Friday, 24 June 2011

When the road of excess turns out to be a dead-end.

The capricious nature of modern pop stardom being what it is, there are some wrong turns that are harder to recover from than others. For instance, it was recently said of Duffy that she probably throws empty Diet Coke cans at the radio every time she hears a song by Adele (which I imagine would be fairly often). During the last few days, however, I've wondered whether or not Adele might have ever observed the career trajectory of Amy Winehouse and thought to herself, “There but for the grace of God...”. After all, artistically speaking both women come from broadly similar backgrounds – North London “blue-eyed soul” singer/songwriters with a performing arts school pedigree and a second album wildly more successful than its predecessor – but it's there that the similarities end.

By and large, Adele Adkins chooses to avoid the limelight, and therefore little is known of either her personal life or her indulgences, whatever they may be. The spectacular success of 21 suggests that her audience couldn't care less either way, which I think is quite telling. Compare and contrast, on the other hand, with the shambles formerly known as Amy Winehouse. When she emerged - or rather, came out swinging - in 2003, it was with some forthright opinions on her peers in her left hand and, for a 19-year-old, an arresting line in cynical, world-weary lyrics in her right (Fuck Me Pumps and Stronger Than Me being two of the more striking examples). Although the somewhat prosaic neo-soul stylings of Frank might at times have led lazier listeners to dismiss it as more Mill Hill than Lauryn Hill, impressive live covers of Moody's Mood For Love and Teach Me Tonight hinted that Winehouse was utilising her stage-school techniques with something more in mind than a gig presenting the National Lottery draw at some point in the future. In the seven years since, I don't think there's been another female singer/songwriter in any area with anywhere near the same potential for genuine, era-defining greatness, and I still don't.

Skip forward a few years, however, and it's as if you're looking at a different person. In the now-infamous paparazzi shot that signalled her arrival as a permanent fixture in the gossip columns and celeb weeklies, Winehouse's regular-girl shapeliness (“fat” if you're a Daily Mail reader, “normal” if not) was nowhere to be seen – this new model was all spidery, emaciated limbs, sunken eyes, sailor's tats and teetering Ronnie Spector beehive. She sounded different as well. On Back To Black, the modern r&b of her debut had largely been abandoned, at least cosmetically, for that of an earlier vintage, courtesy of producer Mark Ronson and a horn section on secondment from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Nevertheless, despite all these outward changes, everything else seemed to suggest that her talent with a hook and a witty lyric had sharpened considerably. Her earlier Erykah Badu fixation had been dialled down in preference for a heavily-stylised (too heavily for some) approximation of Esther Phillips and Dinah Washington, but not at the expense of her interpretive skills. Overplayed as it is, there remains a sublime duality to her cover of the Zutons' Valerie, in the way it offsets the girls-night-out perkiness of Ronson's fauxtown aesthetic with some rather bleak Sapphic yearning; perhaps not what Dave McCabe had in mind when he wrote the song, but I'm sure the royalty cheques have long since eased whatever misgivings he may have had there.

There comes a point in the career of many successful artists when they decide whether or not they're going to embrace celebrity and all the things that come with it. It seems nowadays that the choice is either to go all-in, or to give it the swerve entirely. You can no longer have your cake and eat it too, if indeed you ever could. There may well be moments when certain famous people might prefer it if they were a little less famous, but the nature of the game is that they rarely get to make that call. That said, I once heard a tale of an internationally famous singer who, during a lengthy spell away from the public eye, had managed to both acquire and eventually kick a serious smack habit without the story ever leaking out. In the case of Amy Winehouse, the impression I always had was of someone who wouldn't necessarily shun stardom if it came along, but who was nonetheless quite serious-minded when it came to her music. While there's no avoiding the fact that her work has been informed by a personal life one could politely describe as “turbulent” (a one-line summary of Back To Black, for instance, might read; “He's a bastard but I love him”, although more recent events would suggest that the follow-up, “Don't hit him, Blake, you're on probation”, might be some way off yet), it's equally difficult to avoid the possibility that the path Winehouse now finds herself stuck on - that of someone at least as famous for her excesses as for her music - could actually be the result of a conscious artistic choice; something that, if true, would be as titanically stupid as it is tragic.

