Singles Review – March ’14

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Malibu Shark Attack – Better Off As Friends

‘I hate it when my favourite bands go on indefinite hiatus and later announce a new side project. They may be done, what if I’m not yet?’

As air-clearing hipster statements of intent go, the opening line of ‘Better Off As Friends’ from trans-Atlantic duo Malibu Shark Attack is up there. Featuring former Oppenheimer songwriter and producer Rocky O’Reilly and Atlanta, Georgia native Tribe One, this eclectic whirlwind of a track is aimed at fans of positive pop. It helps if you’re acquainted with these two protagonists’ previous work.

The suggestion in the track is that said fans would rather hear more of the old hits – ‘What happened to Oppenheimer? I liked their old stuff better’ – but a few spins of ‘Better Off As Friends’ suggests that this new collaborative venture is worth sticking with.

Although I suspect that Tribe One’s rapping style will have a Marmite effect, those familiar indie synth lines begin to cascade, and O’Reilly’s hushed vocals add a warmth to proceedings. Also making a brief appearance is the Dudley Corporation’s Dudley Colley, whose vocals lend an emotional weight to what could have been considered a throwaway cut.

Not likely, though. ‘Better Off As Friends’ gets through several genres in just over two minutes, and a track which can appear disorientating upon first listengets better with repeated plays. If the band’s full length debut album – scheduled for a May release – is as much fun as this, those nostalgic fans may have something to smile about after all. Download ‘Better Off As Friends’ now.

 

Sullivan & Gold – Glory

 

Emerging from a pleasingly healthy Derry~Londonderry music scene, which has thrust the likes of Soak and Little Bear into the spotlight of late, Sullivan & Gold release ‘Glory’, the latest single from their debut album, For Foes, out now on Smalltown America. It is an anthemic delight.

Containing the sort of emotionally-loaded piano motifs and bass pulses that Snow Patrol and Coldplay spend their careers chasing after, Adam Montgomery and Ben Robinson’s take on the genre is one that involves a rather more nuanced touch.

Here, instead of being assaulted with a multitude of stadium-pleasing sounds all at once, each individual element of the track is left to breathe. Guitars are introduced only when there is room for them, and the radio-friendly piano lines never threaten to overwhelm.

The glue holding ‘Glory’ together, in fact, are the duo’s milky smooth vocals throughout, which perhaps serve to take some of the sting out of the track’s lyrical content” ‘A secret glance, a word unsaid / The battle-bruised bones we take to bed.’

‘Glory’ is another accomplished slice of choral pop, which hints at a promising future for Sullivan & Gold. Glory indeed. Download ‘Glory’ now.

 

The Wood Burning Savages – America

Yet another band emerging from Derry~Londonderry. Up until now, the Wood Burning Savages’ have developed a dependable rock and roll sound, with occasional forays into folk – all of which makes the octave-toggling basslines and wah-wah-flecked guitar licks on ‘America’, their debut single, seem delightfully out of character. Here the alt-rock quartet dance into indie-disco territory.

It’s no mere pastiche though. While vocalist Paul Connolly channels the Rapture’s Luke Jenner throughout and adds enough guitar fillers to keep the track ticking along, the memorable – if a little corny – chorus keeps the toe tapping: ‘I’ve never been to America, but I’ve been in some states with you.’

Given the amount of bands from Northern Ireland currently exploring the indie-electro sound, it’s probably for the best that Wood Burning Savages release ‘America’ as an exception to their rule. But if they can turn their hand to other genres with as much panache, it can only bode well for the unsigned foursome. Download ‘America’ now.

(Written for Belfast Music, here)

 

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Record Store Day 2014 Preview

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Established in 2007, Record Store Day celebrates the role that the humble independent record shop has to play in our modern culture. It also acts as a kind of one-off treasure trove for hardcore vinyl collectors and, in some cities, a mini festival for avid gig-goers.

Taking place on April 19, Record Store Day is now an international event which sees thousands of artists issue special vinyl and CD releases for the day, as well as playing live gigs occasionally followed by Q&As in record shops dotted around the world.

Thankfully for local music lovers, Belfast is very much a part of the celebrations, and in 2014, its independent record stores have plans for one of the most exciting dates on the music nerd’s calendar.

