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News, Plans & General Prattle, 2015
In front of Wilton's Music Hall with a couple of old pals.
The year began most pleasurably with a spot of archeological digging. Having been asked by the adult education program Volkshochschule to present three evening "lectures" on the subject of "London, Metropole of Music" in an upstairs room at Zurich University, I found myself travelling all the way back to the 12th century. I love this kind of thing, rooting around for days in libraries and books. And I had a friendly, appreciative and generous audience!
Entertainment and inspiration arrived from a rather unexpected source these last few weeks: Roxy Music. I've always had a serious soft spot for their debut album, but I'd quite forgotten how brilliant the next three records are. Songs like "Psalm" and "Mother of Pearl" (on "Stranded") or "The Thrill of it All" and "Triptych" (on "Country Life") are totally enthralling in their glamorous oddness. It isn't just individual songs that linger long in the memory, however. It's also the mood of these albums with their unique combination of fevered rock'n'roll emotion and tuxedoed stiff upper lip. The (re-) discovery was prompted by a trip to Bryan Ferry to discuss his fine new album "Avonmore". Ferry was a joy to talk to. He showed me his collection of Richard Hamiltons, and it turned out that he really did know Faroukh, my old tailor friend from Zanzibar.
Apart from bathing in Roxy Music, I've also been reading a few books by Patrick Modiano, the Nobel prize winner. I'm thankful for this discovery to the chaps of the Buchhandlung im Volkshaus, Zürich, who alerted me to his excellence. Quite extraordinary, the mood of his books: as if the whole of our past were a foggy November night by the Seine, or even the Thames, as in "Aus tiefstem Vergessen" (1996, "Du plus loin de l’oubli" in the original). The most gripping I've read, so far, is his autobiographical text "Ein Stammbaum" (2005; "Un Pedigrée"). By reeling off name after name after "irrelevant" name he creates an effect of autumnal desolation, waste and grey toil - the happy end being that we're reading about it.
Noel Gallagher was his usual amusing self as he talked to me about the new album with his post-Oasis band the High Flying Birds. He claims to have branched out into "space jazz", which he hasn't, of course. But the new album really is a lot more diverse than anything he's done before - a hangover, apparently from his work with the electronica experimenters Androgynous Amorphous aka the Future Sound of London. "Chasing Yesterday" will be released on March 2nd, I'm particularly partial to a song called "Lock All the Doors" with its seriously heavy groove. The song was also one of the highlights of a good-natured warm-up gig upstairs at the Dome in Tufnell Park. The gig really was a lot of fun, not least on the visual side, what with all these time-warp would-be- Paul Wellers everywhere. The Dome is one of the longest surviving live venues in town, by the way: I remember seeing the Blue Aeroplanes and That Petrol Emotion here quite a while ago.
Noel Gallagher @ his management company's office
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds live @ the Dome, Tufnell Park
Catching up with Matthew E. White was a real pleasure. He was talking in his usual thoughtful fashion about the way his life has been turned upside down in the last two years by the success of his debut album "Big Inner" and the rise of the Spacebomb Collective he founded in Richmond, Virginia. The new album comes out early in March and is a bit more focused than the first, with sharper songs and a more diverse palette of musical tricks. Very fine it is, too. My favourite song is "Vision", which has the most personal lyric on the album - and apparently I was the first to ask Matthew about it.
In the meantime, I've been using the dog walk to try out my new mobile phone/camera.
I was sent in my role as the NZZ sports correspondent to a swanky hotel in Waterloo to attend the press conference by Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein to launch his campaign for the presidency of FIFA. An environment I'm not used to: the journalists all either expensively dressed, young and eager, or in their fifties, besuited and rushing this way and that for an exchange of ever so important morcels of information with old colleagues. And then the Prince himself, a fountain of vapid and clichéed promises - he wants to make FIFA's workings transparent, get rid of the bullying culture and bring the organisation back to its source, football - interspersed with a litany of "erm" and "ah" which made it well-nigh unbearable to listen to him. If I've witnessed a more inept public speaker I can't remember it. His campaign is sponsored, by the way, by Malta, Belarussia, Jordan, England and USA.
A groovily besuited assemblage of journalists and a Prince who will revolutionise FIFA.
