Friday, 29 October 2010

INTERVIEWED: Edwyn Collins for The Daily Telegraph

Edwyn Collins has a honking great laugh that is impossible to convey fully on the page. To try and describe it — like a cross between an ecstatic seal, say, and an unruly bicycle horn — is to do it an injustice.

Luckily, Collins has plenty to laugh about. Miraculously, he is about to embark on a European tour, five years after a stroke led to two brain haemorrhages that nearly killed him and left him in hospital for six months. In September, he released his seventh solo album, Losing Sleep, his first collection of new songs since the ordeal.

The record is a joyful ride, his most pop-sounding in over a decade. He attributes the directness of his new material to his struggle with language, due to dysphasia, a product of his stroke. “Before my stroke, on my last album Home Again, I was clever-clever,” he explains, sitting on a sofa in the studio that he shares with Seb Lewsley, his best friend and producer. “Now my songs are direct and clear enough to focus on what the struggle of life is about. I can get to the root of things.”

It plugs straight back into the rich vein of warm, slightly wobbly pop and fresh, soulful sensibility which has been his trademark since the group that he made his name with, Orange Juice, released its first single, Falling and Laughing, in 1980.

The subject of a soon-to-be-released major retrospective box set, Orange Juice were at the vanguard of bands who sprang out of post-punk Glasgow. They came armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop – mixing up the jangling guitars of the Byrds, the disco of Chic and the bite of punk — as well as an array of secondhand overcoats and, most importantly, bagfuls of wit. Yet, aside from the squelching disco hit Rip It Up, which reached number 8 in 1983, Orange Juice never quite scaled the heights of imitators like Haircut 100, who took the Orange Juice template of guitars, funk beats and sweaters and ran with it.

Though Collins later won some solo recognition with the global 1994 smash A Girl Like You, pop stradom eluded Orange Juice and they were dropped by Polydor in 1984 after they failed to repeat Rip It Up's sales, leading to the band splitting. But for Collins, their lack of success has turned out to be a blessing.

“I suppose otherwise you would be like ABC are now, on tour with that Here & Now show,” laughs Grace Maxwell, his wife, a fellow southern Scot and his manager for nearly three decades. “Stop it, Grace. Martin Fry is my good friend,” replies Edwyn, in a moment of quick-fire banter that has become the pair’s trademark following his stroke, since which his wife has been an omnipresent figure by his side: in the hospital as he embarked on a long recovery, at his many therapy sessions, and in the majority of interviews since.

Collins instead became a figurehead for the DIY underground music scene, a fact that was made clear to him when, before his stroke, he was confronted by three men in north London. “You’re that Edwyn Collins, aren’t you?” one said in a broad Manchester accent. “You invented indie.”

If he is an indie figurehead, he is a reluctant one. As the Eighties progressed, Collins increasingly distanced himself from the many fey indie bands who revered Orange Juice. “When Edwyn started, indie just meant his records had been independently distributed, with no majors involved, everything on the cheap,” says Maxwell. “By the mid-Eighties, it had become a genre, with an affected tweeness about it that we hated.”

While Orange Juice have enjoyed a resurgence among a generation of vintage-clothed vinyl completists, Collins is quick to quell the band’s importance, to him at least. “OJ means a lot to me, but it is in the past. I’ve got to look to the future. Back then, I was experimenting. We weren’t quite ready.”

Many of his devotees might disagree, such as the young musicians who turn up on his latest album, including the Cribs’ Ryan Jarman, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Brooklyn band The Drums, who co-wrote the stunning In Your Eyes, a song filled with a twin sense of loss and hope.

It came about after Edwyn and Grace’s son William met the band at a gig. “Orange Juice made these perfect pop songs,” explains Drums frontman Jonathan Pierce, who sings with Collins on the track. “They feel so fragile, like they could fall apart at any time. There is something really human about that.”

Collins is still quite obviously impaired. Paralysed on his right side, he no longer plays guitar, but he has, incredibly, retrained himself to be able to draw with his left hand — the birds on the cover of Losing Sleep were all sketched during his recovery. Each month sees a new milestone reached.

The previous weekend was the first time he had been left overnight at home in his house in over five years as Grace travelled to her home town in North Lanarkshire to give a reading of her autobiography Falling and Laughing (named after Orange Juice’s first single), which charts Edwyn’s recovery.

Above all else, Losing Sleep is a testament to the healing qualities of music, and its profound mystery. Two days before he was due to leave hospital in 2005, the only phrases he could say were “Yes”, “No”, “Grace Maxwell” and “the possibilities are endless”, which he repeated like a mantra as part of his therapy.

Then, from nowhere, sprang a melody and lyrics — a song. That song, the acoustic ballad I’m Searching For The Truth, closes the album. “Some sweet day, we’ll get there in the end,” Collins sings in a high-pitched variant of his familiar, trembling croon. Today, you might suggest that he already has.

The Orange Juice box set 'Coals To Newcastle’ is out on Domino on Nov 8. Edwyn Collins starts his European tour at the Komedia in Brighton on Nov 4.
First published in The Daily Telegraph


Dazed asked me to write something about Ari Up following her death last week - I interviewed her a couple of times over the past few years, once for Dazed. She was wonderful, kind and, most of all, a force. The picture above was taken during last year's Slits tour with Wetdog, and features Wetdog drummer Sarah Datblygu.

