Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Other Lives Releases Tamer Animals; Spotlight On "For 12"

Coastal snobs such as myself might marvel at how exquisite music such as Other Lives' "For 12" can originate in Stillwater, OK... until we remember that those dreamland darlings, The Flaming Lips, hail from dust bowl country, as well.

It's amazingly convenient how one can include music/video clips in reviews nowadays, as a critic would be hard-pressed to adequately describe the beauty-benchmark attained in Other Lives' new album, Tamer Animals (USA-May 10, TBD Records).  Their approach is sometimes dubbed as "chamber folk," which covers about half of it — and any band who features a cellist and violinist earns double coupons in my book.

The band was doubtlessly inspired by a multitude of more modern forces in making their second record, but the production style traces back to the 1960s CBS studios that transformed Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel... an approach that has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.  Additionally, "For 12"'s reverb and atmosphere suggests a subliminal nod to Lee Hazlewood's genius... but perhaps that's just my imagination.  Certainly, this is the sort of disc that prompts the mind to wander.

Other Lives could go toe-to-toe with the (justifiably) vaunted Fleet Foxes, but this isn't a competition.  We should just be thankful, in these often ugly times, that such pursuits of beauty and perfection are still being successfully engaged.

(note: I included a live clip of "For 12" along with the studio version, for the amateur video from Norman, OK certainly captures the group's mesmerizing onstage magic.)  - Steve Stav

Friday, May 20, 2011

Windpower And Floating Cities - An Interview With Thomas Dolby

By Steve Stav

Blinded by science, indeed.  Sometimes it seems as if the general public only has the capacity to absorb one burst of brilliance from an artist during a particular era.  They seize it, savor it, assign it a place on a shelf or in the memory, and move on.   Thomas  Dolby was not yet 25 when his first brilliant burst, 1982's The Golden Age Of Wireless, made him a synth-pop/"New Wave" icon almost overnight.  Thirty years later, millions in the 15-50 demographic recognize his most popular hit — but if asked to name another, most will draw a blank.

Of course, Dolby has always had an aura of misconception-prompting mystique surrounding him; perhaps the keyboardist was so busy in the 80s, he was merely one step ahead of listeners.  A look back at Dolby's credits can surprise even someone familiar with the man's work.   For example, he played on Foreigner's 4 and Def Leppard's Pyromania, and produced  several gorgeous Prefab Sprout albums... when he wasn't busy making his own records, writing songs for other artists, and appearing on dozens of albums in a number of genres.

A near-departure from recording in the early 1990s to delve into cellular ringtone technology seemed to encase Dolby's mystique in legend-preserving lucite.  In 2006-07, however, the synth phenom emerged from cold storage with a successful, one-man "Sole Inhabitant Tour."

Further whetting fans' appetites have been a pair of download-EPs released as precursors to Dolby's first album in twenty years, the upcoming A Map Of The Floating City.   The EP-appetizers are expectedly wondrous; his thematic signatures of romantic adventure and imagination-sparking observations have certainly survived the decades, and have exquisitely matured with time.  Moreover, the new album (which features guest appearances by luminaries such as Mark Knopfler, Natalie MacMaster, Imogen Heap and others) will doubtlessly reinforce the fact that behind the electronic wizardry and technical prowess, there's always been a very gifted singer-songwriter.

From his beachfront home on England's east coast, Dolby recently discussed via telephone new ideas, faded memories... and vintage lifeboats.

SS: I just saw a picture of your lifeboat studio... you couldn't possibly require further inspiration.  What an amazing place to work.

Dolby: I know... that's the only bad thing, there is no excuse; if I have a day where I'm not productive, I say to myself, "You spoiled little brat!  Living in a place like this and not getting anything done today!"  (laughs).  It is a wonderful place to be.

I sort of have the best of all worlds... I can go record with other musicians, or I can send stuff to musicians elsewhere - there are two or three musicians on the new album that I've never met in the flesh.  It's incredible, really, how technology has made places like this not so remote anymore.

SS: I imagine you sit out there and witness the storms?

Dolby: Absolutely, in all sorts of fierce weather.  It gets pretty intense out here.  I love working out there when a gale blows, it's wonderful.  I record everything; the ambience of the lifeboat ends up on the record; the song "To The Lifeboats" has some creaking in the background, which is actually the turbine on the mast creaking through the deck.  I sit and watch the ships, I have binoculars; when I have the blinds closed, I have a periscope so I can peer out at the ships.  They're building a wind farm out there, which you can just about see with the naked eye when the light is right; otherwise you have to use binoculars.  There's currently 56 of them on the horizon, there's going to be 141 when they're done. 

This is so great... I wrote "Windpower" in 1980-1981, and I'm so pleased that's it's actually come to be.

SS: What was the inspiration, or motivation, for your "Nutmeg of Consolation"?

