Wednesday, August 31, 2011

INTERVIEW: Micah P. Hinson (November 2010)

As befits someone who many assume to be a battered crooner in his forties upon first listen, Micah P. Hinson confounds expectations at every turn. Between his solemn recordings, wild biography, weathered baritone and oddly cartoonish stage persona (a knowing cross between deadpan comedians Steven Wright and Rich Hall), observers might be forgiven for wondering: will the real Micah P. Hinson please stand up?

The Texan journeyman’s most recent album, Micah P. Hinson and the Pioneer Saboteurs, was one of 2010’s finest releases - a huge, sprawling Western Opera drenched in opulent strings which transports his familiar themes of despair, faith and sin to a desolate, windswept landscape akin to that of Ennio Morricone. For all its swirling romanticism, however, it remains the unmistakeable latest step along Hinson’s own twisted path to redemption (“Some people say this song’s really romantic,” he drawls while introducing Take Off That Dress For Me in concert later that evening; “Personally, I think it’s the most miserable shit I’ve ever heard”).

While it’s perhaps impossible to get the true measure of a person from an hour-long conversation, one suspects that with Hinson you’re able to get close. He’s candid, thoughtful and surprisingly unguarded when discussing his own personal trials; an avid smoker, his long drags on an electronic cigarette provide faintly comical punctuation during pauses in his speech. He is down-to-earth, likeable, humble and philosophical - a gent, certainly, but a wary and wounded one which suggests that Hinson is a very definite product of his own life experiences. His wife, Ashley, sits in throughout, and gives the impression of being the still centre in his chaotic world. Together, they make a sweet couple, and are the model of Southern hospitality (my girlfriend and I are welcomed into their dressing-room like friends rather than intruders, and we continue to converse for a good 45 minutes after the interview ends).

Several times throughout our conversation, Hinson accuses himself of “rambling”, but I’m not sure that’s it - oftentimes it feels like he talks to find the point, rather than making it straight off: in the process, he then discovers what he wants to say. Indeed, in many respects, Hinson’s music is the best embodiment of this personal trajectory of evolution and self-improvement, proving definitively that his life and art are inextricably bound.

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[Note: I was unaware when I began the interview that earlier in the year he’d been stung by a piece by NME writer Laura Snapes on The Quietus, which irrelevantly - perhaps even maliciously on the part of the site’s editors - placed his own political leanings front-and-centre, in turn misrepresenting his views. Hopefully publishing our conversation in its entirety will give him a chance to set the record straight.]

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So, Micah P. Hinson and the Pioneer Saboteurs. As far as I’m concerned – album of the year.

That’s awesome!

It’s almost a kind of concept album in terms of its origins. It seems to have been inspired initially by the Walt Whitman poem Pioneers; O Pioneers!, which is reproduced on the album’s sleeve – what was it about that specifically which grabbed your attention or sparked your interest?

I think there’s a connection between the artwork and the poem, but I’m not sure there’s much of a connection between the poem and particularly the songs themselves – A Call to Arms is maybe along that idea, but… I don’t know, I think it’s just the record is generally about relationships, but it seems very much more…I guess a bit more heavy-handed and a bit more pessimistic. I think to get to this record it took me… before the covers record there was The Gospel of Progress, The Baby and the Satellite, The Opera Circuit, another band called The Late Chord on 4AD, and I also had a record called The Red Empire Orchestra. And that’s when the covers record came out. And so I think that if you look at the Pioneer record and with that in mind you go back and listen to The Opera Circuit or to The Baby and the Satellite, it seems like everything I was trying to create was culminating towards being able to make something like the Pioneer record…? So yeah, I guess I… I’m not even sure what the fuck I was answering, so that’s why I ended!

It says in the album sleeve that it was recorded on and off over a period of two and a half years – was the covers record [All Dressed Up and Smelling of Strangers] done concurrently as a kind of ‘necessary outlet’ during that process?

No, no, no, that was just an idea from my record label – I think they wanted some big hit or something, so they asked me to do a covers record. I did what you would generally find on the second disc and they were not happy with that, and so they asked me to record more – I recorded what you would call the first disc, then they tried to get me to drop all the second, all the songs that I originally recorded – I said that’s not going to work, so we have to make a double covers record out of it. So maybe that’s what people thought, as the reviews were a bit up and down about that – but no, no time. I mean, I guess I’m always lost, but there’s no fuckin’ time that I’m just gonna release a covers record because I’m bumbling as to what to do with my life. To do a covers record as something to light a fire under my ass sounds… it just doesn’t sound like the way to go, because cover records can destroy people. So that was an odd thing I did. But my covers album… I guess for me it was more about folk music, and the idea of a folk tradition. A folk tradition, as opposed to how people do covers now.

[An assistant from the venue interrupts briefly, and apologetically informs him that there’s been “no luck”…]

I got a degenerative back disease, which makes me like to smoke – well, I mean, I don’t like to smoke grass all the time, but it helps with the pain a lot. We just came from the Netherlands, and I’m not gonna be making any friends with dogs or anything… that’s a good line to be in! But yeah, you come to places and some people can help you out and some look at you like you’re a fuckin’ retard. But, you know. It is what it is. People are very amusing. But yeah, man, I got really bad back problems. Terrible. But at least I have a left leg. I guess it could be worse…

Apparently your friend caused that – he hit you on Halloween, is that right…?

We were celebrating Robert Burns, and he punched me in the back, and I had a… my disc expanded… and then I went on tour for a long time and it just exploded! And then all the goo from inside pushed against my sciatic nerves and I couldn’t feel anything from the waist down at times. And so I had to have surgery… that surgery didn’t really do anything, so now I’m basically on a whole freakin’ mess of drugs. It’s actually, it’s… fun to take ’em. Like a synthetic, I believe, form of heroin – I’m on that as well. Hey man, a lot of stuff! But I still hurt all the fuckin’ time, so I’m not sure what the drugs are actually doing…

I went through a time on tours where I actually tried to warn people, like “Hey, I’m coming to town, I might need some help”, kind of… hide the words a little bit, but then I found out that the people who were getting these emails weren’t like the local workers, like the sound guy, but they were somebody a bit bigger, so they got really fuckin’ pissed off, like: “Don’t talk about that crap on email, it’s illegal!”, and duh, duh, duh, duh… And so it’s almost a pain in the ass to kind of figure that stuff out, but I’m an obsessive individual, and so I do my best not to obsess about it.

I read you were raised in quite a strict fundamentalist family…

Ah, no, no, no, that isn’t, ah… man, people always like to say stuff that isn’t true!

Well, it’s almost part of the legend really, your background - do you perhaps stoke that a little bit yourself?

No, no… I don’t think so. I don’t… I’ve never said once that, ah… I remember I read in an internet article once about me which said that my parents were snake-handlers, and that I freebased rat poison! And I don’t recall, I might have said those things, but I don’t recall saying either of them. But no, if I was raised in a kind of honest-to-God, fundamentalist Texan household, I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t look the way I look, I wouldn’t talk the way I talk, I wouldn’t think the way I think. My parents, they raised me in the church, I went to church, I was raised to believe in God and that Jesus died for our sins and all that stuff – whether I believed that in my life, I mean, that was my own struggle. But, um… with my parents they were very, um… a fundamentalist household would definitely not buy a kid a guitar, and definitely not push an artistic view or try to… you know, my parents used to buy me skateboards and skateboard shoes every two fuckin’ months because I was always destroying myself, you know. And so no, my parents were firm believers in a Christian God, and through that they taught me… shit, love, compassion, honesty, honour… and so, if you want to call those things crackers… I don’t know, I just felt I was raised by a pretty good family! But see, that does go against the legend, so yeah, my parents were snake-handlers. I got bit all the fuckin’ time…!

The album seems innately political (with a small ‘p’) in its overall project and theme – I was wondering where you sit politically, and how does what you’re trying to do with the album fit with the current climate in America?