On the same day as the FIFA event described above I had a much more pleasant encounter in a Farringdon pub with honorary Liverpudlians All We Are to talk about their debut album (see Playlist 2015 page).
Left to right: Richard O'Flynn, Luis Santos and Güro Gikling.
Went to Imagine Dragons's album release concert for fans and media last night, partly because it was a job and partly because I wanted to see the brandnew venue, the House of Vans. I had assumed that this was a shopping palace in the style of the Nike or Apple stores of this world. Turns out it's a warren of caves under Waterloo station which had presumably once served as a warehouse. And I absolutely hated, no, detested the place. Entered from a graffiti- and urban art-bedecked grimy tunnel, the vaults under the railway arches have undergone a painstaking manicure. Everything has been cleaned up to an inch within its life so that the place can house a super-duper café, at least two bars as well as a skateboard-rink. A final decorative lick of artificial grime esnures that the vibe is relentlessly anti-authentic: the faded posters pretending to be hanging off the walls turn out to be Vans posters upon closer inspection, all artificially "distressed" to suit the style.
Imagine Dragons were an odd experience. They're a kind of mirror-image of the Killers, nice blokes, in other words, not half as calculated in what they do as their fellow Las Vegans, and better musicians, too. But I just don't like their brand of pathos-laden pop choruses and chiming post-Big Country guitars. However, three of the new songs - I caught the titles "Gold" and "I'm So Sorry" - seemed to come from a totally different mould: intensely percussive, they were incredibly heavy and boasted a truly gut-shuddering bass. For these three totally a-typical tunes the band seemed to be channelling slow early Black Sabbath through the Move's "Brontosaurus". A true shock to the system, "I'm So Sorry" in particular saw the guitarist in the classic head-banging pose of bent shoulders and a curtain of hair. Utterly and unexpectedly ace! What were they thinking? It was as if they all had two different bands in their chest. The audience - fans mostly - reacted with bafflement at first, but made an awful lot of noise at the end of these songs, proving that it IS possible to capture the audience's attention with something unexpected. Oh, and there was also an exhibition of the "art works" for the album sleeve by a young American artist called Tim Cantor. He seems to be hugely successful. A large coffee table book of his "art and writings" was on display. Awful is not the word for it! Super-efficiently executed sub-sub-Magritte-surrealist-rip-offs for the modern kitsch-market laden with pseudo-meaningful symbolic ghastliness. Urgh! Maybe I even prefer the shrill urban tunnel graffiti to this schlock!
The distressed walls of House of Vans
The unspeakable art of Tim Cantor
Noel also continued the tradition of recommending to me an interesting album I need to purchase straight away. This time it is Manfred Mann's jazzy-proggy first Chapter Three album.
Strolling through Covent Garden yesterday after interviewing Florence Welch (without her Machine) at the Covent Garden Hotel, I ended up in Fopp's, as one does. Now it's Friday morning and I'm listening to "June 1, 1974", an album that I should have purchased years ago but somehow didn't. John Cale and Brian Eno, two of my all-time favourite artists on one album - why only now? No idea.
Barely have I pressed play do I read on the web that Daevid Allen has died, aged 77, of cancer. He was a genuine maverick, admirable, a dedicated eccentric who never bailed out from the strange teapot galaxy he was inhabiting. I vividly remember the culture shock when, as a teenager, I picked up Daevid's first album "Magick Brother"...
A couple of pages from Daevid Allen's mad, great memoirs, "Gong Dreaming 1"
I have the Swiss goal keeper Jayson Leutwiler to thank for a great daytrip to Shrewsbury a couple of Saturdays ago. Jayson is the number one goalie for Shrewsbury Town who are looking good for promotion to League 1 (the third tier of professional football in England). As it happens, a London friend of mine, Andrew, grew up in this small town on the edge of Wales, and what's more, he turns out to be the sponsor of Jayson, with a mention in the program and all! On a cold and wet day, I was more than grateful to Andrew for giving me a lift up there.
Shrewsbury turns out to be picture-book Merrye Olde England, a wealthy small textile town with a long and distinguished history. The game itself, against Northampton Town, wasn't great, unfortunately, and the Shrews lost at home for the first time this season. It has to be said, though, Northampton, beefy giants all, were rather fond of gamesmanship and unpleasant bullying tactics. I won't be visiting them in a hurry, even if they buy Shaqiri in the next transfer window.
