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Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Waterboys' Steve Wickham does a Jimi Hendrix?

Background: Mad as the Mist and Snow is one of the (many) standout tracks on The Waterboys' new album An Appointment with Mr Yeats, and MickPuck is the Twitter handle of Mike Scott, frontman of the Waterboys.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also like this interview with Mike Scott.

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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Urusen stares hard at music industry puzzle

There is a great young band called Urusen to whom I would like to draw to your attention. They released a single last week, a double-A side called A Once Was Tramp and Tree/The Islander and did so on vinyl, as well as as a free download. Here is a slightly dodgy recording of A Once Was Tramp done in a pub in Bath.

They present a bit of a conundrum and were one of the reasons why the interview with The Civil Wars that I did recently took the turn that it did. I asked a lot of questions about how that band's first album became an iTunes number one because of the bewilderment on the subject of marketing their own first album expressed by several members of Urusen earlier that week. Mind you, it's a subject that just keeps returning in conversation with bands, managers, agents... It seems to me that it's the big conversation of the music industry at the moment.

Urusen don't have The Civil Wars' individual track records but recorded an album at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio a few months back, which was great because they won the opportunity to do it in the face of enormous competition and it shows that someone with experience rates them.

Here's a beautifully made documentary about the time they spent at Real World.

But there was very little by way of marketing support offered along with the recording and a few months later the band are debating - sometimes quite, um, passionately - what to do with their limited resources to make the biggest splash when the album's eventually released.

One of the things that The Civil Wars said was that they put a live recording of one of their shows on the web very shortly after they started gigging together and that much of their word of mouth success flowed directly from this.

But they also said that they thought that there is no magic formula.

Watching Urusen play live is what made me like them. It was a spring afternoon in The Old Queen's Head in Islington a year and a half ago and it just crept up on me that I was really enjoying this band and that what they were doing was creating an atmosphere rather than just playing songs. None of the recordings that I've heard so far have done justice to the spell they cast at their gigs - although the documentary above comes very close.

However, they do have several things going for them, none of which is their slightly esoteric name (I'm not entirely sure how to pronounce it despite having seen them, written about them and talked to them for a while now. I've decided to think of it as a talking point, rather than an irritation).

Firstly - and this is really a given - they can play and I don't think I've heard a note out of place in the four or five gigs I've seen. And their original music is the best thing about them. They are also easy on the eye, which helps - especially since they don't seem to sing about love/sex/relationships. They have an English-style reticence about addressing the subject directly that means they're thought-provoking rather than visceral. I'm comparing them with ahab at this point, who you feel would quite happily shag the entire audience at their gigs if it would help...

But when you combine Urusen's good visuals with the fact that one of them is a film-maker - light bulb moment - suddenly there's the outline of an idea. Ben Please, with the beard on guitar (far right in the pic above), made the documentary at Real World himself and I hope you'll agree it's a bit of a stunner.

This means that some high quality videos of the songs that get the best receptions when they play live would be relatively cheap for them to produce - and this time they could even include some footage of themselves... Radical, I know. Maybe they could start with Nosediving (arty video below containing no footage of the band) which is my favourite - although mainly because when you see them play that one live there's so much going on onstage towards the end - with Nick Stryder on cello and Kieran Houston on drums both freaking out - that you don't know where to look first.

I made a decision when I saw them at The Lexington last week that next time I'll stand farther back so I can see everything comfortably.

If you've got any ideas about what Urusen should do next, I'm sure they'd love to hear from you on

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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Waging The Civil Wars

When The Civil Wars released their first album, Barton Hollow, in the States in February it went straight to number one in the iTunes chart in a feat of awe-inspiring serendipity. This month Joy Williams and John Paul White are bringing their southern gothic, alt-folk sound for a spin around the UK, where they are on tour with Adele (as well as doing some of their own shows). She went the other way, from Hackney to the US, and brought them back with her as support. Joy's from California, John Paul from Alabama.

I first stumbled across them on the internet and was momentarily dazzled: it was as if Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder had sold their souls to the devil for music in an episode of True Blood. (But then I haven't felt composed about southern gothic since seeing Anne Rice's house on a walking tour of New Orleans's Garden District.)