[Long pause] …Huh. Well, I mean, the current climate in America is… I know that about 60% of individuals don’t like where the country is heading. And so I don’t have to speak… I guess particularly on my own political views, because I think my countrymen speak for themselves, and I think they can speak in a way for me too. Um… my political views… I don’t know man, it’s kind of what the record’s called. I believe in a pioneering spirit; I believe in working hard, and just doing your fuckin’ best… and life can knock you down, it’s gonna build you up and do all these things … I think it’s important to be a man, and I think it’s important to be a woman, if you understand really what that means, or what I think that means. And with certain political things that I see happening, I’ve seen men perpetually having to act like boys, and not being forced to, um… to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. But the more I speak, the bigger a ditch I’m gonna dig! So let’s just erase all that I’ve said…

- That’s all it is, I believe in a pioneering spirit, I believe in… shit, I don’t know, that’s it! I believe in being a pioneer. And you know, the Darwinian… you know, the shark ethic prevails, so… I don’t know, it’s interesting. I think Darwin had it right. We try to pick up so many people and pull them along, and a lot of people don’t want to be picked up and pulled along. And I feel that I’ve lived on, to a certain degree, maybe both sides of a couple of things – when I had my bout with homelessness and my parents didn’t really dig what I was doing, my friends didn’t really dig what I was doing, the first thing you wouldn’t find me doing was going down to the church shelter and finding a free place to stay, or trying to find free food. I just got along with whatever I could, and if it meant starving, it meant starving. It just depends on what I was willing and able to do myself. And so I find that very important, and I’m not sure how political that is.

I talked to one English lady one time, and she was really funny. Her name was Laura Snapes, and she totally threw me under the bus – quoted me on some pretty funny things, got me to say some funny things… and so I think she’s a cunt. And so a lot of politics, she kind of… the funny thing, with regards to interviews, is that having that interview with that certain individual, I am not able to speak to you in the same manner that I would have been able to speak to you a year ago. With everything that I say to you, I have to sit and think about what the fuck I’m saying – not that I kind of didn’t before, but I thought that people that have the interest to interview me for this bleak crap that I do, if they wanted to talk to me about it, they were somewhat on my side. But then I realised that like most things in life, people aren’t on your side, and that particular woman wanted something to big herself up. And I actually called her the day the interview came out and asked her what the fuck her problem was… she lied and said her phone was dying, but ended up calling her boss and was, like, pissing herself. I called her back and we had a long conversation. But the people at the left side of the magazine that she worked with was very upset at me that I had the audacity to go and try to ask her why she threw me under the bus - I thought that was beautiful.

But it’s really bothersome, because I want to share with people exactly who I am, but I’m afraid that if I do, somebody might hold it against me. And I notice so much in the world we live in that being a Texan, being an American, I can’t understand what it feels like to be somebody from England. And you don’t understand, you can’t understand what it’s like particularly to be an American. And so we have different definitions of words, we have different definitions of ideals and all these things, and so if I say something with compassion and love inside of it, you might take it, somebody might take it, like I’m being a total fuckin’ prick. So it’s very very interesting. We can all thank Laura Snapes forever changing Micah P. Hinson’s interview process. Man, she can freakin’ burn…!

There’s one thing that I found that was called… not Pitchfork, but ‘Ripfork’…? And it’s a guy who has a blog online, and all he does is tear apart people’s reviews.

Oh, I’ve seen that.

Oh, dude, he is amazing! He’s an amazing guy, and I wrote him a couple of emails – he had ripped a new asshole for this Ms. Snapes woman, and so we contacted him and said “Hey, look at this interview, this might be interesting”. And he wrote me back some questions that I never had the balls to answer, ’cos they were just so… I mean, it was just really some intense stuff, and you never know how people are going to take it or what your words can do. Because up until that interview – and I’ll stop talking about it! – nobody had a reason with my musical career to call me a cunt, or to call me a teabagger, and I do this interview and all of a sudden everybody has reasons to comment on who I am, that I’m some kind of… you know, Bush dick-sucking, fuckin’ Laura Palin tit-licking, you know, fuckin’ Republican… whatever, you know? And I am not one of those things, man.

[At this point, Ashley corrects him on the Sarah Palin reference.]

- Oh! [Laughs] Laura Palin, Laura Snapes…

Bit of a Freudian slip there…

Yeah, it was a fuckin’ Freudian slip, you’re right! So yeah, it’s very very interesting, but that wasn’t your question, so…

You’re right though, in that as people outside of America we can’t gain an understanding of the American heartland in particular – there are a lot of people from that area for whom stereotypes are constantly perpetuated. This is especially true when Sarah Palin talks about “the two Americas” - she talks about the coastal America and the American heartland, and basically suggests that America is polarised in terms of the liberals on either coast and the conservatives in the middle, when it’s obviously not as black and white as that.

That’s interesting, definitely. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong for me as an American not to understand how things in this country work, and it’s perfectly fine for you not to understand how things might work in my country. That seems to be just a known, a given, and there’s nothing wrong with it - there’s nothing bad or anything about it, it just is what it is. But we live in such a world society where we can just always kind of look over each other’s shoulders into thinking what we think we know about the different countries and about their laws and stuff. You know, a lot of people think that America doesn’t have welfare, and we do – we have a lot of it, man. One in every six receives over six hundred dollars a month just to buy groceries for their family. And so if you’re going to tell me that we don’t live in a welfarish type of country, then we certainly do. We certainly do. You know, I could go back home and I could get disability for my back because I can’t work – but, you know, I choose not to do that. I choose to come out here and torture my ass! You know, to try and do something with myself. So… that’s all I have to say!

Fair enough! Following on from that, the new record seems to sit in a particularly American cinematic realm – 2s and 3s I described as sounding like a song that might appear in a late John Ford Western, and The Striking Before the Storm has a ‘drums along the Mohawk’-type vibe to it. Coming from Texas and the heartland, is the Western an area of American mythology that you draw inspiration from?

[Laughs] Oh, shit yeah, man! Oh, man, probably more than I should. For a long time I’ve lived in Abilene, and we still – me and my wife Ashley over there – we live in the middle of Texas. We are three hours from any big city.

[Ashley: “It’s not myth to us!”]

No, it isn’t - it’s true. You will see people on horses, you can carry guns. We can have rifles in our trucks, you know, we can do that kind of stuff.

[Ashley: “We can wear cowboy hats and boots…”]

Yeah, we do wear cowboy hats and boots! I mean, it’s not like people think, you know, you walk down the streets and everyone’s wearing spurs – it isn’t like that. But for me personally, for the longest time on television, I mean, the longest-running show on American television is Gunsmoke, and I watched that all time. I watched Bonanza all the time. And they recently took that off the air. I’m fuckin’ mad… but I found a couple of discs on DVD. The strange thing was is that, like everything, when I wasn’t looking for it, I found some discs, and so I was able to watch that. So yeah, man, the whole sense of being a cowboy, and the plains - and even beyond that, less of cowboys: my fourth great-grandfather was the chief of the Chickasaw nation, and his son, Levi Colvert, was the first representative from our nation to the US government. And so, though I look really white, I’m actually an Indian, or Native American, or ‘first people’, whatever the fuck they call us now… And so I think my obsession with the West that was ‘the West before the West’… you know, before the west was won or whatever!

[Ashley: “And our city’s named after your family, because they were pioneers.”]

Basically, all of Southeastern Oklahoma’s named after my family. My Dad works for the Indian Nation, he started a family and drug rehabilitation help centre, my brother – our language is almost dead, and he started the language back. He has, like, full immersion schools where they only learn in Chickasaw. So yes, I really like that idea, and I think it’s fascinating what was happening in Europe, what was happening in England and what was happening in China and all over the world, but then you have these people in America… I finally voted in my first Indian election – we’re a completely different government.