The many sights of Shrewsbury
Earlier this week I was back at the Donau-Universität Krems, talking for a whole day about the dos and don'ts of writing about music to a very friendly bunch of music management students. This time I even had time to wander around Krems and the adjacent "hamlet" Stein. Everything is rather quaintly old-fashioned, except the university, part of which is housed in a converted tobacco factory, another part in various examples of fine contemporary architecture. And there's a "Kunstmeile" with various galleries, plus the Karikaturmuseum with a most amusing Mordillo exhibition. The Kunsthalle was in-between exhibitions, unfortunately. Upcoming: Pipilotti Rist. They get everywhere, the Rists!
And here's a couple of snapshots from Oxford Street, taken yesterday.
Nick Cave at the Royal Albert Hall last night - what an incredible night! For very nearly 2 1/2 hours, we were treated to a selection of Cave songs (plus Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche" and an early one by Lane/Bargeld) covering the whole quiet/loud range from his earliest works to his latest. "Mercy Seat", "Higgs Boson Blues", "From Her to Eternity" and a staggering "Jubilee Street" stood out for me. The band - Warren Ellis, Thomas Wydler, Larry Mullens, Martyn Casey - were superb throughout. What I find especially admirable about Cave is how he finds such a fine balance between arch and highly stylised theatricality and real emotional heft. This one truly is one for the family album! I even braved the queue to pick up my copy of the live album of the evening, available 15 minutes after the end of the show. And now I can't find the bloody bag it's in. Surely I didn't leave it behind in the pub afterwards?
In other recent events, I met up with Vincent Neff in the corridors of the Tottenham arts centre where Django Django have their studio to discuss the band's sparkling new album. I also interviewed World Circuit-founder Nick Gold about the state of world music affairs today. He promised a soon-come album from a Congolese band that "doesn't sound like anything else". Another highlight was an encounter last week with the Sparks' Ron & Russell Mael and Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand. The two groups - naming themselves FFS - have recorded a fizzy and witty album full of smart tunes together. It turns out that the first time I noticed Sparks - playing "Wonder Girl" on a German entertainment show and looking utterly out of place - was also the first time the band were on any television show, ever. "No idea what possessed the producers to book us," quipped Russell.
The many faces of Django Django's Vincent Neff
I also saw a few football games in recent weeks. One - my local club Queens Park Rangers v West Ham - was a pretty miserable affair. Typical for a club fighting aganist relegation: sod's law rules. QPR's top scorer Charlie Austin even saw a penalty saved. The result - 0:0 - was no good at all to the strugglers. Also about to be relegated when I saw them were Millwall. They played against Watford - promoted to the Premier League one or two games later. Millwall fought valiantly but to not much effect, Watford just can't stop scoring. Let's hope it'll stay like that next season.
Dockers and hedge fund managers meet at Millwall's Den.
Mark Cazalet constantly comes up with new painting techniques. Invariably they're producing fascinating results. His latest exhibition at the Curwen Gallery off Tottenham Court Road was no exception. Over the past year or so Mark has been painting in the night, out in the woods - which, of course, radically changes his perception of colour. I've never seen colours quite like these. I dearly wish I had the dosh to purchase a couple of Mark's newer paintings to go with the Hampstead Heath tree that hangs over the sitting room sofa, and the Kensal Green cemetery and gas tank above my writing desk.
I like the new Hot Chip album "Why Make Sense?", but I'm looking forward to their next one even more. This, after my conversation with Al Doyle who had this to say about the mad title track of "Why Make Sense?" which, perversely, is tacked on right at the end of an album which up to that point has sounded entirely different.
Me: I’m intrigued by the perverse decision to have the title track last on the album. And in terms of sound, actually, it almost feels like the beginning of the next album – because it’s so rocky and intense in a different way to the rest.