So, drawn by the dark allure of dangling Spanish moss, moody videos shot in black and white, and the opportunity to discover whether the music industry in the US is more sorted than it is here - where wide-eyed confusion seems to reign at the moment - I went to find them when I heard they were in town. At the time of writing I believe their headlining gig at Union Chapel in Islington next week is the only one of their UK shows not yet completely sold out - though it's close - which is surprising because their first album hasn't been physically released here yet. It's available on iTunes, though. It's a whole new, digital world.

"The rules are out of the window," said White, from a rather low-slung sofa in a glass box at the office of a PR company. "We're all just making this stuff up as we go along because the old models are defunct. I don't think anyone's going to shed any tears about the label system falling apart. But we're independent because we keep working through the options of whether to go to a label or whether to do everything ourselves. And we just keep thinking 'No, we don't need to give this up yet.' We still haven't given up control of anything."

They'd each been in the music business for some time when they met three years ago at a song-writing workshop in Nashville: sent along by producers, they each had a music publishing deal but neither had really wanted to be at that workshop. Then they were put in a room together.

Despite feeling jaded by the occasion, the industry and the lowly position of musicians in it, their connection was instant - but professional. "We were both happily married when we met and remain so," said White, in an explanation made necessary by the emotional intimacy of their music: many people assume they're a couple. "We had a big family meeting when we first met up, to make sure that everyone was comfortable with the arrangement. She'd been married for five years and me for ten, with children." Williams's husband, Nate, eventually became the band's manager - he's a former executive at EMI.

"These days we have an unbelievable patchwork quilt of people who help distribute the music and get the word out. But we hire them instead of giving a percentage to a higher power and then having no control. So: producer, radio plugger, PR company. By hiring each of these things ourselves we are able to control every square inch.

"Something else good about it is that, whereas before it used to take weeks to get a marketing and a radio team on the same page, we sit down with just the three of us and say 'What do we need doing?' And," she added with a sweet rush of enthusiasm, "if we'd been on a major label we would never have been able to give away our first download for free. We recorded our second ever show, which was at a place called Eddie's Attic in Atlanta, Georgia. That was a really good conversation starter for a lot of people. We were brand new and we thought 'Just put it out and see what happens'."

To say that it worked would be an understatement. "Someone from home told me that he was in South Africa on a business trip, heard someone listening to us on his headphones and asked who it was," said White.

Williams added: "And once, coming through customs, we were approached by an Indian guy asking if it was us. He said he'd been put on to our live recording by a friend of his. Word of mouth is at the centre of our story: it's the best gift you can give a musician because you'd listen to a friend's advice before most other things."

Which is all very well, but the theory doesn't work without a strong emotional connection generated between the music and the mouth-owners. "Yeah," said White. "We've talked to people who are like 'What else did you do? Because we released our music for free too but nothing happened.' But that's something you can't control. The only thing you can do is make a record that you dearly, dearly love and hope that other people love it too. You hear that said by musicians when you're growing up and you think 'Don't tell me that! I want to hear that there's a pill!' But there isn't. There's luck..."

So what do they think might have given them the edge this time around? "The songs are more honest, hands down," said Williams. "Having been through major labels with marketing teams, I knew that there are certain things you can do with songs to get them played on the radio. But I couldn't do it any more. I promised myself that whatever I did next I would be free to do whatever I wanted. Meeting John Paul gave me a strange catalyst to speak about things I wanted to, things I couldn't have said on my own."

"We keep each other honest," he agreed. "If something's said and it's not exactly right we'll say 'We can better that.' It's the male/female perspective. We see these things from both sides of the fence - rather than just seeing things from the point of view of my male bravado. And there are no blinkers on because we're not in a death-do-us-part relationship."

But they're obviously close, filling out each other's sentences, she making a mildly reproachful, sarcastic remark about how he's so humble in response to a query about how they get along. But maybe there's a professional wariness and competitiveness that keeps them in a fixed orbit, one that will work for them and the stability of the project?

"We bring our individual relationships with other people to the table," she said. "It can seem as if we are singing to each other, when we're not."

It was Poison and Wine (directly above) that gave them their big break. About a year after getting together they had a phone call one day to say that the editors of Grey's Anatomy, the moody US hospital drama in which the cast appears perpetually on the verge of tears, had included the song in an episode that was to be broadcast a week later.

"We were scrambling," said Williams. "We'd just recorded the EP and then suddenly we had a week to get Poison and Wine up on iTunes. We made the video for it in literally a day. Luckily as a result of the Live at Eddie's Attic show someone had already put the lyrics online."