Kenny Murdock of Belfast’s newest independent record store, Sick Records, has a few exciting plans in store for punters on the day. ‘We will open at 8am for those wanting to purchase any of the exclusive vinyl products on sale this year, but we have an afternoon of music from some great local artists, beginning at 2pm.

‘Currently we have Robyn G Shiels, UNKNWN and Little Matador, featuring Nathan Connolly from Snow Patrol,’ Murdock adds excitedly. ‘It’s a huge boost to have Nathan’s band playing live in the shop. And we’d like to add one more act to that list.’

Belfast’s other participating store is Head Records. Having recently moved premises to Castlecourt, the store runners have no firm plans for gigs in place as of yet, but have already confirmed that they will be stocking plenty of limited edition vinyl, as well as offering a rewards scheme for customers purchasing vinyl.

Chris Sloan of Belfast indie-pop outfit Go Wolf believes that the popularity of Record Store Day shows that modern consumer are still very much interested in the vinyl format. ‘For some, it’s the only time of year that they will step into a music shop, and it’s a great time to soak up the atmosphere and engross yourself amongst other music collectors.

‘For others, it’s an opportunity to pick up some rare vinyl to add to the collection and show off your astute taste. It’s great that people are starting to dig out and dust off their turntables again and engage with the scene. As far as I’m concerned, it can only be a positive thing, serving as a focal point to bring people together all under the banner of physical music, which is wonderful.’

The day itself is all about promoting both vinyl and CD releases, but there is a clear preference given to the former. Given the fact that vinyl is more expensive, awkward to transport and to sell at gigs – and is increasingly only accessible at selected stores – it perhaps would not be surprising if new acts coming out of Northern Ireland were to forsake the format altogether. After all, compact discs and MP3 files are so much more accessible.

However, Sloan argues that traditional formats like vinyl should be championed by working musicians and music lovers alike. ‘I think it’s probably more important than ever to release material on vinyl. With the advent of MP3s, you lose that sense of touch and connection with the artist. No one wants to come to your house and flick through your hard drive. Vinyl offers a much deeper experience not possible through any other format, so it’s vital people continue support its production.’

Given the promise of a wave of limited edition releases  – as well as the prospect of several intimate gigs happening across the city – this year’s Record Store Day looks set to be an exciting one for Belfast.

As ever, the hope is that it will benefit the owners of independent record shops, allowing them to continue to provide music lovers with great music for the rest of the year. And there is no doubt that Record Store Day is symptomatic of a general resurgence in interest in vinyl and old school turntables. Just don’t call it a comeback, says Murdock.

‘We hope that, by giving the public a “point-of-sale”, that they will rediscover the joys of record buying in Belfast. Vinyl never disappeared, although the media would have you believe otherwise. I’ve been buying vinyl records for over 30 years now. If I felt that this was just a revival, I’d never have opened a record shop.’ (Written for Belfast Music, here)

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Q&A with Belfast Funk & Soul

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DJ Marty Lish can reflect on what has been a positive four years for Belfast Funk & Soul. Having started as a one-off tribute to mark the anniversary of James Brown’s death, Lish’s funk, soul and disco-themed club night has steadily developed a solid reputation.

Lish’s retro selections continue to attract diverse crowds – most recently evidenced by the sell-out crowd for Belfast Funk & Soul’s 4th birthday party at Aether & Echo, featuring a DJ set from actor and soul enthusiast, Craig Charles.

With plans for a regular slot at the same venue muted, and international acts signed up to DJ at forthcoming shows, the BF&S train shows no signs of stopping. Speaking to Belfast Music’s Andrew Lemon just before the 4th birthday show, an enthusiastic Lish took time out to look back and think forward.

How would you describe Belfast Funk & Soul?

‘A retro rhythm night that gets your legs fizzy and dancing shoes dizzy.’ Though my twitter bio says headmelter/sweetheart and I think that’s an apt way to describe it, too.

How did Belfast Funk & Soul get started?

In December 2009 I pitched the crazy idea to two friends that we should put on a soul night to mark the passing of James Brown. It was £150 to rent the room, so we each chipped in £50 and took on different roles, including artwork, organisation, promotion et cetera.

We didn’t really care too much about the outcome, it was just something fun and different to do and we were going to enjoy the experience. We were kind of shocked when people showed up and really enjoyed themselves, so after that we decided to try and make it a regular thing.