Al Doyle: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think every album has a song on it that may suggest a direction for the next record. I think on the previous record a song like “Flutes” was like a key track for us. That kind of feel you’ll find that now on a song like “Need You Now” on the new record. I think there’s a continuity there. But, no, it was deliberate, we wanted a song that sounded like nothing else that we’d done before, and I think it sounds like not much else anyone else has done. I think there’s definitely sort of different sounds in that, some parts of it remind me of a Rick Rubin production, very gritty drum sound, but then some of the synth textures are more reminiscent of modern producers like Dan Avery or Jon Hopkins or Caribou, something like that. It was just a really fun one to do, and a really fun one to play live as well.
The lovely Brighton sea front
To Brighton for the yearly Great Escape indie business escapade. Did some excellent record and book shopping. The main thing, though: I saw the mighty Klaus Johan Grobe live at the Swiss Music Export showcase.
Two weeks in Zurich - mostly for my Volkshochschulkurs "Eccentricity as a driving force in British culture". It was fun to do, even though I ran out of time and couldn't end the program as planned with five crazy minutes from the film version of "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End". So here's a picture from it instead.
Since I've been back I've been listening to practically nothing but Sparks, especially their "Sparks" album, and then, of course, a trio of Island albums, "Kimono My House", "Propaganda" and "Indiscreet". There can't have been many records released by a de facto hit-making combo that were quite as peculiar as these particular bundles of joy.
On Thursday, it's straight from Ian, the dentist, to the Bush Theatre to speak to Soak. Soak's real name is Bridie. She's an 18year old singer/songwriter from Northern Ireland who's made quite a splash with a couple of EPs and ended up on the BBC's "Sound of 2015" list. She turns out to be quite a remarkable creature, the brain and self-confidence of a thirty year old, coupled with the face of a youngish teenager. The audience turns out to be almost exclusively teenage, and female.
The day after the Mötleys it was off on the Eurostar to Paris. Jean Michel Jarre has a new album coming out in the autumn, and he wanted to play it to a few journalists in his studio on the banks of the River Seine just outside Paris. I'm not allowed to say anything about the album yet. However, I'm sure I'm not contravening against any part of the long contract I was obliged to sign if I say I really was impressed by what I heard. And Jarre himself was an enthusiastic host as well as interviewee.
One thing I really like about Paris and other French cities is the strange things people paint and spray on their walls and doors.
Press conference to announce the European leg of the Mötley Crüe tour with "special guest" Alice Cooper. The event took place at the Law Society which, of course, led to various hilarious jokes by the MC. The event itself was strangely subdued, barely any questions were asked before everyone went home. My interview the next day with Vince Neil and Nikki Sixx, on the other hand, definitely had its moments.
You had a great flair for interesting ways of dressing early on. Did you ever get stick for that? Or was LA just too wild a place to have any objections?
Vince: Erm, "pressing"?
Nikki: He means: did people give us shit cause how we dressed?
Vince: Oh, oh, oh!
Nikki: Definitely – the whole punk thing, we were more Dolls meets Pistols meets early Aerosmith. So there was the punk audience that didn’t really wanna have any of it before we made it. Until they heard us, that is – when they heard us they were into us. But I remember walking around with the guys and it was like “Fuck you guys!” from everywhere…
Vince: Oh yeah, we had high heels on, that’s what the quote was, “just 'cause we wear lipstick doesn’t mean we can’t kick your ass!”
Nikki: And ironically, we loved to fight. One of us was always in a fight. If Vince was in a fight, I had his back, or vice-versa. And that was a funny thing. I remember we used to go down to the Whiskey, someone would be playing there, a band like X for instance, and we’d go down there just so we could drink and fight. Interesting.
Vince: We were mean trannies!
Neil: We were fucking mean trannies!
Here's a sample passage from the interview. When he says "Interesting", Nikki seems to be genuinely baffled by this memory. "That's just how it was." he concluded.
Still in Paris, I had one of the best Italian meals I've ever had. Some kind of vegetable omelette/roulade and salad to start with, followed by linguine with muscles and fresh asparagus. The bread, too, was divine, and the red wines a truly friendly waiter recommended were magnificent. Here's the address:
Restaurant Via Mela, 8 Rue Lamartine, 75009 Paris. Go there!
By the time I thought of taking a picture of this wondrous meal there was nothing left.