No matter how many times it has been printed, it is still jarring when you read that when Ari Up joined the Slits she was just 14-years-old. That she took on an already spent punk rock form and dragged it to where she and her fellow Slits wished it to be before she was even old enough to buy a packet of cigarettes, will always remain at the heart of why she was so unique. Fuck me, 14 is even young for an X Factor contestant. How we fawned over the bravery of Cher Lloyd during her ultimately transformative audition. By her age, Ari had already squatted down and urinated on the stage of the Music Machine, now Koko, in Camden.

All of which sounds very punk, and it was. Yet, the Slits have always seemed apart from the vision of the time depicted in those reductive documentaries that tell the story of how a thing called punk somehow came along to destroy a thing called rock. And it wasn’t as if Ari Up sprang out of nowhere: she had been entrenched in the music business since she was a toddler. In an interview for Dazed, she told of being serenaded by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, of Jimi Hendrix hanging around the house, of John Anderson of Yes becoming her Godfather due to the fact that her mother Nora, who later married John Lydon, was a big music promoter in Munich, where she grew up.

After her mother moved to London to be closer to the party, the pair went to gigs together: Up met Palmolive at a Clash gig in 1976, holding the first Slits rehearsal in a London squat the next day. Thrust into the centre of an unhinged punk scene, she remained strong, refusing to succumb to the drug cliche that tends to affect children who try and grow up too fast. She escaped London after the Slits split in the early 1980s, moving to New York and Belize, India and Jamaica. Through the years she floated in and out of the listener's conciousness, whether with Adrian Sherwood's New Age Steppers, her own Baby Ari or Madusa projects, or the reformed Slits.

She was nomadic, but not rootless, never losing her sense of Bavarian identity. “For Bavarian people it is an insult to be called German,” she said. "I am not patriotic or nationalistic. I never say I am from any country or anything. I am into culture and roots." It was attitude that pissed all over Oi! and the rest of the negative by-products of the era, much as she had that old Camden stage.

First published at Dazed Digital

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

REVIEWED: 'North' by Darkstar for The Quietus

The question whether music can still be concerned with place in an internet age that has, to some extent, devoured both, is one that has triggered much debate in articles such as this one by fellow Quietus scribe Hazel Sheffield. As locally-specific scenes lose their importance, is geography now becoming a defunct term in the musical lexicon? Or is place, conversely, more important than ever in understanding music, its melancholic forms, its potency? I'm sticking with the latter. Because, while bedrooms are vital to the planning and execution of the majority of today's more interesting music, one needs to take a look outside to have a chance of creating something as pure and definite as North by Darkstar.

It is the product of toil by displaced northern Englishmen, Cheshire-born James Young and Yorkshire-born Aiden Whalley, the duo behind Darkstar's breakthrough song, last year's romantic, glitchy 2-step dancefloor number 'Aidy's Girl Is A Computer'. At the start of the year, the pair scrapped a whole album of similar fare, enlisted singer James Buttery, and created a series of slow burning, nocturnal odes to love, loss and the problem of place. It has to go down as one of the most successful musical about-turns in recent years.

After the slow building fanfare track that is 'In The Wings', the album is kick-started by the wide-eyed opening bars of 'Gold', their cover of the Human League obscurity 'You Remind Me Of Gold', a B side to 'Fascination'. Locking into a beat, it is noticeably slower – there's less champagne and coke about, less glitz and glamour. It is a plaintive rendition, but no less faithful; if anything it scrapes away the period pomp to unearth a centre of pure melancholy which was already there.

The title track, 'North', is a memory march, an unrepentant evocation of the industrial north, whose last remnants were blasted away during the 1980s, a period which influences much of this album, when the area was awash with synth bands such as the 'League and OMD. But it isn't the only influence. There's Radiohead here, woozy science fiction and Lynchian soundtracks, a whole host of UK dance, industrial and post-rock signifiers. And of course, the Hyperdub tradition, not least Burial. Here, as with that formerly anonymous, nocturnal trailblazer, absence is a presence – but it isn't quite the drowned subcultural world as in Burial's schizoid soundscape. There are boundaries, albeit a complex weave, set by tradition and scaled through blind conquest.

The album belongs in London as much as it does in the north: perhaps even more so, in this capital, toward which musicians and artists – and dreaded 'creatives' – are pulled like iron filings are to a magnet. This metropolis, where all around are men and women in deceptively slack trousers and angled stances, proclaiming abandoned basements and lofts, stairwells and rooftops as “great space...amazing space".

The album's very being reflects the centralisation of culture in the UK: the London Polarisation, you're either there or you're not. Darkstar need to be close to it to survive but, in a way, they have made a devil pact, forsaking their neglected North for north London, friends and customs for fumbling through Clapton, a decade passing like sand through fingers. But in doing so they have avoided the parochial, the specifically local that makes the album not about keeping up with infantilised scenes, but about feelings and musings on alienation and the notion of home.

“Geography is destiny," as James Ellroy said. And while this destiny might not be exactly be what Messrs Whalley and Young once dreamed of, it has become the catalyst for this gorgeous, emotionally rich, unique album. “I won't forget you," repeats Buttery at the close of the album's final track, 'When It's Gone'. His synthetic, multilayered vocal, which has stuttered under the strain of transmission throughout, is unequivocal.

First published at TheQuietus

Tuesday, 5 October 2010