In the July 2011 issue of The WORD, there's a hugely entertaining and illuminating interview with Glenn Hughes, formerly of Deep Purple amongst others, during which Rob Fitzpatrick describes the bassist's memoir Deep Purple And Beyond: Scenes From The Life Of A Rock Star as “[reading] like one monumental binge with the odd LP here and there for ''colour''”. Now, Rob is a good enough writer to sell me on the idea of Hughes' story anyway, even if I may have hitherto imagined I'd have no interest in it whatsoever. The fact is, though, I'm as fascinated by preposterous tales of rock 'n' roll excess as anyone, and I'm aware that I'll appear a hypocrite if I say I believe that to still buy wholesale into the notion of “the rock 'n' roll lifestyle” is the mark of an idiot, but I think it is. The image of the “elegantly wasted” rock 'n' roller, so vigorously championed in the music press during the '70s by writers like Nick Kent, has no better embodiment than Keith Richards. But when Keith finally keels over, I'll bet serious money that the obituaries will talk first about the riff from Satisfaction, the solo from Sympathy For The Devil or the deathless chords of Brown Sugar, Street Fighting Man and Honky Tonk Women. Long after that there'll be the Mars bar, Brian Jones, Altamont and so on. Somewhere in between they'll mention the drugs, of course, but it won't be the first thing they mention. This is the thing that all those wretched souls who model themselves after him completely fail to grasp, with their artfully-teased crow's-nest barnets, skinny jeans, litany of chemical dependencies and hour upon interminable hour of terrible, hackneyed, mediocre music – Keith Richards has never needed to take drugs in order to make good music. By the time he'd reached the point where the music was interfering with his drug-taking, he'd already accumulated a body of work that would have endured even if he'd dropped dead immediately after finishing Exile On Main Street. And let's not forget the likes of John Coltrane and sundry other jazzers, either; A Love Supreme was made after Coltrane had quit drugs, remember.

Let me put it another way; nobody ever remembers any of the people who take shitloads of drugs and produce bad art, and I bet there's fucking loads of them. The possibly apocryphal tale of a distraught Samuel Taylor Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in frustration at being unable to recall the supposedly even greater epic poem he'd made up in his head in its entirety during a massive opium bender is all very inspiring, but there seems to have emerged in recent times a generation of artists whose journey along the road of excess is mostly spent in search of short cuts. I find it hard to listen to someone like Pete Doherty – a Sainsbury's Basics Tim Hardin with William Blake pretensions who attends court hearings for drug offences with pockets full of gear and yet manages to stay out of prison – without thinking, “Here's someone who's convinced himself that if he takes enough of the right drugs and throws enough of the right shapes, and maybe makes the odd record or two, he will eventually become a great artist”. And when I read about someone like Amy Winehouse breathlessly buying into the received wisdom that briefly declared Doherty to be “the greatest poet of his generation”, then it becomes easier to understand why so many gifted artists decide to skip the tiresome “art” bit and go straight to the drugs.

The music press has to take a lot of the responsibility for this, because it's the music press more than anything that's helped secure the seductive myth of drug use as a prerequisite for greatness within the cultural consensus. Its influence may have diminished significantly, but behind the wide-eyed cheerleading for Doherty in particular, there's still the implicit suggestion that you're somehow less of an artist if you don't embrace a life of wild excess. When Brett Anderson was doing gear, he was barely out of the NME. After he packed it in, he'd have needed to murder Damon Albarn for them to write about him. With the news that Amy Winehouse has cancelled her forthcoming European tour after a disastrous performance in Belgrade just over a week ago, it's hard not to conclude that here's another young artist who swallowed that line whole and is now too far along the road to ever find her way back, and I'm saddened by it. Those hair-shirted champions of authenticity who virtually accused her of taking the very food from the mouth of Sharon Jones a few years ago probably couldn't care less about the latest episode in the grim soap-opera that the life and career of Amy Winehouse has become. Some might even perversely see it as karma. But I miss the young woman who aimed for Sammy Cahn greatness, didn't quite hit the mark, yet still came up with the line, “But you're my fella, my guy, just grab your Stella and fly...”. Or the woman who wrote the amazing Love's A Losing Game, a song that would sound just as utterly, heartbreakingly complete had it been written at any point during the last 50 years, which of course it could easily have been. Or the woman from – stone me – the video for In My Bed. I liked her and I'd like her back. I'm not interested in being the sort of person who turned up at Lou Reed gigs in the mid-70s, in the ghoulish hope that tonight would be the night Lou o.d'd, and was taken to A&E and thereafter the bone orchard. I've no desire to watch someone fall to bits on stage. As far as I'm concerned, the world would be a better place with a clean, happy, functional Amy Winehouse in it, and as soon as there's one available, I'll be first in the queue. I hope I'm not the only one.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

"I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you..."