When the episode went out their efforts were rewarded with an avalanche of attention: thousands upon thousands of individual viewers were moved by the power of the song to find out what it was. Half a million views for the hastily made video followed on YouTube and sell-out shows ensued.

So is it possible to give advice to young bands? "Well, John Paul would say don't enter the industry 'cos we don't need the competition," said Williams, not entirely joking.

"But you must be present to win," she added, far more seriously. "We have to work continuously, meeting people - and we've worked harder this year than we've worked in any other job but it's also been more rewarding than ever before. I'd also say play out - do as many shows as possible - and if people like it they will come to you."

White was musing. "The thing we did that I'm really happy about is that we rarely opened for other people in the beginning. We played smaller shows but headlined them. It's nothing to do with ego, it's to do with selling tickets to people who are there because of you and then getting their full attention. So instead of trying to convert people who weren't there for us, the crowd just got a bit larger every time we went back to a city."

"I'd say be mindful that every person counts," said Williams. "In this day and age of Facebook and Twitter you can have as many friends on there as you want, but if they're not really interested it doesn't make any difference. We are trying our best to cultivate true fans because people who jump on the bandwagon will jump off again. So you've got to be OK with gradual growth.

"And if you don't love it, don't do it. Because it requires so much of your life and energy to make a success of the music industry."

"It's strange really," said White, "how many people have the cart before the horse. They still have the idea that you get a record deal, then the fan base will come along. But with us it's been the other way around. Play, play, play. Get your fan base up as much as you can and then go find a business partner. I think now that if you had a partner come to you right at the outset it would provide a false sense of relief, that everything was going to be OK, when the work's really just starting. At the end of the day no one's going to be more mindful of your career than you."

And then my slot was kind of up and as I was leaving John Paul was explaining about how they ended up looking so... gothic, which was something to do with him seeing a picture of himself in a suit at a wedding and hating having to decide what to wear on stage. "He's learnt to tie his own bow tie," she said. "Though it rotates almost imperceptibly as the set goes on," he added.

On the way out I realised I'd forgotten to ask how old they are... So to be on the safe side I'd say somewhere between 30 and a century and a half.

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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Peter Knight on wombles, jazz and Terry Pratchett

"It's a bit embarrassing... but all my Wombles are in America," was how Mike Batt had raised the issue. "He was producing one of Steeleye Span's albums," said Peter Knight. "And he was looking for someone to be the Wombles on Top of the Pops. We all jumped at the opportunity: Nigel (Pegrum), Rick (Kemp). I can't remember whether Bob (Johnson) was involved. I think I was Great Uncle Bulgaria."

Interviewing Peter Knight was a big deal for me. Poring over the cover of All Around My Hat at the wibbly wobbly pictures of Steeleye Span while listening to Black Jack Davy, Cadgwith Anthem and The Wife of Ushers Well is one of my very earliest memories (although the Wombles are in there too somewhere). I think I used to think that if I stared at it hard enough I might discover a hidden message on that gold-disc of an album, just for me. And there I was, sitting overlooking the canal at the Electric theatre in Guildford last Thursday, having a coffee with the original fiddle player in my life.

In the intervening years I've met several people who might qualify as my heroes: curiosity about them was one of the motivations for choosing journalism if I'm honest. Joan Collins and Peter Mandelson turned out to be almost unbelievably rude; Ted Kennedy had surprisingly ill-cared-for shoes giving him a leathery spin on Achilles heels or feet of clay; Michael Praed was just as pretty 20 years later as when he played Robin Hood to a soundtrack of Clannad; and Germaine Greer I still feel quite starry about even after spending a drunken evening with her at a tiny poetry festival. Since I'm now technically a grown-up, I know these experiences were mainly unrelated to the original reasons why I admired these people. But somehow the germ of hero-dom never goes away. And it can be knicker-twistingly, lump-inducingly potent.

Which is why, when I got a message from Debbie Walker, Peter Knight's partner, asking whether I'd like to talk to him about the new album I said something exactly like "YES PLEASE!" and immediately felt very uncool.

Peter and Debbie are getting married this week, at a small gathering at Kingsand in Cornwall. "A couple of pints with some family," is how he describes their plans. It's his third time around and her second, so they have a wealth of experience to bring to the project. There is a kind of serendipity that travels with them, though, which I started to feel when I was listening to the new Gigspanner album, Doors at Eight, and which has continued throughout my dealings with the couple. They just seem very happy in themselves and even the sad tunes on the record have a kind of sweetness to them.