Dolby:  Our garden floods... not often, but about every five years or so, we get an extremely high tide and the sea comes in a bit.   So, it was impractical for me to have the proverbial "garden shed studio," which I did have in California when I lived there.  So I came up with the idea of having a boat in the garden.  At one point, I thought it would be a seagoing vessel — I thought I would sail around the world to record my album, and occasionally go up the Siene or the Hudson or the Thames and give a concert on the deck!  This would have taken some serious sponsorship, of course, and I didn't have the energy to traipse around with my hand out.  Part of the reason for the name, "Nutmeg of Consolation" was that it was a consolation prize - a boat on blocks in the garden.

I spent about six months looking for a suitable vessel... I was looking at fishing boats, as they have good wheelhouses with all-around vision; however, they can be a bit "fishy."   I eventually found this converted ship's lifeboat from the 1930s... it was about to be scrapped, as part of its hull was stove in.  I found some local boat builders; in the process of rebuilding the hull, we installed a doorway where it was damaged.  It has a drawbridge with an anchor as a counterweight... so you wind a big wheel in the wheelhouse and the drawbridge goes down, the anchor goes up with a system of pulleys and chains and ropes, making a fantastic clanking sound.

There used to be a diesel engine below the wheelhouse, and I took that out and installed a bank of batteries.  On the mast there's a 450 watt wind turbine, and on the roof of the wheelhouse there's solar panels.  So, provided there's some sun or wind, the batteries stay charged, and I can work quite happily without needing any power off the grid at all.

SS: You own the ultimate treehouse.
Dolby: (Laughs) But there aren't very many trees around here!

SS: Your upcoming album, A Map Of The Floating City... the name sure fires the imagination.  How long have you had this idea for a record, and what prompted it?

Dolby: Well, for probably 15 years I've been wanting to make an album with this title.  It means various different things to me... there was a floating city in Tokyo in medieval times, where the merchants used to bring their barges into Tokyo harbor to trade.  Eventually, there were so many of them, it was girdlock.  No one went anywhere, they just stayed roped together, and it became this sort of heathen city outside the jurisdiction of the rest of Tokyo.  During the day, you could trade silks and spices and things there, and at night, it was a den of inequity.  It sounded like a nice place to be.

Secondly, from my lifeboat studio here in East Anglia, facing out across the North Sea towards Germany and Holland and so on, I see the container ships coming and going.  They're stacked high with containers, and sometimes in certain lighting conditions, it looks like you're looking at the Manhattan skyline off in the distance.  When they're several of them, it looks like an archipelago of Manhattans.  That, to me, is very evocative.

The final piece of it, really, is that the idea of a floating city as a kind of different dimension, sort of an invisible reality... so that's how the title came about.  Then, the three continents, Amerikana, Urbanoia and Oceanea - as I started to assemble the songs for the album, they seemed to be falling into three distinct categories.  So, they ended up being three segments on the album.  The first, Amerikana, is really sort of a farewell to America, where I lived for 20 years... I might be back there someday, but at least for the time being I'm in my native England.  During the time I was living in the States, I became very fond of indigenous Americana, whether it be cultural or places I visited — parts of America that seemed to be frozen in time. 

In a way, we're very "Pan-European" in Britain, everything is sort of "brie on a baguette," served to you by a Polish immigrant.  Which is fantastic about England, actually, but by contrast, when I go to the United States - especially away from the coasts - it seems very indigenous there.  So Amerikana is my contribution to folk storytelling, but definitely told from the point of an outsider.

Oceanea is more about my return to my spiritual homeland.  My mum's family is from here, I grew up around here.  I learned to sail here as a kid; it's very dear to me, and it's very relaxing for me to come home.

Urbanoia is about cities... I obviously still visit cities - New York, London, L.A. or wherever - but cities are not the place for me.  I'm not a city person, they're deeply unsettling to me — but sort of thrilling at the same time.  Urbanoia definitely has a darker tinge to it.

So it's sort of a little triptych of portraits of these different continents, pushed together to make up the album.

SS: Are you finished with the record?

Dolby: I'm very, very close.  I actually assembled it for the first time a few days ago.  It's got a few "t's" to cross, "i's" to dot, but it's getting close.

SS: Do you have a date set for the release of the Urbanoia EP?

Dolby: I'm actually not going to release a third EP.   I've been working on a game with the same title as the album — that's going to be released very soon. 

SS: A game?

Dolby: Yeah, sort of an alternative reality game.  Free, on the web.  Instead of the EP, if you want to hear music from Urbanoia, you'll have to discover it within the game.  The game involves my entire catalog — it contains every item, character, every location named in every song I've ever written.  It's going to be very exciting, I think, for hardcore fans... and, from a marketing perspective, the goal is to turn some of my 'casual' fans into hardcore fans, to convert some of the former into the sort of nutjobs that get on the Flat Earth Society pages — and I mean that in the most affectionate way (chuckles). 

It will be on, and it won't require any software download; it's in a web browser.

SS: Wow. It's great that it will be free.  It always chafes me when an artist releases EPs, you buy them, and then he releases a box set of them all - plus a new song you just have to have.

Dolby: I was a bit wary of that; it seemed like a bit of a ripoff to do that.  That's why I talked myself out of releasing a third EP.  Although there are additional songs that aren't on the EPs, it still seemed like a chore, to expect people people to pay for three EPs... and then pay another $15 or whatever for the album.  I think it will be very interesting, it's a whole other aspect of things; I hope it will build some anticipation for the album's release.