Interestingly, that’s not a part of the ‘accepted’ biography – it almost confirms your point that people try to paint you in a certain way, but actually that puts a whole new perspective on it. There are some people who think that the Western is that last great American artform – Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones have certainly both said that, and I think Kevin Costner has as well (I don’t know if you trust his opinion, but still…) Would you agree with them?

No, I wouldn’t say so – I think there’s… I mean, fuck, Deadwood – I think that show… we got robbed in London and my friend Gary showed up with his wife and gave us… too much stuff, it was awesome! So I watched all of Deadwood, and I thought that was a truly brilliant Western – I thought that it could probably feasibly be truer to the West than what Gunsmoke would’ve been, or what Bonanza would’ve been, or even what Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid would’ve been. Because you had these people that were true Westerners, but they were out there in California, and they’re doing what they do, and then all of a sudden they start to hear about the Pinkertons coming in and all this stuff, and they didn’t feel like Americans. They didn’t feel Americans in the sense of… like, on the East there was Indian territory in the middle (that was supposed to still be Indian territory), and there was people that had made it to the West, and they felt secluded and they felt alone. And so then when manifest destiny really truly happened and everything started coming across, I think a lot of those people over there totally got caught up into a nation and a country that they might not initially have wanted to be involved in. Dude, I mean, shit… people left this country and a lot of countries just to go to America to be a pioneer, to do what they wanted to do, to burn their own paths, and so it only makes sense that people would do that as far as they can. I guess the problem is now that we’ve run out of land!

[Ashley: “They call Alaska the final frontier…”]

– Yeah, I guess we’ve gotta start heading up a bit further North! But no, I don’t think that Westerns will ever die. I think there’s a certain sense of nostalgia that’ll always be there, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. And I’m not sure why I find that beautiful, and I’m sure some living over here would look at Gunsmoke and think, like, “What the fuck is that?!”, but I might watch Blackadder and think, “What the fuck is that?!”

To be fair, that’s what we think…

[Laughs] Like, what happened there?! So that’s really fascinating, but yeah, I totally dig the whole Western thing, and I guess you can see that from the cover. And from the music – I mean, I guess we’ve fallen away not talking about the record. You know, I didn’t set out to make a full-on kind of Western record – I mean, God, it’s a like a Western on LSD or something! Because, you know, like you were saying, when 2s and 3s come in and when that songs ends, it’s so strange – drums don’t sound the way they should, guitars don’t sound the way they should, and everything sounds completely obscured and odd. And that’s what I was trying to do – you begin the record with A Call To Arms, and you expect strings to sound like that, but then you have Take Off That Dress For Me where we used some old analogue delay and stuff… but then you gradually go further and further and you’re all the way to The Returning and you almost don’t even recognise modern music anymore! That’s how I kind of see it – and then it leads you out at the end of The Returning and it’s strings like A Call To Arms, but you still have all the fucked-up reverbs and delays so it kind of leads you out of this strange world that it tried to bring you into. And that’s a concept in the sense that it’s a record that’s to be sat and listened to from beginning to end, though I clearly think you can break it up however the fuck you want to.

I describe it as a kind of Western Opera, in the sense that it’s very much like Ennio Morricone’s work – it has that sort swirling opulence about it.

Hey, that’s fuckin’ awesome, I’ll take that as a compliment!

Did you plan the sound of it, or just go into the studio with the bare bones of the songs and that’s the way it emerged?

Yeah, exactly. I had recorded all of the instruments in Austin or Abilene, and then when it got time to finish it I went to the studio out in the woods with a guy named Matt Pence from a band called Centro-Matic from Denver who’ve been my heroes for years now. And so we just kind of went out there, we talked about what we wanted to do, realised that we can’t really talk about that kind of shit, then just kind of got to work. In the end, we mixed that record in… God, was it a week? I know that we had several sixteen-to-eighteen-hour days, and it was a fuckin’ nightmare. Haha! But no, I never go in to my records with a particular plan. I just know that I have to make an album to make people happy, to keep money on my fuckin’ table… ‘Money’! I mean, ‘food on my table’. Food’s much more important than money. I could give a shit! But clearly, that’s not the reason I make music, just to make money – that would be a silly thing to say.

There are several running themes throughout the record – particularly in regard to the string arrangements, which provide motifs that come and go. How involved were the string players or the arrangers in the process?

What would’ve been done is that I would’ve done all the backbones for everything – some of the strings were done by Mr Eric Bachman, namely The Striking Before The Storm, and the strings on The Returning… and then you have another guy that helped me, I call him Manatee, but actually his real name is Manuel. I don’t know why I call him ‘Manatee’…

Well, everyone loves a manatee – they’re like God’s little joke.

Sea-clowns, man! So I talked to Eric Bachman to see if he wanted to work more heavily on this record, but some bad shit had happened to him… that shit always happens to the best of us – not that I’m putting me in that category! But he moved to Japan to work at a recording studio, so he didn’t have much time. So I found the string player, Manatee, who was working over in Spain with a band I worked with over there called Pachinko – and yeah, he just did some work and sent it over. Like, A Call To Arms, that’s the string section from Letter At Twin Wrecks – I just took the strings and thought, “Oh, I’ll put it at the beginning”. And so that song – I suppose I’d seen him following my chord progressions, and following things that I do, that’s how I see Manatee’s parts. But I see Eric Bachman’s parts as really just, like, forging a new path. You know, when I ask him to do work, he really just fuckin’ does work. And he’s just insane, he really is. I think the work that he does puts him up there with Chelsea Girl, probably a lot of Beatles stuff, or Beach Boys string arrangements. Not to say my records are in any form or fashion anywhere close to any of the things that I’ve mentioned, but I think the way he writes is up there with them, and he’s just astounding. So I guess as far as the string kind of stuff goes, I really don’t have a lot of say in that – but I don’t want a say in that.

I invite people to be part of my different bands so they can bring to the table what they can bring to the table. Because I’ve got different guitar players on all of my records – if I want a certain guitar part then fuck, I’ll just play it myself. If I want a different person’s take – for a song I did called You’re Only Lonely, I got another guy called Chris to come in and do some amazing guitar-work. But I wanted his input, so I think that’s the purpose of having all the ‘…And The Gospel’, ‘…And The Opera’ - it’s all the folks that I try to bring together to give me that different sound. And somehow it ends up strangely giving all the records a different feeling, but at the same time it ends up all being along the same scope. I feel like I’m one of these musicians who needs to reinvent my sound every so often, I feel like it’s a culmination to try and become the best at what I can do. And I think you can also probably see that just with the artwork that I do, and the way I title my records – it all has to be part of the same thing, it all has to make fuckin’ sense. And if I were to name everything different, like The Strokes - if I were to name a record Is This It?... well, what the fuck does that mean?! I’d rather be like Led Zeppelin and name a record IV – see, that makes more sense because at least there’s some continuity, and the only times you will find ‘uncontinuity’ in my records would be for my EPs – so, like, The Baby and the Satellite, and I guess the cover record is an EP that’s not something I’ve created like a full-length LP. And so I’ve kind of made all the rules and regulations for myself as far as the artwork goes, or how I’ll release things, and so it makes it very interesting and a lot easier. So people can expect another covers record in four years!

I wanted to ask about the artwork – you have a recurring image of a sexy lady which seems to crop up on each one. Is that the type of image you wanted to put on the first album, and then just decided you wanted to stick to that?