We pitched the idea to a couple of bars and in late February the following year we had our first monthly slot. My two friends have subsequently moved away to become proper adults, so I’m left here trying to convince myself that this DJ malarkey is far more important.

What have been some of the highlights, and lowlights, of the last four years?

Highlights have been the Glasgowbury Red Bull stage and supporting Vintage Trouble, as well as our first birthday at the Crescent Arts Centre, which to date has been our biggest gig yet. But it nearly turned into a lowlight after our posters were deemed ‘littering’ by the council. There was a discussion about cancelling the day before. Thankfully the issue was resolved, but it was a tense 12 hour wait.

We’ve always had an abundance of posters with great artwork, so it was sad when the law changed and any posters that were put up illegally resulted in the venue getting a black mark on their drinks license. I was a guest on Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show to speak out about how small independent nights can’t afford the license for advertising et cetera. Thankfully, Nolan seemed on my side.

What’s it like playing to a room full of people as a DJ?

There’s a buzz created by fear. ‘What do I play next that’s just as good?’ It keeps me alert and on my toes, and I suppose that’s the buzz I get out of it. It’s great seeing people enjoy the tunes, but more so the type of people who are dancing to those tunes. There’s no precise demographic at Belfast Funk & Soul, so it’s cool having a wide range of people show up to share the same dance floor.

Are there any other club nights in Belfast or beyond that you’ve taken inspiration from?

Any night that has an interesting or unique idea is something I get inspiration from. I usually can’t adapt the ideas to BF&S, so luckily I can’t kick myself for saying ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ But it does motivate you to think outside the box. It takes a lot of effort to keep a night going, but I enjoy the challenge and I think that’s part of the reason why we’re still around today.

Your approach to who DJs at BF&S is unique. It’s not all about inviting big name guest DJs…

For the first couple of years we would just have regular punters come in to guest DJ and do about an hour of tunes at the start of our nights. These were folk who just wanted to take a stab at DJing, or just wanted to play their favourite funk and soul tunes to a room of people. It was a cool experience for them and it’s how I started off DJing, so I always enjoyed returning the favour.

We’ve also had a few established local DJs on who had their following firmly rooted in the dance scene. They got a kick out of coming and playing to a different crowd, and from the opportunity to play a different genre of music that they love.

BF&S just celebrated its fourth birthday. Have you been surprised that the popularity of the concept has endured?

Not really. People are always looking for something different to do on a night out, and I think that’s what BF&S delivers. Trying to do different things or seek new methods of promotion has helped along the way. For example, the t-shirts with the logo on them are selling quite nicely, and that’s nearly shifted it to a brand.

It’s a far cry from the original idea of starting a one-off James Brown night, so who knows where BF&S might lead to next. It’s a genre of music that’s never really going to go away, in my opinion, and there are new fans being created all the time. So the popularity is there, you just have to chip away to reveal it.

Some might argue that funk and soul are dated genres. Do you think there are enough acts breaking through these days to keep it relevant?

I would consider Pharrell to be a great soul artist. His music is deeply rooted in Motown/Stax. I’d like to think he’d agree with me if the question was ever popped to him. However, ‘modern’ soul, like Pharrell’s music, can have blurred lines (get it?), and can easily get mixed up in the alternative or pop charts.

Bruno Mars’ music is very similar to soul musicians from yesteryear, but it would raise a few eyebrows if I played his tracks at my nights. My point is that soul music is still very relevant, it’s still being played on the radio and being bought by consumers, it’s just taken on a new form. It can always be found hidden behind modern sound production and marketing.

Some people seem to think that the club night scene in Belfast isn’t as healthy as it used to be, despite the fact that BF&S remains popular, and the likes of Twitch, DNST and several other music promoters are currently active in the city. What do you think of the ‘scene’ at the moment?

I do find with the scene that venues are a tad afraid to mix things up, and who could blame them? Money is tight. Staying in their comfort zone and letting the customers know what to expect is fine and dandy, but what happens to the punter who doesn’t like repetition? This is why it can be tough for a funk and soul night to fit in.

However, increasingly bars are playing these sorts of tunes to their punters. I’m thinking The National, Chelsea, Albany, Laverys. They’re not ‘nights’, so to speak, but people seem to enjoy the music and bars are happy to advertise it, which is great for me. People might generally shrug when they think about funk and soul, however they will recognise it, and then mostly likely dance to it.