SS:  I imagine that speculation abounds among your fans as to what other tracks will round out the album... indeed, I can see from your website that suspense for the whole thing has been building.

Dolby: My hardcore fan base has known for three, four years that I've been working on a new album.  For some of them, I think it has been quite frustrating — "Where is it already!!"  But by and large, they've been very patient.  A lot of 'em say, "Hey, we've waited for 20 years; we'd rather wait another year and have him get it the way he wants it.  I'm not exactly prolific... I was talking to Peter Gabriel the other day, and I told him, "You're prolific by my standards!"

SS: It can be frustrating, from a fan's standpoint... yet, an artist such as Peter Gabriel is worth waiting a bit for.

Dolby: He is worth waiting for, and there's a fanfare, an excitement about it.  Things have changed a lot since I started, or since he started.  In those days, everything was about the "street date."  Everything was clouded in mystery until you pulled the trigger on a "street date," and suddenly there's an album and a tour and a video, and the rest of it.  These days, given how accessible we make ourselves to the audience via social networking and blogs and things like that... unless you want to turn your back on all if it, say, "No! I'm going to stay a private person; it's nobody's business what I'm doing, and it'll be done when it's done." 

Personally, I enjoy the interaction, I enjoy the fans being involved and feeling they have an investment in the album.  I think that's sort of the "modern way;' I think the whole "street date" thing is obsolete.

SS: When did you become the leader of this cult, The Flat Earth Society?

Dolby: (Chuckles) Oh, I think it dates back to '83 or '84, right when that album first came out.  I don't even know if it was me who coined the term, or it was the fans themselves who named the fan club that way.  Back in those days, it was just a physical mailing list.  It stuck around; for all the years I wasn't doing any music, there was still an interest.  The Internet had emerged, and people were analyzing the music, doing tribute cover versions and sharing chord sequences, things like this. 

I'm not sure if they ever thought I'd come back and do any more music at all; I think some of 'em assumed I was like a dead guy, like Nick Drake or something.

SS: Are you ever surprised by the level of interaction on the website?  You've even got people researching the history of your lifeboat.

Dolby: Things like that are fantastic, obviously — the collective sort of "mind share" that you get on the Internet.  I guess because I have a relatively large number of well-informed people following me, I'm able to stick up a picture of my lifeboat and ask if anyone can help me identify it — and someone's going to come out of the woodwork who's an expert on 1930s British vessels.  That's pretty great.

That's the plus side.  On the negative side, there are times when I feel a little intruded upon.  To give (the fans) early access to a bit of music... many people will say, 'Wow! It's really fascinating to see the process as it unfolds."  But others will say, "This is not polished!  This is like a demo that I could do."

SS: I've long been fascinated with your collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Field Work."  How did this song come about?

Dolby: I can tell you how we met, initially.  For the song, "Radio Silence," from The Golden Age of Wireless, I was looking for a Japanese singer.  This was at a time when Japanese pop was first getting some exposure in the UK... bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra had been doing some interesting stuff.  Anyway, Akiko Yano was a well-known singer in Japan, I'd heard some of her stuff and she seemed to have the appropriate voice.  I found out she was going to be in London, so I called up and arranged for her to do a session for the album.

She came with a friend who was introduced to me as "Luigi"  — or that's what I thought I heard.  I started to explain to her the harmonies I wanted, which were jazzy and quite tight.  She said, 'I think the best thing would be if Luigi writes them down for me.'  So "Luigi" came into the room, and based on hearing the chords I was playing from the control room, he notated them for her in about five seconds flat.  And I was rather proud of these complex, tight harmonies!  (laughs) 

It suddenly occurred to me that this guy was some sort of musical genius, and then it dawned on me the mistake that I had made.  I'd seen Ryuichi's name written, but I had never heard it pronounced by a Japanese person.  I had been thinking, "Wow, a Japanese guy with an Italian name, that's kind of unusual."

SS: So that was the beginning of your friendship.

Dolby: Yeah... I didn't know they were an item at that point; I did know she had sung with YMO, but I hadn't put two and two together (Sakamoto and Yano were married in 1982; they divorced in 2006 - SS).  So, we exchanged our info, and a while later he asked me to collaborate on this song.  He send me some backing tracks, and I sent back an idea for the vocal.  He said, "Yeah, this great, but let's do it together in the studio."   He spoke almost no English at that time; a lot of this (communication) was done through an interpreter.

We arranged to meet at New York City, sort of halfway between London and Tokyo.   We then realized to our embarrassment that we had each checked into the downtown Hilton under assumed names, names that the other person wasn't aware of.   We wound up simultaneously calling our respective offices and having it sorted out - a kind of "Spinal Tap moment."   We ended up meeting in the bar. 

So we wound up recording the vocal there, he liked what I was doing, gave me pretty much a free hand.  Then he asked me to direct the video, which was pretty great.

SS: The video for "Field Work" was rather bizarre, a juxtaposition of themes... but it worked.  Did you share the creative input for it?