One of the very modern disadvantages of moving to a different part of the world is when you find yourself left slightly flat-footed by events due to a lack of easy access to things like the internet or English language newspapers. So it was with the news that Osama bin Laden caught a bad one in Abbottabad the other day. Having missed the by now obligatory Twitter/Facebook frenzy, it was only yesterday that I was finally able to properly bone up on what had happened via Jason Burke's excellently researched analysis in the Grauniad's international edition.

Of course, it didn't take long before people started using the “c” word, which isn't so surprising, given that the conspiracy theory industry is beginning to play a similar role in people's lives to that of religion – abandoning yourself to something you believe to be more powerful than you in order to compensate for feeling a lack of control over your own life, anyone? The mere fact that later “official” reports on the events surrounding bin Laden's death differed slightly from earlier ones was enough to set off alarm bells all over the set. No consideration given (as if) to the fact that the fog of war sometimes makes for murky pictures, much less the possibility that an absence of inconsistencies or loose ends might constitute greater grounds for suspicion. But we can talk all day about conspiracies, both real or imagined and, since someone somewhere is almost certainly doing exactly that, I'm going to leave them to it.

What I found more interesting were the spontaneous celebrations that took place in Lower Manhattan after Obama made the official announcement. Or more specifically, the widespread outbreak of tutting disapproval at the fact that inhabitants of a city where bin Laden's demagoguery had its most terrible impact might choose to cheer at the news of his death. Now, whilst I can see why some people would regard that kind of carry-on as crass or tasteless, I'm at something of a loss as to why those same people seemed unable to at least understand why it was happening. I'll bet a pound to a pinch of shit that there were plenty of people on the streets of NYC that night who lost family, friends and loved ones on 9/11. So, if they want to take a “fuck 'em where they live” attitude to his demise, they can knock themselves out as far as I'm concerned. Same goes for the people of Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, where bin Laden had also decided to strike a blow against The Great Satan, killing scores of innocent people in the process - very few of whom happened to be American, as it turned out. Not that I have any idea if there was a similar public reaction to the news in those cities, mind you. But I do wonder whether there'd have been quite such a hoity-toity response if there was.

During and after the second gulf war, there were many people freely describing Bush and Blair as “mass murderers” and “war criminals”, and I detected something of a tendency to engage in death-count pissing contests as regards who was responsible for the greater number of deaths and, by definition, therefore the worst offender. Obama said something I thought quite poignant about empty places at dinner tables, and there has undoubtedly been a great many more of those all over the world in the last decade. But an awful lot of them can be traced, either directly or indirectly, back to one mass murderer in particular, and it does appear that what goes around does indeed come around. So please forgive me if I choose not to judge those who celebrate bin Laden's death – that's a matter between the people doing the cheering and their consciences. Besides, on the day news breaks of the death of Margaret Thatcher – someone also considered by many to be a mass murderer and war criminal – you can find me in the pub, sippin' on a Bud. And you're more than welcome to drop by and call me all the hypocrites under the sun, just so long as you get the ales in.

Friday, 29 April 2011


Here are a couple of mixes I've recently done for other folks. The first is a sort of unofficial mixtape to mark the release of the new album by my old mates The Memory Band, with whom I played bass for a couple of years during the noughties. I like to think it's in keeping with the general aesthetic of the band, and even though it's a bit on the long side, I think it makes for a nice, leisurely listen.

Intro (Pearls Before Swine: Trumpeter Landfrey)
The Youngbloods: Darkness, Darkness
Nelson Angelo & Joyce: Um Gosto De Fruta
Soft Cell: Youth (Memory Band Remix)
Elliott Smith: I Didn't Understand
Bayete: Free Angela
Patto: The Man
The Memory Band: Demon Days
Bon Iver: Skinny Love
Four Tet: She Moves She
Aphrodite's Child: Break
David Crosby: I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here
The Accidental: Wolves (Mighty Love Remix)
Gary Bartz: I've Known Rivers
Alice Coltrane: Sita Ram
John Martyn: Solid Air
Nadia Cattouse: Mr. Tambourine Man
Jim Sullivan: Rosey
The Memory Band: Blackwaterside
Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66: After Sunrise
Laura Nyro: Gibsom Street
The Memory Band: Come Wander With Me
Julie Driscoll & Brian Auger: I Know You Love Me Not
Liam Bailey: I Belong
Eddie Kendricks: People Hold On
Pharaoh Sanders: Japan
Talk Talk: The Rainbow
Robert Wyatt: Free Will And Testament
Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance: Roll On Babe
The Memory Band: By The Time It Gets Dark

I also did another one for the Slugrave Facebook group, which isn't so much laid-back as comatose. You can stream that one here. Tracklisting is...