Man, I had an interview with a huge newspaper called Liberation in France – they have about 500,000 readers a day, and one of their questions was: based on my art, was I into S&M? And it really kind of offended me – I didn’t answer that question. Well, I did answer it, but I said there’s no room for pain inside something so joyous as lovemaking or sex or whatever. But my record covers – why do I do it like that? Why

You don’t necessarily have to have an answer, of course…

Well, see, I guess what it comes down to is that I’ve always loved the concept of Vargas and pin-up girls, and that whole movement of drawing before there was this, uh… you know, I’ve always thought that pin-up art was so interesting, because at the time… like, why the fuck are you painting this stuff when you have a camera? And I guess that goes against my records because clearly I don’t get somebody to paint my albums, but I’ve always found just a beauty and an interestingness in that. With the women on my records, you might call it sexy or whatnot, I’ve no idea – but it’s definitely no means to try and sell albums. I think there’s more of an innocence in it that I try to use, and maybe more than a lot of people expect. I don’t know how to explain that, but that’s the answer. And I guess you can see that – like with The Opera Circuit, if you go back to that record it’s just like legs and feet, but then somebody said it kind of looks like a woman hanging on the cover! So, I’m not really one to make a lot of that stuff, but everything I try to do other than the covers record feels like something I’m supposed to do. The artwork for some reason is supposed to look like that. The music that I make is for some reason supposed to be like this. And I guess it comes back to Woody Guthrie, who I know that Neil Young ripped off the concept of… I guess just being a speaker inside of a radio. Not being the radio itself, but just the speaker. I don’t feel I have much control as to what’s going to come in or what’s going to go out of me. All I know is that if I just ride it out, something will come - I finish albums and I don’t know how they got there. The Pioneer Saboteurs record, the label said “Oh, it’s time to make a record” and I was like, I don’t have any songs. But then I started looking around and I had all these songs and I started writing a whole shitload more, and then next thing you know – like you said, some people might call it a masterpiece, I don’t know! I think Mojo said it was my best record yet and so you listen to people, but it’s all very contradictory because on the other hand it’s my lowest-selling record to date.

That means that time’s going to be kind to it, though – it means in fifteen years or so it’ll be reissued as a deluxe 2-disc remaster featuring a load of demos you recorded in the toilet.

Damn right, man! Hopefully so – I’m doing a lot of work, just this week I received all my masters back, so now like Ray Charles I own all my work.

Obviously your biography makes for fairly interesting reading – you’ve had a famously chequered past, but you’re now married and there’s even a song on the new album addressed directly to your wife. Do you feel more settled now? Have you made peace with everything that went on in your life before?

- Fuck. Um… oh, God. ‘Make peace’? Those are a heavy couple of words right there. Um, no I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve found peace with that, and I’m fairly sure my wife does know that. Maybe the one thing that I have found peace in is the fact that I know I’ve found the woman that I feel and I know that I can love for the rest of my days, and I know that she’s gonna love me no matter what – whether it’s a chequered past or a chequered present, you know. As long as I don’t wound her fuckin’ soul, everything’s gonna be fine. And I’ve been bad enough to do that to her, and so she’s just really an amazing woman. And ’cos she’s known me for a long time, she’s probably always seen me as maybe who I could be, and not who I was. I’m sure the person who’s sitting here right now isn’t the person I’m supposed to be, but I’m still working on it. It’s always a constant process. If you want to find some sort of happiness in life, you have to push yourself, and you have to try to make yourself better – whatever better is for you, that’s gonna be a completely different definition. But for me, being better is not treading in those old paths of being with worthless strippers, and – well, I would say being addicted to drugs, but the doctors got me addicted to all sorts of drugs! I forgot to change my medication with that patch that’s synthetic heroin like I said, and when I woke up this morning I forgot to change it and my body was beginning to shut down. It’s fucking horrific. And so yes, she takes me for who I am, and that’s the only way I think we can work. And it’s a funny thing, because she is no way, form or fashion… we are complete opposites. We are complete opposites. And it’s a good thing to have such complete opposites – I guess like Paula Abdul said, opposites attract. But I’m not a cartoon cat.

You know, thinking about love when you grow up and stuff, I guess it’s an odd thing – you always thought you’d find somebody who’s similar, and it’s… fuckin’ A, it’s an odd thing because I’m saying that we’re opposites but I think that in some… it’s as simple as this. We were dating, and we’re driving down the road, and in fucking Texas, they like to put up billboards that are from God. Fuck! And so on this billboard, we’re driving, and Ashley looks over and it says: “Do you think it’s hot here? God”.

- Nice.

Yes. And she made a remark, like “Oh, blah blah blah” – she probably didn’t cuss, but she made a comment negatively towards that, and it was a really good example about why we can be together, and why we are together: because we’re both looking at the same things, but we’re both looking at it in different directions. And that’s probably the best way to put that. I’ve never thought about it like that, but that’s the best way to put it.

I think we just had a breakthrough.

Yeah, I think we did!

Listening back to your first couple of albums, particularly in relation to this one, The Pioneer Saboteurs feels a lot more ‘romantic’ to me (in sound if not content). Do you think that some of the negative feeling of the early material has been neutralised to a degree?

Maybe you could hear a little bit of that in the actual music – maybe you could hear it in a couple of songs in the lyrics, but especially with my new record I think it’s one of the most miserable things that I’ve ever made! And I think it’s the one time that with these songs I’ve really tried to stand outside myself – that song Stuck On The Job, you know, I know to a certain degree what it’s like to be somewhere you shouldn’t be, doing things you shouldn’t, while someone is somewhere doing something they probably shouldn’t based on your actions. That’s what that song is about to me, about a man – or a woman, whatever – doing all these things in life and not paying attention to their mate back home, you know, literally doing themselves in. And here they are, alone, but together – it’s such an odd concept. I’m kind of rambling. But there’s just a lot of negative shit on this record - I don’t know how romantic the words are, but there can completely be a separation between the two, and I think that’s a fun thing to poke around with: like I have a song that sounds happy but it’s miserable, and I have a song that’s miserable – for example, The Cross That Stole This Heart Away, I find those lyrics to be very moving but the song is so fuckin’ slow that it takes forever to go anywhere and it’s just crippling. And so I like that, I like that juxtaposition of all those things, because life is everything all at once, so why not treat it as such?

Given everything that’s happened to you over the years, do you feel like a bit of an old soul?

Hmm. Hmm! Calling yourself an old soul is like calling yourself ‘emo’ It’s not something you should probably do! You probably should not call yourself that, it’s kind of a funny thing to do… an old soul, man. I feel like I’ve made a lot of really questionable and bad, rough decisions throughout my life that have maybe taken me places and made me do things that other people haven’t done – and so maybe with that, maybe I’m an old soul, because I’ve experienced some shit…? But Jesus, man, my experiences, compared to other people – mine can just be finite. You know, all I had was a self-induced drug problem, I slept with too many studid fuckin’ people, and what – other people are born without legs, born with fuckin’… minimal brain stem – awful, awful, awful fuckin’ things happen to people. And so it’s strange to sit and talk about how bad things are: “Oh, I was homeless” – hey man, I was just in London and I saw a lot of fuckin’ people worse off than I ever was. But that’s not what your question was.

…Um… ‘an old soul’. One thing I remember was one of my first shows in the UK, I went out onstage and I put my pedals together and I tuned the guitar, and this old guy in the front asked me when my Dad was gonna come out. And I think he was really serious, I don’t think he was joking – I said “My father’s not here” and he’s like, “Well… when’s Micah supposed to come out?” Oh, that’s me! And he was very surprised. Man… if I were to give you a tape of some of my first recordings I ever did, I sounded like a goddamn British version of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I listened to too much Cure, you know, I was raised on tons and tons of British music, so it took me a while to get away from that, it was very strange. And so I don’t know where my voice comes from, I’m not sure why it sounds like this. But I guess maybe its main purpose it serves is that people who maybe don’t understand the words that I say are somehow able to understand the emotions that I’m speaking of. And that’s why I’ve been so big, or reasonably big, in places like Spain or Italy. It’s amazing, I got my last numbers and one of my last records, The Red Empire, sold more than the last Modest Mouse album in Italy. I was like, “What the fuck? That seems weird – I thought Modest Mouse was huge”. But there again, I’m rambling…

That’s a good boast, though…

I thought was just hilarious when I learned that, that I sold more records than Modest Mouse and The Futureheads, like “Whaaaat…?!” But the voice, let’s get back to it. It’s deceiving. I think that’s when I like it the most, when people come, if they’ve heard my records, they come maybe expecting a certain person. I guess now with the internet maybe now they’ve been able to see me a bit more, because I keep my face off all my records. But in the sense that people have never heard me before, I stand up onstage and they think I’m gonna sound like fuckin’ Ben Gibbard or something, then all of a sudden this “Rrrroar”, this thing starts coming out of me – I like the surprise of that. Like today with the sound lady when we started doing it she was like, “Oh I didn’t expect that at all, that was really nice and I like the way your voice sounds”. It’s like, “Well, thanks I guess - it’s what I was given, I suppose”. But I like that – I guess deceitful’s not a good word, but I like that, the surprise attack that I’m able to give people.