Dolby: The concept was basically mine, as I recall.  But the personality of this Japanese guy now living in the States was something that Ryuichi came up with — the big old sweater and shopping bags, et cetera.   I honestly don't remember very much about it.  It's kind of dangerous, I've discovered in some ways, to tell stories from twenty-five years ago — because people remember them differently (laughs).  I was just reading a bit in a David Bowie biography where someone that I know was recounting a story from Live Aid... it wasn't how I remembered it at all!

SS:  It's been almost 30 years, and yet with all of your accomplishments, so many people primarily associate you with  "She Blinded Me With Science."  Does this frustrate you, or do you view it as the calling card you've been dealt, and an opportunity to surprise listeners?

Dolby: In reality, it might be a calling card, but I get more feedback along the lines of, 'Oh, he's so much more than that' than I get "Oh, he's the guy who did "She Blinded Me With Science."  I get that sometimes, especially from people on the periphery, or people who were too young to know anything other than that.  So, I'm resigned to that.  It's not my favorite song, either, but it's not a piece of junk.  I'm very proud of it as a record, and I think it was a good video. 

I see it as sort of a commercial now.  If I had just done songs like "Screen Kiss" and "Weightless" and "I Love You Goodbye," I probably would have remained a totally obscure figure.  Those songs are not mainstream; they're challenging, an acquired taste.  They're not for everybody.  So I might have easily done an album or two, get dumped by the label and would never be heard from again.  Instead, because I was able to have commercial success with "Science" and other singles from that period, I had a springboard for hundreds of thousands of people to discover the rest of my music, and some of it stuck.

That's great news, because when I sat down and wrote those songs, they meant a whole lot to me.  I'd come up with a chord change and go, "Oooh!  That felt great.  I wonder if anybody else will get the same jolt that I just got."  And evidently, some did!  This is what's so fantastic about it. 

Nowadays, it's not just numbers.  Back in those days, it was like, "Wellll, Thomas, your album just went gold."  Now, was that because 'Science' was a big commercial hit, or was it because people liked "Airwaves" and "Cloudburst At Shingle Street"?  You had no way of knowing, and the record company certainly couldn't tell you, because to them it was like selling soap powder.  "Great, half a million people came out of the woodwork and bought this, let's aim for three-quarters of a million units next time."

These days, you know with incredible precision exactly how people found out about (the record), what songs they downloaded the most, what fans are saying... you even see the cadence to things.  When I put out Oceanea, my gut feeling was, "The title song will bowl people over.  But 'Simone' is kind of a sleeper, and down the road, once people have gotten over the title song, they'll realize how good of a song 'Simone' is."  Sure enough, you see that sort of arc to things; you can almost watch it happen in real time.  You can even stimulate things by releasing an alternative mix of "Simone" at just the right moment.  All of this I find incredibly positive, and it's healthy for an artist to be working in this atmosphere — versus the old days, when it was all about the industry... it's much more gratifying.

SS:  Will you be touring the U.S. in the coming year or so?

Dolby: I really hope so.  I'm trying to figure out a way to do it economically... it's a tough time for the touring business.  I don't have a long track record of putting bums on seats; it's a puzzle to put together a concert tour with a four or five piece band.  For my last tour, I was performing mainly sequenced versions of songs in my past catalog; the new album really demands "real musicians," I don't see how I can do it solo.  I'll figure it out; it might have to be a double bill, or a package tour or something.  I'm open to suggestions.

SS: Perhaps you could anchor the tour with gigs at some steampunk conventions. 

Dolby: Oddly enough, someone said to me the other day, 'You are to steampunk as Iggy Pop is to punk."'

SS: It could work, you know.  With your image — and your imagery of retro-science — it's not that far-fetched, the idea of you being a de facto musical icon of the scene.

Dolby: I think such a show could be a nice idea, though I might be accused of "jumping the bandwagon"... though that would be ironic, as I'm more or less doing the same thing as I was in 1980.  There's certainly a lot of heat around steampunk at the moment, though I don't know how quickly it might dissipate.  So far, I haven't noticed a strong musical movement to go along with the fashion-and-culture one.

SS:  Some folks regard you as a bit of a genius.  What aspect of being a professional musician has challenged you the most?

Dolby: Um... it's sometimes hard to remains passionate about something when you're required to be so analytical about it.  It's a bit like being a '"foodie"... it's hard for someone to cook for a "foodie" — "They eat some of the best food in the world; how could they possibly like what I have to serve up?"

It's kind of hard... because when I listen to music, I can tell so many aspects of it from my own experience about the production, the songwriting, the choices the artist made, and so on.  And I kick myself for being so dispassionate about it — why can't I just respond to it in a visceral way, as I did when I was 14, 15?   That's probably the most challenging thing for me.

On the plus side, that's kind of why I took a break from music in the Nineties; I felt that sort of professional apathy setting in.   The good news is that coming back to it now in my fifties, after all this time, I don't have any of that sort of cynicism.  In a way, I've got a broader mind in regards to being open-minded to other people's music, collaborations, things like that.  I'm really enjoying it, I feel fresh and energized about it in a way that I wouldn't have been if I had kept treading the boards and trying to do a revival every couple of years (chuckles).