What do the next four years hold for BF&S?

Well Aether & Echo have given it a new home and a monthly slot with a lot of backing. There’s a budget to try new things and bring over some interesting acts, so I’m really looking forward to this new episode. I really have hand it to the A&E guys, they’re open to new ideas and willing to take a chance on trying new things.

I pitched the idea of Craig Charles for the 4th birthday to a couple of places and they weren’t too respondent. With A&E, I barely finished my sentence and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it’. I even suggested that we might not pull it off, and they convinced me it was a great idea. They were right, too. 200 tickets were sold before the night.

What is it that motivates you to keep BF&S going?

The fact that it’s the only funk and soul night around. It’s fun to do. It helped me get my foot in the door with so many things – with other DJ slots and spouting my ideas – so I can’t walk away from it now. It’s still going after four years, so I must be doing something right. Right? (Written for Belfast Music, here)

Visit the Belfast Funk & Soul Facebook page for information on forthcoming club nights.

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Master and Dog, the Jepettos, Patrick Gardiner @ Voodoo, Belfast

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‘This song is about a holiday I went on in my mind once.’ As 18-year-old singer-songwriter Patrick Gardiner nonchalantly introduces new track ‘Carcassonne’, tonight’s audience in Voodoo aren’t quite sure how to take him.

Having kicked off the first of a series of gig nights under the Hidden Machine banner with ‘He’s Not Right For You’, Gardiner’s acoustic tales of romances won and lost are tenderly told, but seem somewhat at odds with his prickly on-stage banter.

Making reference to punters who remark ‘Flip, he’s so wee’ – Gardiner’s response is ‘Yeah. Yeah, I am’ – and an aloof comment about the audience possibly buying one of his CDs, it’s hard to reconcile this persona with the same performer who tonight plays a wonderfully judged and technically mind-boggling cover of Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’.

Gardiner manages to execute the track’s multiple layers with only an acoustic guitar in hand. Such a sparse live setup leaves little room to hide, and upon scrutiny some of Gardiner’s lyrics are a little predictable, but there’s a lot to appreciate in tonight’s set from the young pretender.

That same sort of stripped-down live performance carries on into the night when The Jepettos take to the stage. For tonight a three piece, the folk-pop act usually have an established rhythm section to back them up, but they work this to their advantage in tracks like ‘You’re Not Listening (Hear Me Out)’, where the on stage chemistry between off stage couple Mike and Ruth Aicken turns every track into a lovestruck serenade.

Particularly prominent throughout the performance are Ruth’s breathless Ellie Goulding vocals, which lend themselves perfectly to tracks like ‘Even Though’ and ‘Waters’. This set is endearing, but despite the band’s multi-instrumentalism it starts to border on the sickly-sweet. With a little variety and edge to go along with these lovelorn ditties, there is no reason that The Jepettos can’t carve out a niche all of their own.

When folk-rock act Master & Dog begin their set with the dreary ‘Weathered’, it seems like tonight’s gig is bound to play out at one pace throughout. Not necessarily a bad thing – it is a beautiful song, after all – but it’s the first time that the audience have seen a full band on stage, and it seems to promise so much more.

It’s not until the band start to feel their way into the loud/quiet of ‘Small Time’ that Master & Dog start to show their true colours. Their blues-y folk influences are flecked throughout the rest of the set on numbers like ‘Devil Knows How’ and more impressively on the slow burning ‘Frost’, but the quartet are at their strongest when letting loose and turning up the volume a little bit.

Channelling the scuzz of a Songs For Polarbears-era Snow Patrol on the alt rock ‘Heavyweight’, it’s suddenly apparent how few acts revisiting the genre there are in Belfast today. What Master & Dog are doing here isn’t anything new, but they do it well.

Understandably, their self-titled second album features heavily in tonight’s set, but those louder moments from throughout their back catalogue help to lift the performance. Recent single ‘Canada’ fits right in alongside these alt rock vignettes.