"The ageing process has something to do with my calmness these days," said Knight. "I don't have anything to prove to anyone. When I was younger I was a bit cocky. But there was a turning point in the 1980s when I played with a sax player called Trevor Watts and we started to improvise. I've not always been into jazz - but you can't help what turns you on in life (across the board) and I now find jazz very intriguing. The music just led us to this shimmering high note after a complicated, interweaving, dissonant piece of material and I just got so excited I wanted to stay there forever.

"I know that sort of music will never be on Top of the Pops. But it's good for my soul and good for my relationship with music. And it's a reminder that we've got to follow our own muse, be honest about what we like and what we don't like: not to try and please the audience. You can't please everyone so you have to try and please yourself.

"I love improvising from nothing. I love taking my violin out of the case and letting the music unfold from the first sound that you make: developing it into something valuable but of no value. What you're doing is something that children do. If you sit a child in front of a piano, they'll bang out a few notes and smile.

"The three of us," himself, Roger Flack on guitar and Vincent Salzfaas on percussion, aka Gigspanner, "are very pleased to be playing music together. We look forward to the gigs. Recently I did an American tour that went straight into an Australian tour, and the day after we flew back there was a Gigspanner gig in West Sussex. Driving to the gig I thought I must be mad. But as soon as I heard Roger's first chord I remembered why I had suggested it." A gigspanner, in case you were wondering, is a bottle opener.

I'm glad he said all that because trying to describe their music is hard: there's a folky, jazzy, worldy, improvisational expressionism there and I particularly like the songs, which have a folkier feel than many of the tunes. The lingering impression, though, is that Knight has evolved into something akin to folk's Stefan Grapelli - and when I say that I saw Grapelli play with Yehudi Menuhin once at the Brecon Jazz Festival you may get a sense of what I'm implying. Moreover, the modesty that goes with it was a relief because asking around before the interview, one of the words used by a colleague to describe Knight - with affection - was "lunatic".

"That was certainly the case back in the early days of Steeleye, when we were touring America with Warners," he said after a short attempt to guess who'd said that about him. "It was really good fun, being in a band, touring the world. But the American trips cost us £40,000 a tour. We thought all the meals and the cars were being paid for by the record company but all the bills went against our tab. We'd often meet other musicians on the road in America: you'd find them at the hotel, sitting by the swimming pool. And we'd tell each other stories about different degrees of getting ripped off.

"Park Records, who we're with these days, might be a bit scrappy with no proper website but at least you can call human beings up who work there and have a laugh." Paging all folky website developers...

I suppose that Steeleye Span must be one of only a handful of folk bands to have experienced the whole major-label, rock-star thing. "I guess so. It was always a bit of a mystery why Steeleye was so successful though. We were a novelty but we were never sure what the scale of the success was down to. I thought perhaps it was timing, because so little success seems to be down to whether the music's any good. We still get royalties: they're dwindling, but that's to be expected. It's enough to buy a couple of bottles of wine when the cheques come in."

So what's next for Steeleye Span? "We're talking about recording an album based on three books by Terry Pratchett called Wintersmith. He's a fan of the band and we played at his 60th birthday a couple of years ago, somewhere around Salisbury. It would be a way of saying thank you to him for being a fantasy writer, from a band that does a lot of fantasy itself. You know: elves and goblins, that kind of thing."

Perhaps since Pratchett is not a well man - he makes no secret about his Alzheimer's - they should crack on with it? "You can't even think that," said Knight, looking slightly shocked. "Though his illness wouldn't necessarily make a difference to the project..."

Would you describe him as a friend? "I don't know whether that would be accurate. I've had a few conversations with him: he presented us with an award once at the folk awards and sat at our table. We talked about the specifics of the written word and playing music, and which could provoke the more precise feelings. My thoughts on the subject are that I want to be in the right frame of mind when I'm playing, so that the frame of mind comes across. I believe that if I'm in the right space to play the music it transfers to people, but not in a specific way."

So has anyone ever written a book about Steeleye Span that you liked? He laughed warily. "Books about bands are a dodgy old business. People who write history, rewrite history. I mean, I've heard Rick telling stories in the dressing room about events I was present for and he was vastly out, in terms of getting it right. We could each write a book about the band and would have different accounts of the same stuff. Ashley Hutchings wrote a book about Steeleye, didn't he? But I don't need to read it because I was there."