Gigi Masin: Clouds
The Memory Band: Come Wander With Me (didn't realise I'd doubled this up with the other mix...)
Doves: Birds Flew Backwards (Chris Watson Remix)
War: Four Cornered Room
Barefoot Jerry: Friends
Hiss Golden Messenger: John Has Gone To The Light
Bob Welch: Future Games
Bob James: El Verano
Roy Buchanan: You're Not Alone


Thursday, 28 April 2011

“Music is the key to freedom” - a conversation with Jez Kerr.

Jez Kerr is the bass guitarist and vocalist of A Certain Ratio, the band he formed in Manchester in 1977 with three friends - Simon Topping, Peter Terel and Martin Moscrop - who bonded over a shared love of Northern soul, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, taking their name from a line in the Eno song A True Wheel. Their 1979 debut single All Night Party was one of the Factory label's earliest releases (FAC5, for the trainspotters), and they continued to put out records on the label for another ten years. Yet recent retellings of the Factory myth on screen and in print have seen ACR's place in it somewhat overshadowed (understandably perhaps) by the ill-fated and fractious tales of Joy Division or Happy Mondays. This isn't entirely fair, since in some respects they managed to embody the wilful, maverick spirit of the infamous Manchester indie just as well as either of those bands, perhaps even more so.

Originally without a drummer simply because they didn't know one, a chance meeting with Donald Johnson, a veteran of several local jazz-funk outfits, saw ACR move swiftly beyond their abrasive post-punk beginnings, the newly expanded configuration arguably inventing what became known as “punk-funk” with their celebrated cover of Banbarra's Shack Up. Their first American tour was marked by an epiphany involving latin percussion ensembles and the samba schools of New York City's Brazilian community, and the subsequent live shows upon their return to the UK were characterised by extended and often thrilling batucada-style percussion workouts, something less than warmly received by those who'd have preferred to see them stick to a rigid diet of cliched post-punk gloom. Their fourth album, I'd Like To See You Again, took even more of a creative hard-left from its predecessors, with the band exploring their Brazilian/latin jazz leanings further still, at times sounding closer to the likes of Azymuth than any of their Factory peers. Indeed, any of their peers at all.

In the face of widespread commercial and critical indifference, ACR doggedly continued in this direction until the late 80s when, as acid house swept the nation, they began to experiment with samplers, drum machines and sequencers. The collapse of Factory saw them briefly decamp to A&M, where they came perilously close to a bonafide hit single in 1990 with Won't Stop Loving You, featuring Kerr on lead vocal. A decade on Factory meant they were never entirely at ease with major labels and eventually both parties cut their losses, with ACR returning home to Manchester and the more familiar territory of Rob's Records, the label founded by the late Rob Gretton, manager of New Order and Joy Division. At the turn of the 21st century, the pendulum of fashion briefly swung back in the direction of their Factory-era material, with newer acts such as LCD Soundsystem citing it as a key influence, and the band licensed their back catalogue to respected London indie Soul Jazz in 2002 for a series of reissues.

Having settled some time ago around a core line-up of Kerr, Moscrop, Johnson, instrumentalists Tony Quigley and Liam Mullen, and ex-Primal Scream singer Denise Johnson (no relation), ACR are still active, albeit infrequently. However, Kerr is the only member who remains a full-time musician and now, somewhat unintentionally, finds himself embarking upon a solo career. A digital-only single, Play Something Fast, was released by Chester-based indie Higuera earlier this year, and another, Rip You Right Back, is out at the end of May, with his debut solo album (still untitled) due later this summer. The singles sound distinctly Mancunian; Kerr's vocals are gentle verging on tentative, the rhythmic drive of the songs is almost a throwback to early Joy Division, the guitars grind and mesh in a way that echoes the very earliest ACR records, yet everything manages to sound much brighter and more upbeat than the sum of its parts might suggest. In fact, “upbeat” is the ideal word to describe Kerr's mood when we meet at The Social on Little Portland Street one evening in late March. He's about to perform his first ever London solo show with a band that features ex-Fall drummer Simon Wolstonecroft, former Hacienda DJ Tintin on keyboards, and Keo Martin on guitar, and is sat outside the venue enjoying a smoke. After a quick round of introductions, we chat briefly about the predicament of the modern musician, specifically whether or not it's still possible to actually make any money from music. “You can't,” he responds with a wry smile. “In any case, money shouldn't be what drives you. Even though I've got a family to take care of nowadays, I still think making music should be about having fun”.