A train, any train, is great for reading, of course, especially on a journey as dull as the Eurostar's. Having greatly enjoyed Tracey Thorn's memoirs "Bedsit Disco Queen", I took her latest one with me, "Naked at the Albert Hall - the Inside Story of Singing". It's a great read, too. All about what it means to sing, how it affects us, how singers perceive their own performance, what a singer's fears are, etc. Written in a splendidly jargon-free style, full of unexpected turns and conclusions.
Back in London, a most unlikely sequence of events was topped off with a gig at the Village Underground - the fabulous Amon Düül 2. Now, I don't often go in for the reunions of my teenage hero bands, but this time I made an exception, and I do not in the slightest regret it. The line-up was absolutely legitimate: Renate Knaup, Olaf Kübler, John Weinzierl, the two drummers Danny Fichelscher and Dieter Serfas, one Sigi Hümmer on bass (recently replacing Lothar Meid) and new organist Uli Fliszt. Despite Renate Knaup waking up with a severely sore throat, this was a brilliant, hypnotic show. Songs from "Carnival in Babylon" and "Vive La Trance" and, above all, a majestic "Wolf City" sounded fresh as on day one.
This is Yannis from the band Foals. I met him yesterday at John Henry's studios where they are reheasing for their tour to talk to him about the new album, out in August. It's good. Watch out especially for "Snake Oil".
It's been a not very hot and - frankly - not very productive summer. Amongst the highlights was an interview with Nick Rhodes and John Taylor about the new Duran Duran album. They were everything you could wish for from an interviewee - witty, informative, and fun. They even gave me a present: the Japanese version of KitKat. Yes, it's with green tea. Apparently, a Japanese journalist had brought them a whole box of the stuff.
There were a few more interviews. With Julia Holter, for instance (friendly and reserved), Dan Auerbach aka the Arcs (friendly and reserved), Hurts (fun and very friendly), and the inimitable Georgia (double fun and super friendly). Also, there were holidays, split between Barcelona and nearby Sitges. I enjoyed Barcelona even though it was full of queues. The Gaudi cathedral was spectacular, of course, although I'm still not sure if I actually like this kind of Tolkienesque imagery. Mainly, the cathedral afforded us the great pleasure of maneuvring ourselves in front of as many cameras as possible. Quite astonishing how many tourists seem to believe the view through a digital apparatus was preferable to the analogue view of the human eye.
Sitges. I didn't have the nerve to document the many strange male fashion choices parading up and down the streets.
Back in London in time for the design students from Lucerne and their yearly two-week London project. Each student was assigned two bookshops. Their task was to build a portrait of London in drawings, photos and writing, starting off from these bookshops. It was great fun as well as a really interesting experience for me. I saw areas of London like Stratford and the farther reaches of Hackney that I barely know. We even went to that "pop-up" restaurant/bar on top of a disused car park in Peckham which has been permanently popping up for at least four years by now. What a genius way of making a mint! No infrastructure to speak of apart from an open tent structure, a couple of bars and a kitchen, plus some cheap wooden toilets; a very simple menu, but prices to scalp your brain. £ 4, for instance, for two slices of bread (halved) and a dollop of butter. Still - nice views, and interesting art installations on an empty parking floor.
As for my summer reading, I returned time and time again to the novels of Patrick Modiano. I'd never heard of the Frenchman until he won last year's Nobel prize for literature, but my pals at the Volkshaus bookshop in Zurich turned out to be long-term fans and their warm recommendations proved to be just what I needed. There is a hypnotic quality to Modiano's writing as his characters move through a permanent fog that could be Paris in general, or simply their own sense of self, or their memories, or the chaos of their times. Shockingly, there is still very little of his work available in English - in German there's two dozen books at the very least.
Keith Haring's diaries were a good read, too, especially the early years. Interesting to read about his mural behind the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art just a couple of days after actually standing in front of it. I have mixed feelings, on the other hand, about Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto". It came to me with multiple recommendations from friends as well as Tracey Thorn's brilliant book about singing, "Naked at the Albert Hall". The novel is indeed fantastically well written. However, in the end - and in particular the ending - I found it frustratingly unconvincing on a psychological level. It seems to me so many contemporary American novels are exceedingly well plotted and crafted in an academic sort of way, at the expense of human truth. T.C. Boyle is another writer whose work keeps frustrating me in this manner, cf the otherwise entirely admirable "Tortilla Curtain" with its ludicrous metaphorical ending. Nevertheless, despite my misgivings, I enjoyed reading "Bel Canto".