Monday, May 9, 2011

From Blind Vision to Blanc Burn - An Interview with Blancmange's Neil Arthur

by Steve Stav

After it seemed that every 80s act who could take the stage again has done so, two of the era's most elusive legends have emerged from the woodwork.  Blancmange - the British synthpop duo comprised of Stephen Luscombe and Neil Arthur - have re-appeared on the radar with their first disc in 25 years, Blanc Burn.

Don't call it a comeback, however, for Blancmange never gave themselves a chance to diminish, to become boring or irrelevant.  After a remarkable run of singles and three albums - beginning with their stunning LP debut, 1982's Happy Families — Luscombe and Arthur called it quits in 1987.  Several reasons are cited for their vanishing act, but one has to imagine Blancmange also saw the handwriting on the wall for the era that they helped make so exciting.

Luscombe and Arthur have kept themselves quite busy since; each has fistfuls of recording projects under the belt.  In addition, Arthur has composed several scores for British television.  However, the general public hasn't really tracked these musicians' evolutions over the past 25 years, so Blanc Burn will be a bit of a surprise to anyone expecting Blancmange to pick up where they left off.  Aurally, the duo's new offerings could be shelf mates with those who might be influenced by Blancmange — perhaps MGMT, or A Silent Film — rather than a regurgitation of their past.   Make no mistake, though, Blanc Burn is an Arthur/Luscombe production; Arthur's lyrical signature of edginess alternating and/or co-existing with a sense of playfulness — wrapped in eclectic, addictive musical structures — has survived to the 21st century.  The duo still have the beat, the groove, the punch; one could dub them "Blancmange 2.0."

Blanc Burn also brings the band's old friend Pandit Dinesh back into the fold.   Dinesh memorably flavored "Living On The Ceiling" and other Blancmange tracks, work that helped established him as pop's most in-demand tabla player and Eastern percussionist.

Questions naturally abound when given the out-of-the-blue opportunity to chat with "frontman" Neil Arthur, possessor of one of the 1980s' most distinct voices.  However, the first order of business was to ascertain the condition of Arthur's old partner, whose sudden illness unfortunately precluded him from participating in Blancmange's first tour in a quarter-century.

SS: I must start off by asking how Stephen is doing.

Arthur: He's got an aneurysm on his spine, so he's waiting for news from a specialist about an operation to deal with that.  He's in good spirits.  Unfortunately, Stephen couldn't come on the tour with us, but thankfully we were able to get the album together.  We communicate most days, particularly during the tour - he wanted to know how things were going.  Inevitably, Stephen couldn't keep himself away, and probably against doctor's orders he came out for the last show.  It was wonderful to see him, and hopefully when he's got himself sorted out and feeling much better, he'll be able to go on the next tour.

SS: After all these years, what sparked another collaboration between you two?

Arthur: We've always remained in touch, been good mates.  We got talkin' a few years ago, and I said that I've got some ideas, some sketches of songs... we agreed to come back to my studio.  We put some ideas down, and in a very short space of time, we realized that we had quite a body of work put together.   Lo and behold, it turned into an album last year.  I took it to Proper on the recommendation of my old manager; I was looking for a licensing deal, as we had a completed album,
Blanc Burn.

Neither Steven or I wouldn't have thought of it as our fourth record, it was just a body of songs that became an album.  We didn't have a master plan, no more than we had one 30 years ago!

SS: You mentioned your eight-date mini-tour... you must have had to brace yourself for a wave of nostalgia, to interact with the fans again.

Arthur: That was humbling, actually.  Recording an album's one thing, and going out and playing new and old (material) is quite another.  There was a lot of preparation for that.  Our first date was in Glasgow... I'm always nervous going on stage - I'd know something was wrong if I wasn't nervous, and I was pretty terrified.  As soon as I went on stage - Dinesh and Graham (Henderson) were already there - I could hear the first beats of "Vishnu," our intro, as it was for us long ago.  As soon as I walked on stage, I thought, "Ahh, blimey.  Everybody's with us!"  It was such a fantastic feeling!  There was such warmth from the audience... they 'made' every show - we made the music, but the audience 'made' for a fantastic show.

Afterwards, I sat down and chatted with whomever  wanted to chat, signed things.   And people told me their stories... that was enlightening.   You know, time has passed, I'm 52 and have my own family now... it was wonderful listening to and sharing experiences with the audience. 

I thoroughly enjoyed myself (during the tour), and I know Dinesh did, and Graham - who played keyboards and operated the technical aspects of things - he had a great time, too.  We had visuals using some of the old films, and new images... that was running, as well.  We had a great time, and hope to do more of it.

SS: A full tour would be really cool... though I imagine you wouldn't play the States.

Arthur: Well, why not?

SS: A lot of British acts don't make their way over here, for some reason or another.  Money's a factor, I'd imagine.  I think you'd have a good audience here, though.

Arthur: We'd really like to take this further... we've gotten a lot of correspondence lately, particularly from America, asking us when we're coming back to play!  Obviously, economics do come into it.  Getting a licensing deal in America would make sense first, before we do it.  I don't see any reason why not; I'd love to come over.

