really shit lyrics on there! – but when he gets it right, the imagery he uses is just stunning.

One of the most notable things about your album is that it’s self-financed, self-released… pretty much everything about it is done by you. First of all, how did you fund it?

[Smiles coyly]
Hm! Well… luck. In terms of recording, Drew has a home studio that his Mum has paid for. We did some of it in Nizlopi’s studio, and then we did some of it at the Royal College of Music, because our percussionist works there. So, pulling in favours all round. It’s always a blag – I mean, at our stage, to get a decent recording you’re either paying a lot of money or you’re having to work through favours.

If a label came knocking though, would you want to take the plunge? Would you rather go with a major or an independent?

I think the ideal is to do it independently, for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m trying to do music as the thing I do in life because it’s the thing I love doing, and so if I were to be signing a deal that would change that fundamentally in some way, then there’d be no point in me doing it. I don’t want to do music as a job in the sense that it would change it so much that I didn’t love doing it anymore. There’d be no point in doing it – I may as well go and do something useful for the world. And so I don’t think that I could sign to a major because I don’t think there’s a chance that they could get that, because their business is purely to make money. And that’s fine – it just doesn’t suit what I do.

I’m not anti-major in the sense that I don’t have great disdain for everything they do, ever – I think there are artists who make sense on majors, and I’ve grown out of hating pop, you know? I think that it’s got its place in the world, and it’s probably on majors. But I don’t think it’s an industry which makes sense for an artist who’s an ‘artist’, rather than an artist who’s a product. I guess if you’re signing to a major at the point when you’ve got a big fanbase, you’re in a stronger position than when you’re signing as an artist who’s a no-one. So if I were signed now, I don’t think I’d have a very strong leverage! But also I suppose it depends what the label is signing you for – I guess if they see the whole product as worth selling, you’re not going to be changed that much.

But if they just like your hat…

Exactly. If that’s the product…! I lost that hat, incidentally. I was very sad.

In terms of your own aspirations, is a deal something you’re pursuing? Have you sent the album round to labels, or are you just trying to build your own reputation and see what happens in future?

Well, we’ve got a 1000-run on this, and I’m kind of looking at the idea of getting publishing deals and a good agent with it, really. Because if you can do it independently then that’s the idea – signing to a smaller label’s fine, but I think you can have the same problems… different problems. Whereas a major label is essentially a corporation and will work as a business, that’s fine, because in some ways they’re more transparent in what they do because they have to work as a major business: they have to follow certain guidelines. Whereas smaller labels, I find – the ones I’ve had experiences with – tend to work in a more dishonest way even than majors. My knowledge really is of a couple of smaller labels, locally-based – first of all, they have favourite acts, and the other acts based on those labels don’t really get a look-in unless it’s in some way benefiting the major acts, or the major act’s on tour and they’re supporting them and happen to be dragged along. And also smaller labels don’t have as much money, and so everything’s going to be put into an artist that’s going to sell – so they can actually be more money-orientated as well, in that they can’t take risks. And so I think signing to a small label is absolutely fine, and would be in our benefit, so long as they were interested in actually pushing us.

So basically, as long as you’re the main priority, and fuck everyone else!

Well, I don’t really mean it as that - as long as we were an equal priority, it’d be fine! But if we were just going to be put aside, there’d be very little point, to be honest. I mean, I say “from an artistic point-of-view, you don’t want to sign to a major” – you can probably get away with that on a smaller label: artistically they won’t bother having control most of the time – they usually don’t have the time to, if nothing else! But then with a smaller label you’ve got to look at whether there’s any point to doing that financially – I know it’s not really artistic reasons, but if the smaller label isn’t going to sell double the amount but they’re taking 50%, what’s the point?

In a review I wrote of the album, I described you as a peripheral member of the Nizlopi family – you have two members of their touring group in your backing band.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t really have that much to do with Nizlopi, to be honest – personally, I have no real connection to them. Bradley is an extended member of the Nizlopi family, definitely – he was their guitar technician for two tours, and he’s been taught double-bass by John, and so he has strong connections to Nizlopi and we’ve been able to work on those links quite a lot. But my connection to Nizlopi is a couple of support gigs really, and I know them as individuals.

Do you feel that you’ve benefited in any way from the exposure they’ve had? From my point-of-view, it seemed like you very quickly went from being some guy I knew at University to having a bit more of a local profile – is that a result of the light that was shone on them (no matter how briefly), or more to do with your own hard work?

I think it’s actually more to do with a change in my attitude towards it, in that I was always an obsessive songwriter in that I’d sit down in my room and spend hours over every single word – which I still do – and make sure that the song was exactly the way I wanted, and it was very honest, and very much a raw description of what I was feeling at the time. But when it came to performance, I was really shy and found it very difficult, and would look down at my feet and have nothing, really. And I went travelling for a little while and came back and thought “This is what I want to do”, honestly, and I think that’s what made a difference – I know it’s a bit of a cliché, saying you found yourself. I didn’t ‘find myself’ in that sense, but it gave me enough time away from things to think, “What do I actually want to do with my life?”

So then I decided to pretend to be confident for a while, and then after pretending to be confident onstage you kind of become confident – once you’ve acted the part for two or three gigs, you think: “Yeah… it’s not that bad, really, is it?!” So I think the change actually was largely psychological, in that I became a performer rather than just a songwriter.

I’ve seen you a few times where you’ve been happy to just abandon the stage and go out into the crowd – where did that come from? I know Nizlopi do it regularly, and I saw you do it once because the sound failed onstage – did it spring from that?

I did a gig just like that when I got back from travelling on my own – the PA was terrible, to be honest, it was awful, and I thought: I’m loud enough that there’s not really a reason for this PA, there are 15 people here, and I’m just distancing myself for no reason. So I just performed like that, and actually really enjoyed it And it also gives you a lot more freedom – I’m not very good at keeping still onstage these days, and so I find that if I’m in front of a mic, it kind of restricts what you can be, or the performance you can put on. So it was an accident, but whether I’d have had the confidence without having seen other artists do it, I guess is a different thing. Because everyone knows you go up and you sing into a microphone, and so without having seen Men Diamler, Nizlopi and Ozomatli do it and thinking that I’m not copying from any individual here.

Well, that’s pretty much all the questions I’ve got. Have you enjoyed talking about yourself today?

[Smiling] Yeah. Love it. All the time. It’s excellent…

Places We Neglect is available now via Amazon MP3 and Myspace.