Which is much more than I can say about Geoff Dyer's "Search". God, how I hated this book by the end! On the cover the novel is decribed as a mixture of Italo Calvino and Raymond Chandler. To me, it represents a strand of English novel writing I can't abide where the writer's aim seems to be simply to demonstrate his superior cleverness. The dreaded Martin Amis belong in this box, as far as I'm concerned, and so does Will Self (I won't mention George Perec because he's French). "Search" pretends to be a thriller but turns out to be a silly game of verbal hide-and-seek. A real disappointment - I really like Dyer's essays as well as his book about trying and failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence).
Still more books - and one of those ridiculous coincidence stories that keep happening as soon as one leaves the house: on the very day after finding out my friend Pete and I had been at the same Incredible String Band concert in Zurich all those years ago and talked to the same guitar player, I found a book in my local second hand emporium, "Rock'n'Roll Mountains" by the very same guitarist, Graham Forbes! Naturally, I couldn't let it rest there. I found him on FB and got in touch. Practically by return post he sent me two more books, "Rock'n'Roll Busker" and "Rock'n' Roll Tourist". All three i've now devoured, and, truly, they're easily in the top quarter of entertaining and insightful music books I've read.
"Mountains" deals with Graham's struggles whilst running a transport company in Scotland to rid himself of his alcoholic urges by climbing mountains. "Busker" tells the story of his musical adventures (what a joy reading about a musician who just loves playing, not an ex-star wallowing in nostalgia). "Tourist", finally, takes Graham round Europe and the USA in search of the live music experience. Excellent stuff far removed from the well-trodden paths of rock'n'roll writing, and heartily recommended!
By the way, I've been well lucky with my choice of football matches recently. Just before going off to Zurich for a few days (and interviewing the great Verena von Horsten for several hours about her powerful new album), I saw Chelsea being beaten at home by Crystal Palace (1:2). And last weekend I went to Norbiton for the first time in my life (it's somewhere South of the river) to see Wimbledon play Notts County in the 4th division. The Dons were behind 0:1 for a long time and didn't seem to be able to string together a coherent series of moves - until they scored twice within five minutes just before the end. The treatment I received by the club was exemplary. All the journalists were brought their teas, coffees and biscuits to their table by the press officer personally. And at the end, the same man even dragged along a very friendly club CEO to have a chat with me. I was totally unprepared for this kind of treatment and I must admit that I found it difficult to spontaneously come up with any decent questions.
Warming up at (almost rural) Wimbledon AFC.
A most entertaining presentation last night of the new Electric Light Orchestra album in the basement cinema at the Charlotte Street Hotel. ELO fans will be getting exactly what they'd be hoping for: a short sharp selection of catchy tunes with many beautifully chiming guitars. "With me it's all about chord progressions," said Jeff Lynne afterwards in an amusing Q & A. "You've told us what you were doing in the last 18 months", said someone, "now can you tell us what you did in the previous 13 years?" "I don't know." grinned Lynne. "I like a drink! (pause) Nonono!"
However, the day will be forever remembered for Morrissey's "bulbous salutation"!
A bukkake of bulbous salutations?
Just finished reading Television co-founder Richard Hell's autobiography "I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp". Most interesting about the NY scene, incl. Smith, Verlaine etc. But then when he leaves the US for the first time to go on a UK tour with the Voidoids (the beginning of the end, actually), the tone turns. It becomes entertainingly sour and provincial in a very parochial NY sort of way. cf: "God knows we mocked the Brits. Their hobby seemed to be potatoes...Every vile dead block its potato shop."
And: "(The Clash's)...vocals were a street-limey nonstop shouted harangue." Plus: "It didn't help that a big Clash tune then...was "I'm So Bored with the USA." etc. Oh, and he reserves the hottest vitriol for Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. He clearly wouldn't have any truck with the idea that London added anything at all (except maybe that shouted harangue-style singing) to the concept of punk.