I’ve been told that you’re not at all what I might expect live.

Man, if my drummer hadn’t decided to knock up his girlfriend and get a medical degree, it would still be me and my wife and Nick playing - I still got a library recording of us playing Tell Me It Ain’t So off The Red Empire Orchestra and it sounded like really early Pixies stuff. It sounds like a man with a fuckin’ demon inside of him, so yes, what you will hear on the record is not what you’re going to get live. And maybe sometimes you will, maybe sometimes you won’t, but I think that’s another thing – that’s another way of me surprise-attacking fuckers, if they think I’m gonna go up there and be nice, be this sweet little thing and then next thing you know I’m screaming fuckin’ cuss words at you. Well again, I like that – maybe I just like being deceitful to people. I dunno. Maybe I just find it amusing!

Nah, I think in the end maybe I don’t like living by rules. I think a lot of people in life, maybe they feel like they should sound a certain way or be a certain way, or maybe they should do this or that, but I like the whole concept of not being any of those things. And maybe that’s why I find my wife so attractive – not physically but inside, because I thought she was just this beautiful Christian girl who’d been really well-raised and really well-kept and all this stuff, but then I found out that she has the same problems with religion and this kind of stuff that I did. And so there you go again, another juxtaposition – I’m just obsessed! But I guess in the end, maybe I’m just trying to keep myself from being bored. I think if I went on the road and played the songs the same way every night… the only reason the songs sound like they do on my record is because that’s how they sound on one particular day. Or that particular month, or year that I was working on that song. It doesn’t mean it always has to stay that way. I learn things from my music and the music changes – I’m playing with a string quartet, I played with one in Paris and I’m playing with one in London, and I had to physically go back and relearn all my songs because I had changed them so much that when we went back to the sheet music I wasn’t playing them the same, so I had to particularly play along with them. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing! So yeah, I always like changing process and always moving forward – and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.

Micah P. Hinson and the Pioneer Saboteurs is available now on Full Time Hobby.

INTERVIEW: Mark Chadwick (July 2010)

Mark Chadwick - the irreverent, good-time libertarian best known for fronting Britain’s premier folk-punk outfit, The Levellers - released his debut solo album last year during a brief lull in band activity. Written over the course of a decade, All The Pieces is a psychedelic pop record rooted in the tail-end of the 1960s. It’s also, perhaps most crucially, directly autobiographical, using Chadwick’s own spiritual awakening at the infamous Elephant Fayre gatherings of the mid-1980s as a springboard for charting the highs, lows and personal fallout of being part of what was, for a brief period, one of the UK’s biggest bands.

It’s been an odd ride for The Levellers and me – followers of this page may already be familiar with the review which prompted my journalistic association with the band over the last few years. I’ve encountered Mark several times since first meeting him as a fan back in 2000, and have found him by far the most difficult member of the band to engage with – an absolute riot when you catch him in the right mood, but with a tendency towards sardonicism and surliness when not. That’s just who he is, of course – and, like they say, there’s only one way of life. Nevertheless, to the uninitiated, it can be a disarming experience - as one of his fellow bandmates has remarked on more than one occasion: “He really can be an absolute cunt…!”

Our paths have crossed several times over the last decade, and we’ve since made our peace for that heartbreaking initial encounter – in fact, he once confessed in a moment of drunken candour that he kept a copy of the article in question next to his computer to remind himself of the aforesaid cuntishness. However, whenever I chat to him, I’m not entirely sure if he remembers me or is just playing coy. Either way, only a fool would deny that he’s on top form today indeed – in fact, even in the earliest days of the Con-Dem coalition’s formation, he seems to have a fairly accurate idea what lies in store for the country…

So, here it is - the lost-promised, long-threatened solo album…


My first question is more contextual than anything: coming off the back of a rejuvenation in the band’s form and what was acclaimed as the strongest Levellers record in over a decade [2008’s Letters From the Underground], why have you decided to put this album together now?

Ah… basic timing – the timing fell together really nicely. And the fact that there were songs that I’d written for the next Levellers record which essentially didn’t really work because they’re very, very personal – very micro as macro to macro, which is what a lot of Levellers material is. And they’re pretty much describing my life, as I’ve been through quite a bit recently, and so it was like: okay, this is a good time to be a songwriter, a singer-songwriter, instead of just a member of The Levellers. Which is a great thing to be, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a chance to express myself in that time, and that way.

It’s been kind of a running joke in The Levellers every time a song like Before the End rears its head – I remember you saying when the last album came out that when you first played that song to the rest of the band, their initial reaction was: “Yeah, solo record…” – do you ever feel a bit pigeonholed by what you can and can’t do within the band?

Within The Levellers I’d say so, but I think all bands are, to be honest. Bands stand for one particular way of looking at the world, generally – not in all cases, but over a period of time, bands are of one voice. To stick to that as a songwriter can be quite restricting.

The album spans over quarter of a century - how long have you been working on this material and plotting this project?

Probably about ten years… yeah, about ten years, on and off. The opportunity and speed to do it was actually very brief; it didn’t take very long to make it and record it and enjoy doing it – at all, actually. It took about two months.

Anyone with a long-term interest in The Levellers has probably been able to get a pretty good idea over the years what you stand for a person, but this is perhaps the first chance that people might have had to really get to know you: some of your history and, in some cases, even your own feelings. Did you have any qualms about laying yourself open on record like this?

…No. Not as a songwriter, no, or I think as an artist - any artist or creative person. I’ve done it in the past, in The Levellers, and I’ve hidden it quite well and no-one’s noticed, that’s been fine – but at this particular juncture I really wanted to let people know what it’s like to be in a band for twenty years, and the actual hardships that are suffered. It sounds really wet, right - and it is! - but it goes on in the background and you don’t see it: you see them onstage and you think, “Oh brilliant, great, life’s fantastic!”, and I’m not saying it isn’t because, generally speaking, I would say it is. It’s a great life. But it’s kind of the background story of what happens to people who’ve been in bands for so long – how they can exist; how they feel, really. And it’s quite open, quite honest - sometimes dark, to be honest, at points…

It seems to chart a shift in your own perspective over the years - the optimism and idealism of the album’s early songs eventually gives way to the cynicism and more jaded outlook of the second half. It seems to suggest that the journey’s taken quite a heavy personal toll on you over the years – is this a fair assessment?

Yes, I think that’s a very fair assessment – I think it’s a fair assessment of anyone who’s been in a band for a period of time. You’re kind of public property to a degree, depending on how successful you are – and I don’t mind that, it’s not a problem, that’s what comes with the territory. But it makes you creative too, all of the sad parts, which I don’t get to write about in The Levellers. And it’s what I wanted to write about.

There was an obvious sense of momentum quite early on in the band where it seemed like you felt you really could change the world in some way, but in more recent years I think the Levellers songs which have been most powerful and interesting are the more reflective tracks like Confess and Wake the World where you seem to really step back and take stock of the situation. At one point here you utter the line “Peace and love, and all of that” – looking at the trajectory of this album and your own life as a whole, do you still consider yourself as much of an idealist as in the early days?