Using it to see their set out tonight, it’s the highlight of the evening, particularly when the band call up local songwriter Rory Nellis from the audience to sing along. ‘If you take my hand, I’ll show you what I’m made of,’ echoes the refrain. Master & Dog have certainly reminded a Belfast audience why they’re worth paying attention to. (Written for Belfast Music, here)

 

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Broken Melody Records Feature

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Northern Ireland’s diverse new music scene is fast spawning a healthy spread of record labels. From big hitters like Smalltown America, through to emerging labels such as Champion Sound Music, DhARMA and DSNT, it’s fair to say that there are a multitude of ears listening out for the next big thing in Northern Irish music.

If a label’s identity is largely based upon the type of acts that they pursue – think Factory Records and the Manchester indie scene, for example, or Motown and soul, Death Row and hip hop – then you might find it difficult to pigeonhole Broken Melody Records.

As the Belfast-based label is beginning to show, there is more than one way to build a brand. Made up of a core team of industry professionals – Paul Hamill of In Flight Records, Jimmy Devlin of No Dancing, Tanya Stowger and Thomas Camblin – the Broken Melody ethos emphasises subtance over style. It’s a philosophy that’s easy to admire.

‘We work with bands who get being in a band, guys who are willing to push it themselves as far as they can,’ explains Camblin. ‘The idea of Broken Melody is that we can come in behind that and support them and give them a strategy. We’d love to work with more bands like that, bands that just get on with it, but who maybe need that little extra support.

‘From that we go for songs. That’s how our compilations come about. I think that’s how an independent label can work really well – the bands can get on with writing and touring and we can take on the business aspects like promotion and facilitating each release.’

The DIY ethic is something that is valued highly by the team at Broken Melody. Hard work on the part of the bands is matched by the team’s enthusiasm and belief in their signings. And their commitment to finding and promoting the best emerging talent from across Northern Ireland is reflected in their latest compilation, Broken Melody #002, which features tracks by the likes of Joshua Burnside and Ciaran Lavery.

‘All the artists that we’ve got on the compilation we’re extremely proud to have worked with,’says Camblin. ‘We believe in every single song and it shows in the strength of the first compilation. We put it out and it got on the Radio 1 playlist, 6 Music and those kinds of shows.’

Broken Melody is a project of Armstrong Learning NI, whereby people who are unemployed are offered six months’ work experience in the music industry. Successful applicants undertake a six-month training and mentoring course first, and then spend four days a week working with Broken Melody.

‘There’s always been a core team of management who have experience of working in the music business, so the core of the label has always been ran by us bunch of guys,’ adds Camblin. ‘The idea with the people on placement here is that they dictate how they learn through it.

‘We haven’t been putting much out over the past year, mainly because we’ve been trying to build up a brand awareness, but I think between now, and over the next couple of years, we will. For us, though, it’s always been serious. The only difference between us and any other small independent record label is the fact that we’ve got a workforce of people who are learning on the job.’

The Broken Melody project is certainly picking up speed, and innovation is central to Camblin and co’s future plans. Last November’s ‘Recording to Release’ gig, for example, featured Joshua Burnside and Pretty Child Backfire recording songs and designing art work on the spot, with the audience invited to take part in all aspects of the process.

‘We put that together as something that would stand out during Belfast Music Week 2013,’ says Camblin. ‘We wanted to do something that wasn’t just a standard gig. It’s something we’ll probably do again soon. For me, Broken Melody Records should be a vehicle for interesting content and interesting experiences for people, whether it’s putting out a CD, or a vinyl, or doing a launch gig like that.’

The experience for the consumer is as important for Camblin as the thrill of seeing the end product. ‘People left that night with an exclusive and unique product. They got to design their own CD cover, they got to witness it and they can listen back to it for years to come. It’s the idea of creating that experience which is lost in music sometimes today.’

With their new compilation released on February 27, and a clear sense that things are moving quickly in Broken Melody towers, what does Camblin hope that the future holds for the label?

‘This year is probably going to be a year of development for us, and hopefully we can help develop and take our artists to that next level, which is the main reason we do this. We’ve a few singles lined up, and we’ve an EP by White Male Actors, which we can definitely confirm we’re working on.

‘We’re looking at the long-term. If we were relatively established and a trusted brand, then people would think, “We’d love to put records out on Broken Melody”. That would be pretty sweet.’

Broken Melody #002 is out now.

(Written for Belfast Music, here)

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Ed Zealous – Wired

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Belfast-based electro-pop quartet Ed Zealous will be familiar to most regular gig-goers in the city. Having been active for the better part of a decade, the band have built up a pretty loyal fan base, and it’s testament to their enduring popularity that many other bands who started on the circuit around the same time have since fallen away.