I met Seal to talk about his new album and ended up - a first for me - interviewing him standing up in the middle of a swanky hotel room. Apparently he was so jet-lagged that he had fallen asleep twice during the preceding interview and wanted to avoid this faux-pas with me. As it happens, he turned out to be a thoughtful but also funny interviewee. He grew up a few hundred yards away from where I used to live in the early 90s in Queen's Park. I remember my then archivist Duncan Brown (later Stereolab's bass player) telling me about auditions his band Milk (part of the Camden Lurch scene) were holding for a singer. He was very sorry that they had to turn down one particular candidate on the grounds that he was too good for them. They would have felt guilty for keeping him away from better things. It was Seal.
This picture (left) is one of my favourite shots of the year. It's the corridor of my hotel in Huddersfield. The corridor was endless, truly spooky, and my room was right at the end of it. Why was I in Huddersfield? The kind people from Pro Helvetia invited me to spend a couple of days there for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival towards the end of November.
A real discovery for me was the Swiss composer Jürg Frey. His String Quartets No 2 and No 3, performed by Quatuor Bozzini, was the first concert I saw, and it was a revelation (see play list 2015 page).
At the other end of the spectre, I don't think I've ever experienced a more irritating pile of nonsensical charlatanry than La Monte Young's "The Melodic Version (1984) of the Second Dream of the High-Tension Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China (1962)". Entering the hall, we were greeted by a dense cloud of incense; the program notes advised us not to applaud at the end so as not to spoil the effect of the piece. The piece was promised to last only 70 minutes, but overshot its allocated time by quite a considerable margin. It consisted of eight trumpets (sometimes all eight, more often a combination of different players in different numbers) playing the same note for what turned out to be ninety minutes. Truly mind-numbing!
This (left) is the forecourt of Huddersfield train station. Not having been here before, I booked a late train back so I'd have plenty of time to sample the local tourist sites. However, after giving the Mining Museum a miss (too far to walk in the cold), and checking out the local history archive at the university (after the disappearance of most local industries, the university seems to be the central force driving the town), and spending an hour on the one floor of the library that was the arts museum (including a hypnotic sound installation by Jürg Frey), I was rather at a loss as how to spend the four hours I had left.
To my great relief, I discovered the Vinyl Tap record store just round the corner from the station. Rarities, it promised. But I was much more interested in the vast bargain basement where every vinyl album could be had for £ 2. The great thing about this was that it was just one vast store room full of records by bands I might have quite liked in their time, but never quite enough to spend my limited funds on. I could have bought dozens of albums but for the sake of my sanity limited myself to just a handful (see below). Now I regret my silly attack of thriftiness.
Several memorable interview encounters shouldn't go unnoticed here. Firstly, there was Pere Ubu's David Thomas to whom I spoke about the excellent, raucous new Rocket from the Tombs album. David is a forceful presence, unstoppable, once he gets talking. He's a one-man flood of theories and ideas which ultimately all boil down to the fact that he regards all his work with any of his groups as chapters in the Great American Novel he's been musically and lyrically writing for the last forty years.
Another really inspirational encounter was with Stephen Coates. He is a film and theatre composer, also the leader of a band called The Real Tuesday Weld. We met up because he is responsible for a tremendous triple album box set of the film music of the Russian composer Mikael Tariverdiev (see play list 2015). He invited me to an exhibition he had organised at the Horse Hospital behind Russell Square tube station (the last bastion of underground culture in central London, says Stephen). It coincided with the publication by Strange Attractor Press of his book "X-Ray Audio - The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone" about the custom in 40s and 50s Russia to distribute forbidden music on flexidiscs burned on x-ray photographs.
I spoke to a very thoughtful and curteous Kele Okereke (above, left) about the new Bloc Party album. Wreckless Eric was in town to celebrate the release of his fabulous new album "amERICa" with three sold out gigs in a church in Stoke Newington (right). Another church, this time in Shepherd's Bush, hosted the Wainwright Sisters for their first gig in London - which turned out to be a rather irksome affair: woefully under-rehearsed (they couldn't even finish their first song!), the Wainwrights played the cutesy-card to overkill effect. Also in town was Annakin to record a new album with producer Dimitri Tikovoi (below). They played me a couple of tracks - and it's very different to what's gone before: the sound is vast and theatrical, with plenty or organic strings and brass...
...and here goes another year...