SS: When did you first cross the pond?

Arthur: June of '83.  We played in New York, and also recorded "Blind Vision" at Sigma (Sound Studios)... it was quite an experience, really.  We subsequently returned and played more dates, and we recorded the majority of Mange Tout in New York.  We stayed at the Mayflower, initially; then, for six months we rented a place in the Chelsea.  Now, that was an experience (laughs).

SS: The first time I heard Blanc Burn, I honestly didn't quite know what to think.  It was sort of like running into an old classmate you remember fondly, but haven't seen in 25 years; takes a while to adjust.  But it's catchy as hell, and with every listen I warmed up to it more.  It's a great record.  Now that Blanc Burn's been in the can awhile, what's your favorite song on it?

Arthur: Since we've finished the tour, I've listened to everything but our album!  I've been busy working on a number of things.  But I really enjoyed playing "I'm Having A Coffee."  A song about pent-up frustration, really, when you'd rather be having a... very intense relationship (laughs).  Getting a great response to a new song from the audience, that was fantastic.

SS: I think my favorite so far is "Don't Let These Days."

Arthur: Oh, that's a song I wrote that's really about a bullying incident.  Just offering a bit of help, really... bullies are really the weakest of the weak.  Bullying is such a dreadful thing.

I'm glad you're enjoying the record, by the way.  I like the idea of someone listening to it and picking up new things every time.  That's encouraging.

SS: I'll give you another tiny bit of encouragement.  My wife was dealing with breast cancer for most of last year; it was one of those years where you seized upon every little moment of happiness that came along.  Last summer I ordered a "Best Of" CD, as I needed a couple of Blancmange tracks for a compilation I was making, and you're not on iTunes...

By the way, why aren't you on iTunes?

Arthur: It's a mystery to me; I've tried to sort it out with Warner Music.  I've got my solicitors talking to them... the new album will be iTunes, but I'd like the original albums offered, too... not a "greatest hits" package - though that would be fine, as well —  but fans want the original, complete albums.  We're working on it.

But please, continue with your story.

SS: Oh, sorry.  Well, I was playing "Lose Your Love" one day, and I heard this peep from across the hall.  My wife asked, "Who is this?  I know this."  And we wound up spontaneously bursting into song — "No, no, no, no, no, no, I don't want you to go.... " several times over that weekend.  We still do, once in a while.  I guess you'd have to be there; we're a bit eccentric and silly, but that's a great chorus to sing, especially at the top of your lungs.

Arthur: Ah, fantastic... what a great story, I love it.   By the way, we had great fun making the video for that, many years ago.  We flew over to New York to film it.  The video got banned by ITV and the BBC for 'inciting violence in the home'...

SS: What?

Arthur: Because we were smashin' up things.  It was ridiculous.

SS: That was one of the few videos you filmed indoors.   You guys seemed to be everywhere - where was the video for "Don't Tell Me" shot?

Arthur: Valencia... we went to 'The Fire' (Las Fallas), a festival they have in early spring, and filmed while that was going on.

SS: What prompted all these all these exotic locations?  Were you and Stephen really into traveling, or were you trying to compete with Duran Duran - they'd shoot something in Antigua, and you'd go to Cairo?

Arthur: (Chuckling) Or just down the coast of England... we' d just go out and hire a local film crew.  Just a few of us would go out, not a big production... we'd ride camels and horses, whatever.  We weren't particularly well-traveled... I'd been to a few places, but this was a real-opener, making the videos.

SS: You did look like you were having the times of your lives... as if you were on vacation, with a movie camera.

Arthur: It was always like that, having a lot of fun.  Even that "studio" one for 'Lose Your Love' was like that... we hired an old, abandoned terminal in Manhattan - each room was a different scenario.  And then we went upstate and pulled a house down for the finale!  An old house was going to be demolished - and we filmed it being pulled down.  There was supposed to be another scene with us outside the house in daylight, but we were stopped by law enforcement for speeding, got delayed (laughs).

SS: Was there a time when you put Blancmange in perspective, and put it all behind you, on a shelf?  A time when you said, "That was great, but never again?"

Arthur: Hmm... I did get on with other things, other music projects, and I've enjoyed that.  I don't think I ever really stopped long enough to think about Blancmange.  I've always enjoyed that fact that I had the opportunity to do it, and to work with Steven - that was good fun.  Having said that, I've never really regretted stopping it, either, at the time we did.  I think if we had carried on working together, Stephen and I, we probably wouldn't have remained friends.  We weren't really enjoying it, right at the end, so I'm glad we quit when we did.  In stopping, it protected our friendship.

There is a lot of water under the bridge... coming back to it all now, we did not, in any way, set out with some formula to re-create something we did long ago; because Stephen and I are doing it, it's called 'Blancmange.' We wrote songs of today; we just thought, "Let's just play some music and see what happens."

21st Century Blanc Remixes, Part One - containing remixes of "Radio Therapy," "The Western" and "Living On the Ceiling" was released on May 2 via download at major outlets.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Psychedelic Furs' "Talk Talk Talk Interview"

"If you believe that anyone like me within a song / would try and change it all, then you have been put on... I'm into you like a train."