Despite a string of single releases during that lengthy period, however, Wired arrives as the band’s debut full length album. What is even more surprising – and disappointing – is that Wired comes across as the work of a band who have made no effort to keep up with changes in musical trends or tastes.

That said, the album is nothing if not full on, and a more aptly named electro album you will surely not find all year. Opener ‘147’ plants its flag firmly in indie disco territory, with synth waves flanking Stephen McAvoy’s frenzied deliveries: ‘I think I’ve hit the ceiling of my feelings… Think about the after-party every now and then… I’m feeling right.’

Similar enhanced moments of euphoria feature throughout the album, and serve to underline what an intense listen Wired can be. The thumping ‘Telepaths’ finds McAvoy in gravity-defying mood – ‘I’m dancing on the ceiling, that telepathic feeling. I’m alive’ – and maintains the frantic pace, which never really lets up.

Whilst Ed Zealous have stuck to a genre and a style that they clearly have a fondness for, there is no doubt that a little variation would have made Wired a much more digestible listen. Yet there are a cluster of great tracks here.

Live favourite ‘Thanks A Million’ is the one point on the album where everything comes together – from drummer Paul Irwin and bassist Pete Lloyd’s tight interplays to McAvoy’s pleasantly emo vocals, it’s a brilliantly toe-tappable guilty pleasure. Similarly, recent single ‘Diamonds for Eyes’ is a multi-layered triumph.

With a killer hook that Two Door Cinema would be proud of, and a clearly defined verse, chorus and climax, it’s one of a handful of tracks that invite you to imagine how impressive Ed Zealous could be if only they were to step out of their comfort zone and experiment. They obviously have the talent to do so.

As it is, there are too many moments on Wired that bring to mind forgotten bands from the graveyard of indie disco’s past – and not in a wistful, teary-eyed sort of way. Despite its crisp production, Wired feels like an album that is stuck in the mid-noughties, a debut that unfortunately does not stand out in a market place bloated with more original takes on the form.

Even the bands who frequently get referenced on WiredDaft Punk, Hot Fuss-era Killers, for example – have moved on from the sounds that Ed Zealous are still enamoured with; the latter currently enjoying a Springsteen-inspired revival, the former indulging in over-the-top, mainstream disco ginormo-albums, which only serves to underline the impression that Wired feels slightly out of place for an album released in 2014. (Written for Belfast Music, here)

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Live Review: London Grammar, Go Wolf – Limelight, Belfast

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London Grammar are what you’d call a success story. An indie band that had nothing whatsoever in terms of recorded output this time last year now find themselves with a number two debut album, a top 20 single and a near-sell out UK tour under their belts. This kind of instant and successful leap into the collective conscience is, presumably, what we refer to when we talk about bands ‘making it’ – and it just so happens that tonight’s support act is a band from Northern Ireland who have been tipped for big things themselves.

Whilst Go Wolf‘s style couldn’t be much further from the act they are supporting tonight, their DFA-inspired indie jaunts have more than a few of tonight’s sell out crowd boogying as if it isn’t half eight on a Monday night. It’s easy to see from the group’s neat interplays and octave-toggling bass lines why they’ve been touted as potential success stories, yet this performance never quite threatens to assert itself over a merry Limelight crowd. Pockets of loyal support aside, their performance here feels like an opportunity lost; a chance to show the gig-shy over 35s how healthy the local scene is right now – instead it’s a slightly tame effort from the Kitsune electro poppers. That said, the atmosphere in the room is almost such that you can feel the impatience for the headline act, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Go Wolf’s set is a snappy and competent one  – their headline show later in the month should prove a better indication of where the much-lauded three piece are heading.

As Hannah Reid of London Grammar walks onto the stage – flanked by guitarist Dan Rothman and the impossible-to-ignore Harry Styles-lookalike Dot Major – the opening notes of ‘Hey Now’ soon soothe a boisterous crowd into silence; that is, at least, before those first sub-bass thumps reawaken them (and threaten to blow the venue’s speakers in the process). Early sound wobbles aside, their set flourishes nicely – flickering subtly between angsty, xx-esque numbers ‘Shyer’ and ‘Metal and Dust’, to the Massive Attack-flecked angst of ‘Strong’; the latter showcasing the kind of instantly memorable melodies that exsist to make Jools Holland audiences drool.