G&P: Your solo album sort of happened by accident, didn't it?

JK: Well, not by accident, no. I mean, I've had lots of tunes knocking around for a long time, not just ACR tunes, but other tunes.

But you didn't set out to make a solo album?

No, but I'd left my job at the Post Office and I had kids to provide for, and I can't do anything else. I'm a songwriter, and I thought the best way of getting my songs heard was to get a band together, because I like playing live. I'm really enjoying the stuff that the band's doing as well.

Didn't it partly come about as a result of a sound engineering course or something?

Yeah, I went back to college in 2002 to do a music technology course. I got a degree in music technology, and then I tried teaching. Didn't like that.

What was the problem there? Stroppy kids?

No, I just wasn't very good at it. There's a bit of an art to teaching, and I wasn't very patient. I was pretty stressed at the time as well, working part-time at the Post Office. I got out of it when I started doing music for adverts with a company called Gate Films in Manchester. I did an Alliance and Leicester ad that made me some money, and a few other things, but that started to dry up when advertising money got tight and agencies went back to using library music. Or not using me, anyway. So I decided to get another band together. Not that I wanted to leave ACR or anything, because we only played about five gigs last year anyway. We don't play that much. If someone asks us, and it's a nice venue and the money's decent, or it's abroad, then that makes it more enjoyable, and it keeps things fresh for us. We did a great gig in Italy last year. Beautiful venue.

You just play when you all feel like it?

Kind of. The other guys are all working, so it depends when we can all fit it in. But I'm not working, apart from writing songs, which is why I've got this together.

You've played with more or less the same group of musicians for as long as you've been a musician, haven't you?

Yeah, Martin Moscrop, Donald Johnson, Tony Quigley, Liam Mullen on keyboards and Denise Johnson. We've been together with this line-up for a long time now. I think some people must think we only get together because we can make a bit of money, but that's not true. We get together because we're a really good band, and it's as good now as it's ever been.

The music has held up in ways that a lot of similar stuff from that period hasn't, perhaps because you never really chased trends or anything.

Well, we were just concentrating on the music. We were very insular to begin with, which can be a bad thing, especially if you want to be entertaining as well. We probably took it maybe a bit too seriously but because we weren't technically brilliant, it gave us a unique sort of sound. If you do music with the right spirit, and you're trying your best, I think that shows through, no matter what you do or what kind of music you're making. It's more to do with the attitude you have towards making the music rather than what particular style of music it is. I think people recognise honesty and sincerity, and we always had that. We were never cynical about it. Some people might have thought we were, but we weren't.

I was always curious about how you ended up getting drawn towards the whole jazz thing that was going on in Manchester in the early 80s at clubs like Berlin, which is kind of one of the untold stories of Manchester clubland.

Well, we were listening to that kind of music anyway. In the early days we were reacting to punk, listening to Wire or Brian Eno. Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy was a big album for us, things like Kraftwerk, that sort of stuff. But we came from a Northern soul background as well. We all liked soul and funk, George Clinton, stuff like that. So we got a drummer who could play like that, and we went after things that inspired us. The jazz thing came about when we saw lots of samba bands in New York the first time we went over there. We saw all these drummers on stage, and we thought, yeah, that's for us. We liked Miles Davis too, which is where the trumpets came from. But when people hear the word “jazz”, they might think of Dave Brubeck or something, and if you're a musician, you can admire the skill in that, but we never really tried to make that kind of music. We were just trying things out a lot of the time.

It seemed to me that you were attempting to capture the atmosphere of it, rather than to get it spot-on.

We weren't copying Coltrane or Miles. We were just using those sounds in our own way. We were a bunch of Mancunians trying to play like Miles Davis, which in our case wouldn't normally work, but it actually can work if you play it with the right spirit.

What I thought a lot of people missed about ACR was that everything you did, no matter what it sounded like, was rooted in the punk ethos in some way.