I don’t think that I’ve changed - I think that the world around me has altered massively, and I think the same, actually, of the rest of The Levellers. Our idealism is the same; it’s just that rest of the world, political situations, everything else changes so quickly now - almost to the point where I find myself in another recession, after literally leaving school in the first one I remember, forming a band in the second one, surviving a third one, and here we are again in the fourth! It’s ridiculous. Nothing really changes in the band - I haven’t changed as a person, and nor does my ethics or principles. They don’t alter at all, it’s just that the world around us changes, so it’s how you reflect that back to a different audience every time. That’s quite tricky.

As a child of the Thatcher years and someone who’s expressed such a strong political outlook over the years, what’s your take on the state of the nation at the moment? Do you think things are looking up or, to quote one of your own songs, do you think the Indians show any signs of abating?

Ah, no. They never will! They’re just changing their tack, and they’re asking us questions. Which is an old ploy – a cynical ploy, actually, by anyone in government - “Oh, let’s pretend that we actually care what people think!” And they try it for a bit, but then ultimately they have to compromise, because they have a bank balance they have to work out, ultimately they’ll fuck anybody – and the people they’ll fuck, particularly this party, this coalition, will fuck the poor. They always have. And yeah, it’s all sitting pretty now, it’s all summery, it’s all nice, everyone’s going, “Oh yeah, great, our right to freedom, I’ll type in what my freedom thoughts are, I wanna… yeah, fuck it, I wanna ban this, I wanna ban that, I wanna repeal this law”… nonsense. Nonsense. UTTER – FUCKING – NONSENSE. I know it, and anybody with half a mind knows that.

- Ah! That’s the Mark Chadwick we all know and love…

Yeah. That’s fixed! And you know, that’s what I’ve tried to get across on this album, “Peace and love, and all of that” – I am deeply cynical, yes, but ultimately there’s a lot of optimism on that record. A lot of optimism. There’s a lot of like, “Come on. We can be better people. The world is a better place”.

The song Indians specifically targets politicians – do you actually vote?

Of course I do.

You do? That’s surprising.

Well, yeah… I shouldn’t do, in principle, as an anarchist, no, but I do because people died for it. Simple as that. A lot of people died for me to have my stake in democracy - which is up for question anyway. Democracy’s an interesting subject! We could write a whole new newspaper about what democracy really means. We really could, d’you know what I mean?! And it’s up for grabs at the moment. What’s democracy and capitalism – how do they connect? I’m finding that they don’t connect at all – in China, they don’t connect at all! You’ve got capitalism and communism connecting! What’s that all about?! Explain that one to me! How are we supposed to compete against that? And how are we supposed to compete against India, which is a true democracy, but it’s actually based on a hereditary system of families, so it’s weird. It’s more like ancient Rome than it is anything else…

I don’t know if you’ve seen Michael Moore’s latest film Capitalism: A Love Story, but he seems to suggest that maybe its time has come, and it’s run its course. Do you still possess that kind of hippy-ish – or maybe even more of a punk mentality – of just, “Break it down, start again”?

Well, I can certainly tell you this. I’m not a capitalist; I don’t give a flying fuck about money. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. What happens in your local society, your community, where you live, how you choose to live with other people, how you share… whatever… how you spread the work and spread the money around. You can’t avoid money; it’s been around much longer than capitalism. It’s there. Right? So it’s how you spread the work, how you spread the responsibility for those that cannot, and those that can. The ultimate point is to avoid greed. So anyone that’s greedy, and wants all the toys, is ultimately evil! D’you know what I mean?! Otherwise, I can see it working - it can work! It can work in any society.

The Levellers have almost created their own mini-industry over years with the formation of the Metway – did you foresee the collapse of the record industry in any way, or did it just seem like a cool idea you wanted to explore at the time?

No, what we foresaw was our own futures. We thought, why give your future to somebody else to look after? Why give it to a record company; why give it to a publisher; why give it to a management agency when, in actual fact, if you look at it, they take ‘x’ amount of your money and they can turn around to you one day - and I saw this, it was awful – I can’t remember the name of the band, but I was on their tour bus, and they got a phone call from their major record label’s accountant saying: “It’s all over, boys. You’re dropped, and that money that goes into your account every week? That stopped a month ago”. They were on tour, and they had to do a gig that night, and they knew that they were broke. It was awful. And that’s what The Levellers always made sure would never happen to us. Basically, at the end of the day, we’re not stupid people. We’re clever people. We like to get things done. But we also like to do things that are inclusive for other people, like when we do our festival and so forth. It’s for the people. It’s not a massive amount of money for them to come in to be corn-fed ideas and nonsense – it’s for them to enjoy, and know that they haven’t been ripped off.

In the album’s press release you talk about music being “transformative” for you – has that been tainted in any way by your experience of the industry and business you work in, or has it been the one constant over the years?

No. I’ve never paid any heed to the industry, it’s of no interest to me. It’s boring, it’s dull, it’s essentially greedy. What I’m interested is, for example, if you go on Spotify and look up Stephen Stills’ Roll Tape, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes – it’s him going in, and recording, when he could, on the back of someone else’s session, practically begging outside the door, going in and recording a three-song suitethat’s what music’s about for me. It’s amazing. And it can be amazing.

Where do you think you’d be if The Levellers had never materialised – do you think you’d just be busking?

Probably. If I hadn’t got together with the characters I’m with, I think I’d have carried on doing pretty much what I do as a songwriter and yeah, probably busked and got picked up somewhere along the line. You can’t avoid your art, you know - it is my art, and it is what I love to do. You can’t avoid it. And I’ve loved being in The Levellers for years, and I’ll continue to love being in The Levellers until the day we all die – it’s a simple fact. But, as an artist, yeah… I’d have done something to have got picked up somewhere along the line.

Back to the album, musically it’s perhaps quite different from what people might expect from you – the artwork has a late-60s psychedelic folk-pop vibe to it, and quite a few of the tracks on here wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Hello Pig. Is this an area that you’ve wanted to explore for a while now in your music?

Yes, it is. It’s much more expansive, much more tempo changes and key changes, stuff that’s more experimental. It might appear to be more challenging to a live audience at a Levellers gig - and you can’t beat that, d’you know what I mean? They want what they want, and they get what they get. They get given what they like and we deliver it, and we love to do so. But… yeah, basically, I want to be Stephen Stills. Simple as that! [Laughs] You like to emulate your heroes, don’t you? I want to make music that’s like… the music that first captured my ear as a child was that sort of music.

As a member of a band that’s always been very much out of step with popular culture, what sort of contemporary music do you listen to?

Well, I actually listen to a lot of contemporary music, you might be surprised… MGMT are my favourites, because they’re genius.

What about Lady GaGa?

Yes! I’ve got a daughter, you see, you can’t escape it! Yeah, I like Lady GaGa, I like Black Eyed Peas, I like all sorts… but, you know, Mumford & Sons fascinate me, because I really like their sound – and really hate their lyrics. Are they really saying anything, have you noticed?

Oh, I dunno… I rather like them!

What are their lyrics saying, then? Go on, then, tell me.

Er… well, off the top of my head, you might have a point…

Exactly. If you analyse them, they don’t say bloody anything. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s a nice sound.

The bands involved don’t like to call it this, but there’s been a bit of a folk revival over the last couple of years.

Yeah. And I’m just going to tag along with it!

Obviously there are now commercially successful acts like Mumford & Sons, Stornoway and Laura Marling – do you see yourself as a sort of godfather to that scene at this stage?