As the set progresses, it’s obvious that London Grammar are a very talented outfit – particularly vocalist Hannah Reid, who invites the audience to sing along about three quarters of the way through the set, confessing, “This is usually the part where my voice starts to give up”.  She is modest in the extreme – her vocals are often perfect and actually seem to improve after this admission. It’s curious, then, why it only takes two or three songs for that most dreaded blight of local gigs to rear its ugly head: crowd chatter. I am not of the opinion that all conversation at a gig must be met with a deathly stare and a loud tut, (modern telepathy will only get you so far) but you do have to wonder what exactly tonight’s punters expected from a London Grammar gig on a Monday night – a special shout out must go to the audience member fist pumping during  ‘Darling Are You Gonna Leave Me?’, an EP track about the dawning realisation that a lover’s attentions are beginning to wander. It doesn’t detract massively from the gig itself, but it’s definitely odd – like watching the xx play to a 18-25s resort in Magaluf.

When the band bring out the big guns ‘Wasting My Young Years’ and their cover of Kavinsky‘s ‘Nightcall’, they do not disappoint – the latter in particular benefits from the live treatment, coming across as more of an interpretation rather than a band merely singing someone else’s song. They don’t stop there though, and their encore tonight is nothing short of inspired: a cover of Chris Isaak‘s woozy love song ‘Wicked Game’. It’s not greeted with widespread celebration, or even recognition – but there was probably a brief point where the same could have been said about London Grammar. Not anymore. (Written for the Thin Air, here)

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Live Review: Drenge – The Limelight 2

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Sheffield rockers Drenge may have received a sharp spike in interest recently thanks to Labour MP Tom Watson’s parting assertion that they are “an awesome new band”, but it’s visceral and absorbing live performances like tonight’s in the Limelight 2 that will surely see their popularity continue to increase. Brothers Eoin and Rory Loveless make up a guitar and drums duo, but their live setup is anything but lacking – one only need take note of the array of amp stacks and microphones which flank the pair on stage. The modest gathering of hipster-cum-metalheads that have assembled tonight are treated to a ferocious and potent set of rumbling garage-rock.

From the opening salvo of ‘Backwaters’ one thing is apparent: Drenge are loud. That may not exactly be news to anyone familiar with the pair’s self-titled debut, but it’s a rare thing indeed to see the same sort of emphatic oomph mirrored in a band’s live performance.  Hyperbole aside, there are moments during tonight’s gig when the lower notes of Eoin’s powerchord strikes are enough to make one’s insides vibrate.

But whilst their loudness is impressive, it would be nothing to write home about without their deceptively clever songwriting, and it’s no surprise that some of tonight’s stand-out moments point towards the better moments on their album: ‘Bloodsports’ is jittery and taut and evokes a mini mosh pit; whilst ‘Let’s Pretend’ is a ten-minute-long  angst-ridden love letter which offers a drawn out low in contrast to the band’s many short and snappy highs. And, whilst their influences are worn fairly openly on their sleeves – the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, the Stooges and an early day Black Keys all get a nod tonight – there is enough originality in their songs so that they only ever sound like themselves. By the time Eoin bluntly states “I don’t give a fuck about people in love/ they don’t piss me off, they just make me give up” (on ‘Fuckabout’), it’s clear that their dumb, brash noise hides some slightly more nuanced ideas.

As the brothers Loveless bring a lean set to a close with the ferocious ‘Face Like A Skull’, they leave the Limelight audience satiated; tonight’s convincing live performance further evidence of a promising young band on the rise. These ears will be ringing for some time.  (Written for the Thin Air, here)

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Interview: Gambles

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It’s interesting to listen to Matthew Siskin (aka Gambles) speak about his debut album, Trust. Borne out of a set of circumstances that are nothing short of tragic, it is a record that is raw and poignant. Roughly three years ago, Siskin got engaged, then lost a child, left his wife, and turned to drink and drugs for two years.  Much of Trust is addressed to his ex-wife of whom Siskin has previously said, “I wanted her to hate me. I did things to make her hate me. Because that would be easier than saying,  ‘I have to leave’”.