With strong echoes of both the glam-rock of their collective youth and of the punk sentiments of the band's genesis, The Psychedelic Furs' Talk Talk Talk album has proved to be a timeless encapsulation of  a young, brash artist's forays into the human jungle.

Released in 1981, Talk Talk Talk not only vanquished any notion of a sophomore slump, it was a landmark record, solidifying the Furs' trademarks.   A full-course, yet no-nonsense myriad of emotions, conditions and observations — lust, disgust, irony, disillusionment, deep introspection — were thrust upon a bed of surprisingly complex and powerful musical arrangements.  And, of course, it contained a ditty called "Pretty In Pink."

Three decades later, Talk Talk Talk remains a brooding, raucous, furious and hypnotic masterpiece; by popular demand, The Psychedelic Furs will be performing it in its entirety during a spring/summer tour of the U.S.

I recently cornered one of the participants in greatness, Furs bassist Tim Butler, for anecdotes from a very pivotal time in the band's career.  Butler, who was just 22 at the time of Talk Talk Talk's recording, is frontman Richard's youngest brother.  Rarely seen without his signature shades and a smile, Tim not only shares his sibling's extremely gracious demeanor, but a habit of blunt honesty, as well.

Steve Stav: I can't tell you how pleased I am to hear you're going to be playing this entire record on stage.

Butler: Is Talk Talk Talk your favorite Furs album?

SS: Yeah, I think so... it's your meanest album, and probably the most complete.

Butler: I beg to differ there... my favorite record is Forever Now; but you're right, it's a mean, energetic album.

SS: I think it would be a bigger hit, perform better on the charts as a new record today.

Butler: Yes, I think I'd agree with you on that.  When it first came out, there wasn't that much acceptance of alternative music on the radio.. now, alternative music is all over the place, but back then it was pretty much just on college radio.

SS: You debuted the "Talk Talk Talk" show in Europe last fall.  How did that fare overseas?

Butler: It was great!  We played a festival in Belgium; we haven't played in Belgium in... 20 years?  We got an incredible reaction there.  And of course, the English dates... the last time we played London was in 2004.

Since we've been back together, it's been fun; whereas towards the end, before we took the hiatus... it was getting to be like work.  The whole 'album, tour, album, tour' bit, trying to make a hit that beats the last record - it's a lot of pressure, and it tends to take the fun out of it.

SS: I imagine during a song like "Mr. Jones," it's fun for you to watch some in the audience mentally buckling their seatbelts... it's hardly a Human League concert.

Butler: (Laughs) Some people who haven't seen us before, perhaps they come to the show because of the name — sometimes I think they expect a 'laid-back' performance.  But we are a hard-rocking band, and I think many people who see us once are pleasantly surprised, and come back over and over again.

SS: Now you're playing a second set during the show... 'hits' ?

Butler: Yeah, plus other favorites - not necessarily all the hits, but also songs we just like to play... the 'hits, misses and also-rans,' if you will.  We shuffle around the songs in the second set quite a bit.

SS: Talk Talk Talk is such a vigorous record... did you all have to pick up an exercise regimen to prepare for the tour?

Butler: (Laughing) No... it's funny you said that, though, because one night last year, after the 'Talk Talk Talk set,' we came offstage and Paul Garisto, our drummer said, "Wow, this is really a young person's album!"  It's deceptive... a lot of the songs I didn't realize were so fast.  By the way, we have a great band right now, probably the best lineup we've ever had.

SS: I've always thought of the Furs as a combination of Roxy Music and say, the Buzzcocks.

Butler: I'd say Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols!  (Laughs)  That's one of the reasons why we started in the first place... the Sex Pistols brought an energy back to music.  We'd always been Roxy Music and Velvet Underground fans... and when we went to see the Sex Pistols at the Hundred Club, we were just blown away by the aggression and the energy... we decided to form a band.

SS: The middle Butler brother, Simon... he was in on this, too, wasn't he?

Butler: Yeah, he was in it for awhile... Simon actually helped write "Imitation of Christ" and "India."

SS: Why did he quit?

Butler: Uh, Simon didn't see it going anywhere; plus, at the time he thought it would be too much like the Bee Gees.

SS: I imagine he's endured about 30 years' worth of heckling.

Butler: No, no, he's proud of us.  He comes to see us at the shows.  Simon's got a real job, he works for Apple Computers in California.

SS: What do you recollect about the writing and studio sessions for Talk Talk Talk?

Butler: I recollect... going to the pub around the corner from the rehearsal studio about 11 o'clock; we'd get drunk until the pub closed, and we'd grab a six-pack and go to the rehearsal studio and jam.   And then at 5:30 when the pub opened, we'd be back there.  I remember a lot of fights, a lot of energy and aggression — everybody was trying to get their input in.  It just happened to all click.

SS: Sorry, I'm culturally obligated to ask you a question about "Pretty In Pink."  But I'll make it a little interesting... personally, what was the iconic, "Pretty In Pink" song of your formative years?