An inquiry about whether he misses Tim Hart, the fellow founder-member of the band who succumbed to lung cancer on Christmas Eve 2009 made me wonder whether from time to time his honesty might get him into trouble? "No, I don't miss him," he said simply. "I was sad that he died and I missed his voice when he left Steeleye. I don't not miss him for any particular reason. But as you get older it's part of the process: people start dying whom you've known for a large part of your life. I think 'That's Tim. He's a goner' and that's it. We conflicted a bit in the early days of Steeleye. But we made our peace with each other, went out for a few meals and talked about the old days. We parted on good terms."

He's just agreed to be the patron of  the Fiddle Festival of Great Britain. "The first one is on the last weekend in June next year. It's the first time I've been asked to do something like that and accepted - before I've always had enough to do and didn't want to take on some responsibility that I wouldn't be able to fulfil. But," and he had to consult Debbie about the details, "it's somewhere in Oxfordshire and it's run by someone we like called Sian Phillips. There'll be teaching and concerts." You can follow the organiser on Twitter at @sianfiddle.

Then he had to go and try out a new fiddle for the gig that evening because his old one, distressingly, has begun to fall apart. "We've moved to France and it was in a barn I was working in. I was leaving it in there and it's started coming unglued. I didn't notice until I went to change the strings last night and found the neck is coming away from the body. Resetting the neck is such an expensive repair it's not even worth fixing. But it makes a beautiful sound, which is why it's heart-breaking."

And my original fiddle-player went off to prepare for the gig. Original and best.

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Friday, 9 September 2011

An appointment with Mr Scott

There's a new Waterboys' album out in a week or so, called An Appointment with Mr Yeats, of music woven around the fantastical, political, love poetry of WB Yeats. I went on an adventure to Dublin, where Mike Scott lives, to talk to him about it, which came about because someone sent him a link to my review of the Wychwood festival, where The Waterboys played back in June. He liked the piece, he tweeted about it, I said hello.

The idea for the interview was that we'd take a stroll around the town, see a few Yeats-related sights and cast an appraising eye over the buskers on Grafton Street, with whom Scott has developed a kind of love/hate relationship. On Monday, however, it was drizzling and only those with a waterproof mindset were about. As I scurried to our meeting I turned my face away from the pavement for long enough to notice that there was a "human statue" standing on the corner of Grafton and Nassau Street, caked in white paint and wearing a long sheet - long enough to cover himself and the milk crate on which he seemed to be standing - waving gaily at passers-by. While this easily made him the least competent human statue I'd ever encountered, I began to get an inkling of what madness it might be that grips Scott in relation to the Grafton Street buskers. Of which more later.

A great deal has been written about Mike Scott and The Waterboys over the last 25 or so years and some of it has involved An Appointment with Mr Yeats because there was a brief tour of the forthcoming album a few months ago. The project seems to have brought out the swot in some of the journalists who wrote about it, possibly a response to the involvement of poetry. But to say it was well-received would be an understatement.

I was sent a copy of the CD a couple of days before I set out and spent most of the train and ferry trip to Dublin plugged in to it. It's a big rock album that is in turns wild, chilling, foot-tapping, intelligent and hormonal, but always accessible. There's a lot there, containing everything that originally drew me to The Waterboys as a teenager and more: it's a multifaceted gem of a record.

In from the drizzle, perched on a banquette amid the art nouveau splendour of Cafe En Seine on Dawson Street, the conversation turned and I asked Scott whether on some level the album is a love letter to Ireland, his adopted homeland?

"I hadn't thought of that," he said after a longish pause. "Yeats is one aspect of Ireland but he's very un-Catholic. He was a privileged Protestant, part of the landed gentry with a big English connection. But he was also an Irish nationalist: he loved Ireland very much.

"No. I don't think the record is a love letter to Ireland. His poetry is a little grain of Ireland. I bought a book of it when I first toured here in 1984 and although I didn't understand a lot of it I had a strong response to it. There was a molten quality to his words and a tactility. If I spoke them in my mind they had an edge. He is aware of the sound and flavour of words and their juxtapositions, and I love his subject set: mystery, love, Ireland, politics, the individual's short time on earth.

"I grew up in Scotland with my mum talking about Yeats as a big figure. Although I don't remember much about it now she took me to the Yeats summer school here in Sligo one year, which involved a trip to his grave and his home. It was impressed upon me at an early age that he was a great man."