D’you know what, until I meet Stornoway, which is going to be at Beautiful Days, and Mumford & Sons, who I’m going to meet somewhere quite soon – I’ve no idea, ’cos they’ll have to tell me that. It’s not my decision, is it? I can’t go, “Oh, ha ha ha! Siblings, siblings!” if they’re gonna go, “Levellers? Never heard of you. Never listened to you, actually, funnily…”

A couple of slightly more probing questions now - the last few tracks on the album in particular are very solemn and reflective. You talk about loving the entire experience, but do you think there’s anything you would change if you could do it all over again?

…Ah… [thinks] …that’s a good question. [Pause] But no. I don’t think so. No. I don’t think so. There’s nothing you can change – people are people, situations are situations, and at the end of the day, so far so good, as it goes, with the band that I’m in and the life that I lead.

I asked this question of Simon about ten years ago and I got an answer that I imagine was quite different from that which I might’ve got from you at the time, so I’m going to ask you now. I heard a rumour that out of all the people in the band, you’re the person who’s always felt perhaps a little disappointed by the way things turned out, or that you maybe didn’t have as much of a social impact as you would’ve liked. After 25 years of doing this though, you’re still releasing albums, still selling out big venues, you have your own festival… So my question is this: are you happy with your niche?

…Yeah. Yeah. But[laughs]but, I want it to be bigger. It could be a bigger niche. You know, I want people to like really good music. It might be arrogant of me to think that the music I make is really good, right - it might be impossibly arrogant. But I want more people to hear it. At the end of the day, I think it’s great – that isn’t arrogance. So no, I’m not happy with my niche, nor should anybody who’s creative, because if you’re creative you want as many people as possible to experience your changing seasons.

Are you happy in general?

Oh, God, yes.


Oh yeah, brilliantly.

Oh, good. Because I do worry.


Finally, then – I always find this an interesting exercise when interviewing musicians with a substantial back catalogue. Of all the songs you’ve written over the years, which five would you like to be best remembered for? Which are your five favourites?

Five songs I’ve written that I’d love to be remembered by? Okay, Gold and Silver on Hello PigGalahad, which doesn’t appear on any album… One WayBeautiful Day, and… Christ, last one… oh! One from this new album, Satellite.

And conversely, which five songs of yours would you be quite happy to never hear again?

Oh, right, okay. Belaruse

Oh, really?

Yep, yep, yeah. Never want to hear that one again… er… oh, God, there’s loads! [Laughs] There is loads! There’s bloody loads… Er… the thing is, right, I so hate them that I’ve expunged them from my memory.

What about The Weed That Killed Elvis?

I love that song.

I thought you might…

I fucking LOVE that song! The thing is, right, it’s great. But you have to smoke the weed that killed Elvis while listening to it – that’s the only trick! But no, I wouldn’t assassinate any of our work. It’s pointless, because when we were doing it we wouldn’t have made it, otherwise. Like, what’s the point of working on something shit, then later going… it’s not like John Lennon and Paul McCartney went, “Oh yeah, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, that’s a work of genius, and we worked on it separately!” Everything I’ve worked on with The Levellers we’ve worked on together, so we’ve kind of come to a cohesion there. Generally speaking, someone’s going to like something about it, so it’s foolish to assassinate your past.

I love Belaruse. Why do you hate that song so much?

The thing is, when we play it live, I don’t have to do much! I just stand round looking like a bit of a lemon.

I heard that the entire Levellers album wasn’t a popular one…

Not really, no… I’ll tell you what, though, it’s a bloody good record due to the adversity it was made in. But it was really hard work. It took me a long time, probably about ten years to listen to it, and then I actually liked it. But it took ten years. It was… oh, it was hideous!

Well, that’s it, then, I suppose…

Anything else? I’m wearing red panties and a green bra, and I’m off to an art exhibition in East Sussex.

Thanks for that lovely image. Cheers.

Ta ta…

All the Pieces is available now on Stay By Records.

INTERVIEW: Wild Beasts (March 2010)

I think it’s fair to say that no single band in memory has caused me to perform such a violent about-turn as Kendal’s weird and wonderful Wild Beasts. Upon first listen, they met with such flat-out abhorrence that I immediately deemed them one of the most humourless, ugly-sounding, pompous and downright appalling bands I’d ever heard. Central to their unrepentant Marmite status is Hayden Thorpe’s whooping, swooping falsetto – a wildly unrestrained display of vocal embellishment so strident that it threatens to scupper any chance of unsuspecting newcomers delving past their immediate surface.

Genuinely baffled by the heaps of critical praise being lavished upon their sophomore album Two Dancers, I forced myself to keep going to back to them in an attempt to fathom just what it was that seemed to be getting reviewers so hot under the collar. Sure enough, as time wore on, I found myself being gradually seduced by their liquid, percussive instrumentation, intricate arrangements and melting vocals, eventually conceding that Two Dancers was, in fact, a serious contender for best album of 2009.

It was only then that I was able to see just how wrong I’d been: the band’s inspired transformations of musical whimsy into delirious flights of fancy are alternately hilarious, sombre, outlandish, subtle, introverted and flamboyant - sometimes all at once. To quote part of their debut album’s title, in many respects they’re pure panto – yet, beneath all the hooting and howling there exists real depth, soul and art, most fully revealed in tracks like the magnificent Two Dancers (i) and All the King’s Men, two of the finest pieces of songwriting to emerge in recent years.

I chatted with Hayden and Benny from the band when they played at Warwick Students’ Union in March 2010, just prior to Two Dancers being nominated for (and, in any other year, robbed of) last year’s Mercury Music Prize. Suffice to say, I think an apology and an explanation is in order…

Well, first of all, congratulations on being the only band to have ever done a 360-degree turnaround on me…

: [Laughs] Thank you!

So my first question is probably one you’ve been asked dozens of times before – how did you arrive at the overall sound of the band, particularly with regard to your vocals?

: I think the vocals are pretty much representative of our whole philosophy in a sense, in that we try to be as uninhibited and expressive as we can be, you know, and the vocals are one of the more immediately obvious features of that. I think in general we try and be as loose, in a sense… without doing ourselves down, we’re most excited when we’re unhinged, in a way. And in that sense, we don’t quite know what constitutes our sound – we don’t really quite want to know ourselves, and therein lies the magic.

Did you ever say to yourself, “This is how I want to sing”, or was that just the way it ended up emerging against the rest of the band?

: Well, I was talking in an interview earlier about Kendal, where we grew up and me and Benny started the band, and I think maybe Kendal has a very suppressive atmosphere – I think at that age, everyone feels oppressed, and I think the band, certainly for us when we first started, was a way of sort of ‘freeing’ ourselves and being as crazy as we could be. You know, not crazy in a stupid way, but in a sort of expressive way, in a very life-affirming way – and I think the vocals maybe stem from that. The words and our collective songwriting developed at the same time as the singing.

So everything was kind of ‘built around’ that fixed point.

: Yeah, absolutely. The first record kind of slowly built, and we’re still slowly building, you know? We’ve taken the long way round and taken that professional route – we’ve learned and learned and learned.

What’s your musical background, Hayden – have you had any vocal training?

: No – it’s quite split in a sense, in that Tom and Chris both have had musical upbringings, professionally, as in both their parents are music teachers, and for me and Benny it’s a sort of different matter, we’re more… instinctive in a sense. I don’t know how much to say about it, but there is that element of ‘the learned versus the instinctive’. I don’t know, maybe as a balance that works for us.

The last record [Limbo, Panto] seemed to be just a straightforward collection of songs, whereas this one seems to be more ‘built from the ground up’ – the percussion in particular is not so much part of the arrangement but more the structural basis of the track.

: Yeah, it’s the central point, almost.

Was the writing process quite different for this album?

: Yeah - I think, in inverted commas, ‘a groove’ was a discovery for us. It was like, it’s almost like a dirty thing for a band when you discover you can groove - you know, in a weird way, it’s almost like a bit wrong! But we discovered that if you can sort of win the body, you can win the mind; I think before that we’d always been winning the mind and then the body.

: It’s kind of moving away from the shame that’s attached to that.