Exactly, do it yourself. Try and be as good as Miles Davis, and even if you've no chance of being that good, you can still get through to people. When we started trying too hard, and we got a bit better, we actually started to think we were total shite. When you think you know what you're doing, maybe that's the time to give up. To me, it's about always being ready to learn something, and having a bit of humility as well, especially where music's concerned. Music's about communicating with people, and we used to find that a bit difficult. We were always getting called miserable. Being from the North-West, you don't always talk to people, you keep yourself to yourself a bit. But music's not about that, and it took us a long time to realise that, well, actually, people just want to enjoy themselves.

I never really understood the preoccupation with this “dour, serious Northerners” stereotype that a lot of people used to attach to the music Factory put out.

Well, we did take it seriously. We looked serious, we looked hard-faced.

But I think, as Northerners, you and I probably recognise that these things aren't always how they appear. The perception that the wider public had of that scene was largely dictated by the music press. It didn't have much to do with the reality of it.

Yeah, but it's totally different now. There's much more opinion out there, whereas back then there were three or four weekly music papers, and that was it. Same with the radio. You had John Peel and nothing else, so everyone focused on those things. They had a lot of influence, so whatever they said went, and people took that at face value a lot of the time. The way it should be is that you go and find out for yourself, but most people haven't got time to do that, which is why they pick up on other people's opinions. Unless you see or hear something for yourself, you end up relying on what someone else thinks of it. Direct experience can't be beaten.

Going back to that first US visit, would it be true to say that in many ways you came back to Britain a different band?

Well, because we'd seen all these percussion ensembles, we thought, let's go and buy loads of percussion instruments and incorporate it into what we're doing, so that's what we did. We had a few percussion bits anyway, but when we went out there, we had a flight case nicked. We thought it was nicked in New York, but it turned out it was nicked in Manchester, and it had all our percussion bits in it, as well as a load of effects pedals and stuff. So we ended up having to buy loads of equipment out there, just so we could do the tour. We went to New Jersey to a place called Latin Percussion, and spent $3000 of Tony Wilson's money on stuff we'd seen all these samba bands using. And when we came back here and started using it at our gigs, the people who were into the more industrial side of what we did just didn't understand it. They'd just walk out of the gigs, which was fine, y'know. When you're the age we were at the time – 18, 19, whatever – you're totally arrogant and convinced that the way you're going is the only way to go. Sometimes it takes a manager to make a band successful, and the thing about Tony was that he didn't give a shit about those things any more than we did. Nobody was taking care of business, really, but in the long run that wasn't such a bad thing. Sometimes if you make a bit of money, there's a tendency to start chasing after it, and you become restricted by the need to be making money all the time. We had no restrictions as far as the music was concerned, so I don't really regret anything like that.

There's been a few times when I've heard people talking about Factory who, through no fault of their own, won't have been around at the time, and they've described ACR as a “second-tier” Factory band, but I never saw it like that.

Well, that's because none of the bands were second-tier, that was what made Factory special. It comes back to what I said about direct experience. People who came to see us would have more of an idea of what we were about than the people who'd only read about us, partly because there was a lot of crap written about us.

But did you ever have any moments when you thought; “We made the wrong choice by sticking with Factory for so long”?

Yeah, when I can't feed my kids. When I can't put food on the table, that's when I feel like that. But that's just sour grapes, really. You can't change the way things are. You should try to be positive. Having a sour grapes attitude is the worst thing you can do in that situation, because you won't make good music if you're bitter.

How do you look back on your time with A&M?

We learnt a lot from it, and a lot of it was positive. It was an experience recording at places like Sarm West, and we met a lot of interesting people and saw how that side of the industry worked. It just didn't suit us. We also realised that you can end up spending a load of money without ever getting the results you want. That's just how it goes. There's no point crying about not “making it”. In any case, the things that end up appealing the most to people are the things you least expect to. It's totally arbitrary, especially in the music industry. If you get wound up about it, you'll end up being unhappy all your life. We probably spent about five years being unhappy, thinking we were great but not getting anywhere. But it's a very fickle industry, so you've got to decide what are the reasons why you're doing it.

And you've always been quite clear about what those reasons are?

Well, look, it's nice to make a bit of money and to make a living out of something you love. But it's very difficult to achieve that, and if you do achieve it, and you do make a bit of money, that's when the problems start. When you don't have the money, you don't find yourself in the position of having to make horrible decisions you don't want to make. It can turn you into a nastier person.

You start fighting over publishing splits and things like that.

Yeah, yeah. And we've gone through that, but we've been together so long now that, no matter what else happens, we've figured out that what we really enjoy most is just getting together and playing some top music. We lost our way at one point, when we started using Akais and whatever, so we've learnt that whether it makes money or not isn't so important. I think we've gone beyond the point of worrying about it too much.