So is the adult Scott's collaboration with Yeats about measuring up to this great man in some way? "I'd say the album is more of a homage than an attempt to cut him down to size. To me he is a giant of a bard and I felt that there was some untrodden ground there for me.

"I've never felt intimidated by the man's reputation. When I go to work I'm in a different mode and there's no space in that mode for being woolly minded. With my own lyrics I'm ruthless and I'm the same with Yeats. He must have been ruthless himself to get to where he got to, so I feel entitled to work with his words in the way that I do: that's the degree of rigour that they require. If I wasn't going to go in with that level of intensity I would stop wasting Yeats's time."

Ranged around the cafe was a tumbling horde of art nouveau sylph and fairy sculptures, holding up clocks with shapely arms, tiptoeing around lighting fixtures and generally pixying the place up. By contrast, the first track on the album is The Hosting of the Shee - or "the gathering of the fairies". Yeats wasn't the only literary figure of his era with a strong interest in fairies (Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind). But far from being the kind of creature you'd want magicking around in your cafe, the wild-haired elves of Yeats and Scott ride straight at you out of the dark, dark night, yowling in a minor key and commanding you, terrifyingly, to "empty your heart of its mortal dream".

"Yes. They're not the dinkily colourful characters that you'd think of as classical fairies. They wouldn't be like that. The characters Yeats wrote about were as much the old gods of Ireland as the fairies. He named Niamh and Caoilte (pronounced 'Quilty') - and these are characters from Irish myth.

"I read a short biography of Yeats that was mostly about his spiritual and mystical beliefs. And I've read passages by scholars who completely don't get his occult interests. But the secret to understanding them is that it's not an intellectual discipline and if you approached it from an intellectual viewpoint it would be completely incomprehensible.

"Yeats was not a spiritualist - although he was married to a woman who was a medium - he was an explorer in old Irish folklore. But, yes, I think he believed in fairies - that they were beings of an older order, who could only be seen under certain circumstances."

And what do you think?

"That there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our philosophy. There are certainly more things than can be detected by our five senses. Our perception system works within certain wavebands. There are sounds that we can't hear that dogs can. And with sight there's infra red, which is invisible to our naked eye. It would be a foolish person who would say that there is nothing beyond what we can comprehend and I am not that foolish person.

"There may be beings that inhabit a different realm to us and, if there were such an order of creatures, fairies might be one of them. I could believe it, though I haven't seen them myself.

"Irish history frequently blends with myth. There were waves of invaders and Yeats believed that some of them were beings from the time before humanity. I'm not saying this is my view. It was his."

In fact far from being a whimsical person, you feel with Scott that there is a hard intelligence working away, calculating the likely impact of his remarks as he goes along. But his creative imagination can also get the better of him. Later on, after a walk through the Georgian architecture of Dublin under an umbrella that made me feel a bit like Lucy walking with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we sat in middle of a row of seats at the Abbey Theatre, where The Waterboys showcased An Appointment with Mr Yeats five nights in a row in February. The theatre, which was founded by Yeats, also contains the portrait of Yeats that is behind Scott on the album cover.

There was a deep rumbling from beyond the walls of the auditorium. "That's the Metro," Scott explained. I thought about it, prepared to be surprised. "I didn't realise there was a Metro in Dublin." He also thought about it, then conceded. "Ah. No. Perhaps there isn't. Isn't that peculiar? We did five nights here earlier in the year and the whole time I thought the rumbling was coming from underground." A passing stagehand confirmed that the sound shaking the theatre's walls was almost certainly one of Dublin's rather futuristic looking trams.

"You know, I had my own dressing room when we did the shows here. It was the first time I'd ever had my own dressing room."

And what kind of outlandish demands did you make on your rider?

"Sparkling water. Honey and lemon for the voice..."

Rock and roll.

"That's a noun not an adjective," he reproved. "I don't drink and I don't take drugs. All that hedonistic stuff is fun in your 20s when you're still trying to find out who you are. But it doesn't help the music."

But doesn't that get dull? I know he's fought a winning battle with alcohol, but everyone needs a holiday some time, surely? "Maybe normal people have holidays. But I work at doing what I enjoy most in the world." See what he did there? A change of tack almost imperceptible to the human ear. "I do so much travelling that when I stop work the last thing I want to see is an airport." There then followed a short diatribe about Air France and Charles de Gaulle airport that further confirmed my theory that that Charles de Gaulle is the other Bermuda triangle of the aviation world.