I definitely got that feel from this record, that it is very instinctive – it just kind of slides around…

: Well, Chris as a drummer, we allowed him more space – when he first came to the band we allowed him a floor tom as a bass, and a snare, and he had to work with that. Now he’s got bongos and he’s got woodblocks, cowbells… all sorts of shit!

: When you see his drum kit you think, “Oh…” – a lot of drummers think he’s going to be terrible, and then what he does is that!

I was watching him in soundcheck earlier, and I was genuinely intrigued as to how it was going to be performed live – whether he’d be using synthesised drum patterns or not. But he was doing it all!

: Yeah! Well, we call him the octopus drummer – you don’t know where the arms are coming from to hit the things…

The record itself has a much greater ‘album’ feel than its predecessor, and features recurring motifs all the way through. Did that come out of the recording process, or was it written as one complete body of work?

: Our idea initially was to have a complete running album that didn’t stop – but that was too much of an undertaking in the end, too restrictive. But we definitely wanted recurring themes; we wanted it to run more like a novel where things come and go, and you can reference things. I think to achieve that we needed a locatable start and end, whereas the first record, we don’t know where we started it – we know where we ended it, but we sort of started it before we ‘knew’ it, you know. So we needed to start with an agenda. But also, the more we learned, the more we realised we don’t have to use our knowledge, in a sense – we allowed chance and accidental things to guide us. And that was a big leap of faith when you realise actually, okay, we’re comfortable enough now to not be in control, and we sort of liked that.

On the first album – particularly on a track like The Club of Fathomless Love – it’s all very ‘upfront’, but on Two Dancers (i) there’s a lot more audible space, almost creating a subconscious, dreamy feel. Was that something you designed, or did the producer guide you that way in the studio?

HAYDEN: Well, I think the first record, particularly songs like Club, we were actually making pop – and that’s the crazy thing looking back now, even ourselves, we think “That’s not pop – that’s avant-garde pop”, you know?!

: The thing is with the first album that we played the songs over and over when we were rehearsing them, and even when we were recording them we were playing them, like, fifty times, and it was more about getting the right take. Whereas the second album it was more like – yeah, like Hayden said, left to chance and more spontaneous; we let things come out in the studio a bit more rather than being so restricted and formulaic.

To that end, has it been difficult to translate those arrangements into your live set?

: Um, no, because the foundations for all the songs on Two Dancers were done live – you know, that was a big thing for us, because with the first record… We talk about the first record a lot when we talk about the second record, because the first record taught us everything we knew, and that translates to the second record. It’s like when a carpenter makes a chair – all the jagged mistakes that he made on the first chair are sort of eradicated on the second chair, and it’s more smooth, and the wood’s less splintery – and that’s the way I see it on the second record. You know, we were less… angry, we were more composed. Like a lot of bands, your first record, you expect to be this all-conquering manifesto that explains you in half an hour, but I think we found too much to say to quite get it out. And the second record is the sound of us being a lot more able to ‘speak’.

In many of the reviews I’ve read, there seems to be quite an element of surprise – this is not what people expected to emerge from the band based on the sound of your first album. In that respect, you seem to have taken the opposite route and just now made an album that says, “This is the direction we really want to go in”.

: Well, the second record is what it was at the time, and the third record will be – I think all the best art, all my favourite albums and all our favourite albums in general, are a snapshot of that time. That’s the only thing you can do; you can’t... It’s like, a great picture captures that moment, and that’s what the album is for us - I think we were in a good place when we made the album, mentally… Well! [Laughs] You could argue that was a bad place, but maybe that’s what makes good art, I don’t know…!

I wanted to ask you about your sense of humour – my first mistake when I heard the band was to think it was all very serious, but actually there’s far more to it than that. This album in particular is very wry, whereas with the first album the clue is in the title – it’s panto. Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants always gives me the impression of a pantomime dame wobbling about going, “Oooof!”

: [Laughs]

It seems very literary-influenced, is that fair to say?

: Yes.

What sort of stuff feeds into your work?

: I think humour and the English language are amazing tools, you know – they’re something that you should empower you, rather than… you shouldn’t dumb it down. And I think humour is also essential in that it works as speed-dating in a sense – if you find someone funny, you’re far more likely to get along with them, you know? And you know, it’s a healthy thing we maybe turn to more because of our characters.

Are you happy with the split reaction from people? Everyone I play the band to seems to go one of two ways – half of them say, “This is genius” and the other half immediately goes: “Hell, no!”

: [Laughs]

: Which is fine! There’s this fear factor that, like, art or music in general isn’t supposed to confront people – it’s supposed to always be very user-friendly, very ‘easy’ and automatic. But we don’t want to be automatic – like, for you, it wasn’t automatic at all, really, it was like: “Wow”… And, you know, if people come to meet you and come to you, then you can give them so much more than if you’re just desperately trying to go to them, you know?

I think it’s fair to say you’re not really a band that Fearne Cotton is ever going to ‘get’…

: Actually, Fearne Cotton played our single on Radio 1 and read out that it was “gorgeous”, which was very nice of her…!

: [Laughs]

: But you know, I think we were idealists and we thought our music was going to take over Radio 1… [Laughs] But I think as we get older we realise that the beauty of our music is that it never will. We learn to draw strength from our greatest weakness, in a way.

Your label, Domino, had a terrific year in 2009 with bands like yourselves, Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors – how far do they influence the direction you’re allowed to take? Presumably they just ‘sign the artist’ and allow you to get on with things?

: Yeah, they’re in it for the long haul, you know.

Do you think that sort of relationship is key to where you want to go as a band?

: Sure, you know… they let us get on with it, they don’t call the shots. They’re not like other labels, with the micro-management that goes on.

Were you ever linked to a major at any point?

: I mean, it’s all bravado, isn’t it? We could say yes, we could say no! [Laughs] I dunno, like… the label didn’t matter to us when we signed to Domino. We got lucky; we could’ve signed to anyone – we really could have. For us, it was like when you buy a chocolate bar – you don’t look at the wrapper so much, you rip it open and you eat it; that’s how we sort of regarded albums. But we’ve never, ever been told what to do, never been told to tone anything down, always been egged on; so the fact that Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors had these proud, leftfield, strong American records last year helped endlessly when we went over to the States last month. Suddenly, it wasn’t this Anglophile underground thing in the States, it was this proud American contingent.

How did they take you over there?

: We were really shocked – the shows were all full, like most places in the UK.

Do you think they saw you more as a novelty, or an art band?

: Mmm… just an art band, I suppose.

I mean, presumably there’s no-one out there really doing what you’re doing…

: That was definitely a strength, that we’re not another English export – we’re not another ‘English band doing an American band’ sent back over to America. That was a strength. But like Benny said, the shows were full; actions speak louder than words. There were places very close to home - we’d go to places like Detroit and Minneapolis… It’s been really helpful going over there: I think it was slowly forging over here, and I think we’re out of the Dark Ages here more than personally I think we were a couple of years back. But out there, the more leftfield and the more outrageous we got, the more people wanted it, and that was something new to us! We’ve always had to figure out a strategy to tone it down and to be more user-friendly…

Finally then, where do you go from here? Have you written anything since this album came out, or started exploring where you want to go next?

: To be honest, no – I think for us, the writing process is our special thing, you know… it’s something we have to protect and look after and cherish, and I think for that reason we’ve kept it away from this ugly side of things. Because touring is brutal, on the mind and the body. And you have to be careful with writing - we have to keep it special and keep it protected, as opposed to… we’ve actually ring-fenced some time now which we’re working towards.

Sound-wise, is it shaping up to be Kid A? Is it going in that direction…?!

: Well, we haven’t made OK Computer yet!

BOTH: [Laughs]

HAYDEN: But no, I think we’re really excited. We know what we’re here for, and that’s a good thing.

Two Dancers
is available now on Domino.