Many bands who sign to majors quickly find themselves under pressure to get a hit single, and get forced into doing a cover. But the cover you did was Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing, which was based on the Carmen McRae version they used to play at the Hacienda of a Saturday night...

Well, I wouldn't know that, but Donald would.

You've never heard that version? Not at all? I'm surprised.

No, I haven't. Who's it by, Carmen McRae? I'll check it out on YouTube. I never liked doing it, to tell you the truth. I was always into the heavier stuff. But because I love the band, I did it. That's the great thing about ACR; we've all got different attitudes, and we're always having arguments, but we're still together. We're not the Grateful Dead or anything, we never lived in the same house. We're not actually that close, but we still love each other. Me and Pete [Terel, former guitarist] were close. We shared a place for a bit, Martin and Tony shared a place for a while as well, but generally we don't see each other socially unless we're getting together to play, which I think is pretty unique as far as bands go. We walk into the room and, because we've been doing it for so long, we know that whatever we play's going to be good, and that is a beautiful thing to have, and it takes time to develop. You don't build it over just a few years.

Which brings us back to jazz in a way; how you don't start out being a great musician. It's through the process of continually working at it and refining it that you become one.

To me, being a jazz musician is about expressing yourself through your instrument, and about your playing reflecting your personality. And if you can do that as a collective, fantastic. It's the key to freedom. Because once you start playing, all the shit in your life goes out the window. All that shit with your job or your missus or your kids or your mates, everything – when you're playing that music, it's gone. I mean, when you're 18 you're just doing what you're doing. You probably don't even know why you're doing it – to get girls or something. But we were always interested in sound. Martin Hannett taught us about that - the love of sound, trying to find a sound nobody had heard before, or even just turning an amp right up and making a noise. Just the love of music generally. A bit like that film School Of Rock. I love that movie.

Speaking of films, I wanted to talk about David Lynch for a minute, because there's a bit of dialogue from Inland Empire on the album. Any particular reason for that?

I just think it's a fantastic movie, one of my favourites. Not necessarily to go and see at the cinema, although I did see it at the cinema – all three hours of it. A bit too long. But on DVD, it's fantastic. Eraserhead was a big film for ACR. I remember when we started out, it was on at the Arden, this great old cinema in Hulme, and we went to see it about four or five times. It had a really big influence on us – the soundtrack, the visuals, everything. We connected with it totally.

To end on a completely different note, something that most people won't know about you is that you used to play football for Manchester United.

I did, yeah. I was recently in the Man United magazine, the February 2011 edition with Ryan Giggs on the cover. There's an article about me on the inside back page. My uncle was Eddie Thomas, who used to play for Everton in the 50s and 60s, and went on to play for Derby County under Brian Clough. He was a good footballer, an inside forward. I played for United from the age of 11. I signed schoolboy forms at 15 in Matt Busby's office, then went back to school to do my A-Levels, but when I was 17 I broke my ankle. I broke it three times in two years, and that was that. I was a ball-boy at United for a while, and there's a famous goal that George Best scored against Sheffield United in 1971. It's one of those they always show on TV, and I'm stood behind the goal when it goes in. It's on YouTube. I posted it on my Facebook page a while ago.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

We Live In Berlin, Baby (number one in an occasional series) – Raphael Saadiq, Postbahnhof, 25/04/11

It seems a bit churlish to tag Raphael Saadiq as “the retro guy” just because he's taken to wearing David Ruffin specs and windowpane-check slacks for work. After all, right from the jump he's indicated a strong attachment to black music's core values, or at least a particular set of them; his former band Tony Toni Tone! announced themselves to the world with Little Walter, a song built around the much-adapted gospel warhorse Wade In The Water, and a later hit, Oakland Stroke, paid tribute to the Bay Area funk bands of Saadiq's youth like Tower Of Power. In other words, the lad's got form. It's only recently, however, that his retro leanings have morphed into full-blown pastiche, with 2008's The Way I See It album abandoning the kaleidoscopic neo-soul of his earlier, Grammy-winning Instant Vintage (see the pattern here?) in favour of a beautifully-woven tapestry of fauxtown and throwback soul. Furthermore, it's something he's undeniably very good at. So good, in fact, that it's quite some time into his energetic and entertaining live show before you spot the flaw in his plan. But I'll come back to that in a bit.