"Last time we were travelling from there we were turned back from Brest and had to spend the night in the cheapest hotel I've ever been in. There was a condom machine in the foyer," he grumbled. Nuff said.

Other things that I learnt about Mike Scott included that he doesn't much care for the only book currently on the shelves about him, which is called Strange Boat, by someone called Ian Abrahams. "The little bit of it that I read was full of assumptions read as fact. My wife read more of it and said it was full of banal assertions about why I did stuff. But I've written my own memoir. It's out early next year. Lilliput, my publisher in Ireland, is talking to UK publishers at the moment."

And it seems likely that whatever comes next for him, it's likely to include The Waterboys. "I made two solo albums in the seven years before we reformed the band in 2000. But I missed the size of the audiences, I didn't enjoy working under my own name and it got boring. The Waterboys are somehow more than the sum of its parts: there's something very mysterious and enjoyable about it. And I got fed up with journalists asking me what the difference was between between my personal output and the band's."

What they were probably asking was how collaborative the process of songwriting was with the other members of the band? "I always led the band and set the direction," came the uncompromising answer.

Back out in the drizzling rain the Mike Scott minimalist tour of the Grafton Street buskers took place as scheduled: minimalist because there were only two buskers braving the elements. First was a young man who, with great pathos, was singing Why does it always rain on me? audible from some considerable distance, accompanying himself with a guitar and one-man-bandish pedal drum. When he caught sight of Scott he started giving it some real welly and went into a terrific version of Folsom Prison Blues, for which he received the seal of approval.

There he is. And then I was lucky to catch the man known by Scott as The Worst Busker in the World. As you might have guessed this isn't his real name. He sits on an amplifier putting out traditional Irish music, holding a bodhran as if it were a bag of spuds and tapping it occasionally with one end of the bone.

That's him with the umbrella, talking to some American tourists. "He's better when he's not busking at all," confirmed Scott, who has been known to fantasise elaborate scenarios about the Grafton Street buskers lasting several hours on Twitter. One of them ended up with a big cartoon fight in the middle of Dublin's main pedestrianised precinct with everyone getting their just desserts: the artist's revenge on his tormentors.

And with that he led me in the direction of the Irish Museum of Art, where there's a large exhibition of paintings by Jack Yeats, WB's younger brother.

* On reading this interview Mike Scott sent me the following by email: "Re. the eternal 'what do you do for fun' thing, actually the reason you don't get a reply is it's the wrong question! It contains within it a scepticism, an unspoken 'but' and implied attachment to a set of values - the hedonistic thing - which I don't find fun - and this switches me off and makes the question impossible to answer in that form. But the fact is, I have fun, in the sense of enjoying myself, pretty much everything I do; I've made it that way. If you asked me 'what gives you pleasure' that would be a much easier question to answer. Friendship, good clothes, travel, new experiences, great writing and music, learning, furthering my understanding, good food and fabulous tastes, a sense of momentum and adventure about what I'm doing... all those things, plus the business of making music and working on it, of course."

* If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy this about The Waterboys.

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Friday, 2 September 2011

How did Seth Lakeman's music end up on Coast?

A few weeks back I was slumped, semi-sentient in front of the telly watching a rather wonderful episode of Coast, when a peculiar feeling crept up on me. I recognised the background music - at least I thought I did - but there was something about it...

As my somnolent mind lumbered back to something approaching full speed (for a Sunday evening), it dawned that it was Seth Lakeman but that the vocals were missing. I can't remember which song it was now: it was no longer really a song anyway, since the lyrics were gone. But at least one more of his tunes as well as an instrumental version of something by Mumford & Sons were also used on the programme, which was about Sweden and the Baltic.

It turned out that this wasn't an isolated happening.

A choir of voices on Twitter told me that Seth Lakeman's music in particular makes regular appearances in the background on BBC factual programming, including on Countryfile, Lambing Live and Springwatch, which made me wonder exactly how it got there. My first thought was that there could be some kind of cultural bias at the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol. But then I realised I only thought that because I knew someone who went to work there, and he had long, blonde hair that made him look like a folky. God, I'm shallow. Better start from the beginning...

It turns out that the office for Coast is based at BBC Birmingham. However Mike Taylor, the freelance director who made the programme in question, was in the middle of making an episode of Time Team for Channel Four when I caught up with him. "Yes. I chose all the music for the Sweden and the Baltic episode of Coast," he confirmed, though an inquiry whether it reflected his taste led to a declaration in favour of Arcade Fire.