Butler: Hmmm... "Virginia Plain" by Roxy Music.

SS: Wow.  I saw them about ten years ago.  I almost peed my pants, it was so exciting.

Butler: I was at one of those shows, too.  Wasn't that something?

SS: And the thing is, I figured that might be the final swan song... but 10 years later, Bryan's still at it.

Butler: Well, why shouldn't he be?  Great music has no age limit.

SS: Did you start as a bassist, or was the instrument assigned to you by tradition - as you were the coolest member?

Butler: (chuckles) No, Richard and I were sitting down at our parents' place one night... we were talking about forming a band, and what'd we do, what it would be like.  And he said, 'What do you want to play?'

I originally thought, 'drums,' but they'd be too expensive for a 17-year-old to buy.  So I said, "bass!' because the drums and the bass hold everything together.  I got a cheap bass, and the rest is history.

SS: Did you have a serious early influence for the bass?

Butler: Yeah, for the sound — and because I wanted to move around on stage a lot — it was Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers.  I used to go see them all the time; I loved his sound, the way he moved... he wasn't standing in the background like bass players are supposed to.

SS: The 'anti-Bill Wyman."

Butler: The 'anti-John Entwistle' !

SS: If you and Richard ever have an argument, what's it usually about?

Butler: Hmmm...

SS: Girls?

Butler: No... how a song should sound like, or which song is good or not.

SS: As in, 'This is crap, I refuse to play it' ?

Butler: No, there's been instances where we'd have to cajole Richard for weeks, convince him that a tune is good... and finally, when its been recorded and mixed, he'd turn around and say, 'That's really good.'

A case in point is "Heartbeat," from Mirror Moves.  Richard didn't like it, but we'd carry on in the studio after he'd gone, we'd change it around and add or subtract bits.  One day, Keith Forsey played it back to him, and Richard said, "What's that?"  "Oh, this was the one you didn't like."

SS: Richard's been answering questions about a new album for almost 10 years.  For pete's sakes, when are you guys going to get off your butts and make it happen?

Butler: You'd have to talk to him... we have song ideas and things, it's just a matter of Richard doing the lyrics... I know he's working on it.

SS: I would think a new Furs CD would sell like hotcakes.

Butler: Hopefully... but would it?  That's one of those scary things - would it?  Seeing how the music business is now... is it worth doing it, only to have it fall on deaf ears?

SS: Ah, the fear of failure.

Butler: Everyone has that fear, no matter what job you're doing.

SS: Not only musicians, but of course fans mark time, mark their lives by music.  But technology plays tricks on us... alters the passage of time.  I wore this tape out in high school, and now Talk Talk Talk is in my computer, fresh as a daisy.  It's all very surreal.

Butler: It's very surreal, to me, to hear it on the radio all these years later.   It's surreal to think that people still want to come down to hear it... I think about how old I was when I recorded it; "What was I thinking when I played that bass line, how did I come up with that?"  It is surreal... and kind of scary (laughs).

SS: The fact that you've physically aged so well plays into all of this.

Butler: We're pickled; we're in embalming fluid (laughs).

SS: The embalming fluid of rock 'n' roll.

Butler: That's the thing... I like to think that all of our albums - save for Midnight to Midnight - you could play 'em today, and not think, "that's an 80s album."  Midnight to Midnight, of course, had that "80s" production...

SS: Your brother once told me that he thought of the Furs as a band not necessarily 'of the era,' but sort of apart from it all.

Butler: Yeah, well, that's what every band strives for - to be different, and I think we managed that.  We didn't kowtow to any sort of record-company pressure to "fit in" at the time; we marched to our own, different drummer... I think we were influential in that we were not willing to take any crap from the music business, and willing to experiment.  If the record company ever said, "We can't release that," we'd say, "Screw you, that's what you're getting."

SS: Some artists are so influential, so unique, they can't be imitated.

Butler: That reminds me of a story from the 80s, from a journalist who had done a piece on Rick Springfield.  The guy had been in up in his hotel room, and Springfield had some of our records lying there.  Trying to keep the the conversation going, the journalist said, "I see you have some Psychedelic Furs albums."  And Rick Springfield replied, "Yeah, they're great, but there's nothing to rip off."

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Style Council's Political Health Farm

The Jam's constant references to British politics and British working-class life in the late 70s-early 80s were probably contributing factors to their relative lack of success in the United States at the time.  Paul Weller's follow-up group, the Style Council (an outfit that in at least one critical respect, was comparable to McCartney's Wings) offered up blue-eyed, metropolitan soul with less heavy doses of political outrage and social sarcasm.

"Life At A Top People's Health Farm" is one of the exceptions.   While Mick Talbot cops a fantastic groove popularized by Stevie Wonder, Weller fills this rollicking song with acerbic jabs at the government, the economy, and the middle classes' aspirations for upward mobility while their brethren are getting "the shove" and the "iron glove."

Some things haven't changed much in 25 years, it seems, on either side of the Atlantic - and Paul Weller has always spoken his mind about it.  The Style Council, at least on this occasion, put a pretty clever, butt-wigglin' disguise on his commentary.