On the evening in question, Saadiq is playing the Postbahnhof which, as the name might suggest, is a former railway station on Berlin's east side which has been converted into an arts centre/club/live music venue (post-Ostbahnhof, y'see), across the road from the newer, still gleaming and shiny Ostbahnhof. It's very easy to tell when you're in the old East; the streets are all named after dead revolutionaries (Postbahnhof is on Strasse der Pariser Komune), and everywhere you look there are clear echoes of the Honecker years in the architecture, even though many of the tower blocks have since been done out in a variety of pastel shades in an attempt to take the edge off their innate cold-war brutalism. The venue itself is functional and unspectacular, but not unpleasant. Imagine something like a large-ish student union, bigger than the main room at Cargo, but smaller than the Garage on Highbury Corner. Even though tickets were still available at opening time, Saadiq had no trouble filling the place, and the make-up of the audience said quite a bit about the broader constituency he seems to reach in this part of Europe. Catch him at somewhere like the Jazz Cafe in London, for example, and you might expect to find yourself amongst a mixture of ageing soulboys and thirty-something black couples, mixed with a smattering of Dingwalls refugees and Gilles Peterson acolytes. Here, however, a surprisingly diverse crowd ranged from the Adidas-clad jugend you see all over the city to couples in their late 40s/early 50s – all, one presumes, attracted to the ethos of authenticity for which Saadiq flies the flag, and seemingly untroubled by the fact he makes new music which actually works incredibly hard at sounding old.

Certainly, when it comes to pastiche Saadiq makes the likes of Mark Ronson seem like rank amateurs, approaching the job with an almost forensic precision. It must be said, though, that the skilfully replicated Benny Benjamin smack of the show's opener Staying In Love or the vintage Sly Stone chug of Heart Attack are as much evidence of Saadiq's obvious love for the material he's referencing as they are of any muso obsessiveness over the way it's constructed. Incidentally, while we're on the subject of muso values, even when you take into account the size of the venue and any consequent scaling-down of the production it's still worth noting how unusual it is nowadays to see an r&b show where all the energy is generated by the musicians onstage. Apart from the odd exception like Mary J. Blige, who can dominate a stage in ways that would shame performers half her age, we've become used to the obligatory phalanx of dancers, retina-scouring pyro effects or other smoke-and-mirrors trickery being employed to mask any number of shortcomings. Not here, though. Ostensibly touring to promote his forthcoming album Stone Rollin', Saadiq makes for a charming and engaging visual focus throughout, bounding around the stage and occasionally strapping on a Telecaster to beef up the rhythm section. In fact, apart from the odd breather where he allows his backing vocalists to step forward, such as on the Leroy Hutsonesque Never Give You Up, he's out there and grafting for the whole ninety minutes. But I mentioned a flaw earlier, and it's this; often the material isn't quite strong enough. For example, good as it is, there's something absent from the musical DNA of Love That Girl which might prevent you from remembering that its base element, The Impressions' Woman's Got Soul, is much the better song. It's as if so much effort has been poured into making his recent material sound just so that Saadiq seems to have left no energy in reserve to come up with enough killer hooks to push it beyond a mere exercise in retro.

It isn't as if he can't write great hooks either – somewhat tellingly, two of the biggest cheers of the night were for the more contemporaneous Don't Mess With My Man (sung by female b.v'er MonĂ©) and Dance Tonight, both hits for Lucy Pearl, the ill-fated “r&b supergroup” from the early noughties, in which Saadiq was partnered by A Tribe Called Quest's Ali-Shaheed Muhammad and ex-En Vogue singer Dawn Robinson. It's at this point that the already high energy level in the room takes a huge leap, and Saadiq is a skilful enough showman to sustain that energy and ride it through to the end of the show, where the Philly-inspired Get Involved switches effortlessly into the set's closer, the glorious widescreen cosmic r&b of Skyy (Can You Hear Me?). By then, he's got the crowd in the bag, and even the band's brief fusion-y detour into “Morris Day and the (Tony Williams' Life)Time” territory doesn't dampen the vigourous and genuine demands for an encore. Saadiq duly obliges, whilst driving home the undeniable point that, even if he doesn't always deliver quite so emphatically on record, he's the very definition of a sure shot live.

Wir sind offen

Hello. I've recently moved to Berlin, which doesn't completely explain the lack of activity, although it's nonetheless partly responsible for it. I was going to document the Berlin thing elsewhere, but that was a bit of a nine-day wonder. I'm going to try and resume normal business here from now on.