"I try to find stuff that will work but that doesn't impose itself too strongly on the editorial. At the same time you want it to add character, warmth and humanity to the programme. So I'm constantly on the lookout for music that has its own personality but which will not completely overwhelm the film. Lyrics, for instance, get in the way of your voice over." I've since discovered that it's a straightforward thing to remove vocal lines from digital recordings these days, including those to be found on CDs: it can be done on a laptop.

"With that Coast episode I was trying to find a way of keeping the music the same vibe all the way through because it was a series of individual stories, so I thought 'Let's look at modern folk'. I think I ended up with some Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling, as well as Seth Lakeman and Mumford & Sons.

"There used to be a library and researchers you could call on for help with music, but those days at the BBC are gone. It might be just as well really, as the new arrangement puts more control in the hands of the director and you did used to get some odd things happening. For instance, I remember once asking for some music that evoked parks and receiving, from a researcher, Parklife by Blur. I mean, really...

"The new facility is called BBC Jukebox, it's on auntie's intranet and you need permission to access it. It's definitely helped because you have a much wider choice of things to listen to before you make a selection. I think I must have put in two or three days of trawling and sending stuff off to the editor."

Apparently the BBC's music library still exists but the corporation is trying to use the available technology to simplify the process of music editing. Taylor wondered out loud whether Seth Lakeman minds hearing his music used in this way, although since royalty payments are involved I would have thought he could probably stifle any nagging artistic doubts? Especially since there is a move afoot within the BBC to encourage the music industry to volunteer more samples by compiling lists, to be supplied to the public on BBC websites, of music played during programmes.

"I suppose it could have been worse - it could have been on an advert," he mused. "I really think some tracks should be saved for the nation, like listed buildings. I remember once hearing Heroes by Bowie on an advert for insurance and just thinking 'Noooooooooo!'"

So what's BBC Jukebox? And by what process of alchemy does the music that it contains arrive there? I found myself consulting a lady called Maggie Lydon, who rejoices in the job title of Head of Metadata at the BBC. Now here was a woman, I thought, with the ability to bend powerful, invisible forces to her will, if ever I met one. And sure enough she was extremely helpful, pointing me in the direction of a private company called I Like Music, which provides the BBC Jukebox service.

Dugald Brown has day to day responsibility for the BBC contract and explained that the history of I Like Music goes back to the late 1990s. It involves a man called Andy Hill - who is the owner of the company - and a private music collection belonging to a man called Phil Swern (who has worked as a producer for Bob Harris) that includes every tune ever to enter the top 40 in the UK and much of the US top 100 too. It also involved a feeling on the part of the BBC that the since the payment of royalties to musicians ultimately benefited the music industry, the service of showcasing music to directors should also be provided by the music industry. They got them outsourcing blues...

"Andy Hill spotted that the music industry hadn't got its act together and that there was an opportunity to become a music aggregator," explained Dugald. "He bought Phil Swern's collection and set about digitising it. Then in December last year we won the contract to provide the Jukebox service for the BBC. But since it wears BBC branding on their intranet there's really no way that a BBC employee would know that it's a service provided externally."

He describes the company as a small business, providing access to its vast online database at a rate of £50 for 100 downloads and added that 6,000 BBC producers have access to the facility. I Like Music is hoping that film makers and advertising executives will also catch on to its existence, as the BBC contract alone will not make its fortune.

"At the moment we rely on good relationships with record pluggers, as well as buying a lot of CDs, to keep the collection up to date. But we'd like the music industry to start sending us its stuff - anyone who's been recorded by a record company with PRS (Performing Rights Society) and PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) affiliations can go on the database. That's because there has to be a way of paying the musicians."

He says that because there's a strong demand for instrumental versions of songs, he often fields requests about whether they're available: they save clients the trouble of digitally removing the vocal lines themselves (once they have permission to do so).

It could be a coincidence but Seth Lakeman's music is published by EMI, where Dugald formerly worked, and there is regular musical traffic from there to I Like Music's database as a result of good contacts. However, Dugald emphasised that I Like Music's database is a tool used by producers and directors and that the service does not actively promote individual pieces of music. It simply makes them available.

* I Like Music can be contacted at St John's Studios, 6-8 Church Road, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 2QA

* If you enjoyed this post you might be interested in How to get yourself on Jools Holland

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