Trust echoes with these sorts of emotional knots but despite this, Siskin does not come across like a person who still needs to get things off his chest – he speaks like a man who has said what needed to be said about a particular time in his life, and who is excited about recording and releasing music. He also thinks Angel Olsen is cute and has gone from doing drugs every day to cutting down on cigarettes.  We spoke to him to find out more.

Hi Matthew. Could you tell us how the Gambles project came about?

Sure. It was totally unplanned – it’s funny to think about it now because it was such a weird time. I had stopped going out, and every night I would just sit at a little table and just record myself singing into a mic over and over and over again – It never really felt right. Then I think there was one night where I cranked everything up to the point where the mic was so sensitive, and I just sang and it sounded right, and in that moment ‘Schemes’, ‘Rooftops’…those songs happened. I was like ‘Oh shit, here’s a new way of doing things’. It’s less ‘writing’ songs and more like ‘singing’ songs. It came together like that, and from there it just kept moving.

Your story is obviously a key part of how Trust came about, but was there an earlier point in your life when you decided that you wanted to make music?

I think I’ve always wanted to, I think my whole life I always felt in my gut that I wanted to do that. It felt like I could do that, but at the same time it felt like I didn’t have any reason to do it yet. All of my favourite singers, they all have something very clear to say, and it’s kind’ve like a weird timing thing; I feel like a lot of music happens just because people want to do music, and I respect that, but for me it was always really different – I felt like I’m gonna do it when I do it, and I’m not knock myself over the head from trying. And I had done that – I would sit and just fail over and over again and try everything I could to sing and make noise and it just felt empty, with no reason. Obviously extreme things happened to me which at the time I didn’t think I would go on to write songs about, but then – going through that process of searching a little bit – that got connected to whatever was happening in my head and in my body. It felt like I was saying something clearly.

Do you find it difficult to perform these songs night after night whilst on tour? They all have a lot of raw emotion on show, understandably so.

I did – in February I was supporting the Maccabees in America and I’d never really performed before. It was more challenging then because I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to stand or I didn’t know how to stand and it felt like I was exposing myself. But yeah, it’s hard – there are certain songs where you have to swallow a little bit and breathe through certain parts. It’s like giving a speech at a person’s funeral, you’re like ‘I can do this’, then you go to do it and it’s like ‘Shit, this is really intense’.

Anyway, I’ve discovered this new thing where if I feel weird about the room or whatever it is, I find it easier if I get off the stage and take the microphone with me into the audience – then it’s like you’re talking to someone and it feels more sincere.  There were times where it felt like I was putting something on, like a guy standing there with a microphone, with a monitor and all this stuff and everyone’s there to watch – it didn’t feel right. So the past few shows I’ve just been like “fuck it”. I think people connect to that because it’s one less thing between them, and I like that. It makes it easier but it’s also obviously still emotional – I guess it has to be.

Was there a turning point after your drink and drug problems where you felt like you had to get clean in order to take the music forward?

Not really, it was more that one replaced the other. I would still smoke tons of pot when I would write, and it would really help – I think I was stoned for most of my songwriting, all of my demos are pretty hilarious, in any single song  it always starts with the lighter clicking. The other stuff just fell away because I can’t perform fucked up, so it wasn’t really a decision it was just like ‘Now I’m doing this so I can’t really do that’, and I’ve always had that way about me where if I feel like I’m getting too far into something I have that line  – like I don’t think that I’ll ever kill myself or destroy myself with substance abuse. It’s not that I’m too smart, it’s just that I care about other things too much – I care about my mind and I care about being able to express myself.

I also know how it feels when you’ve been smoking pot for about three weeks where you just can’t feel anything – that’s not what I wanna do, so I think it just happened on its own. It’s the same with cigarettes now – I’ve started smoking a lot less because I just can’t sing as well, it’s less of a ‘Oh I should quit smoking’ and more of a ‘If I’m gonna sing ‘So I Cry Out’ and get through it I can’t smoke because I have to hold those fucking notes’.

Does critical acclaim matter to you?

I think every single artist will say that they don’t care – I know that every single artist reads everything. On every level I have friends who are pop stars and friends who aren’t and they say to me “I’ve never googled myself” and I’m like “You’re lying”. I think every performer wants to know that they’ve made someone happy, it feels good to know that. Last night I played a tiny show, the smallest show of this tour. There was maybe 10 people in a bar in Manchester and I didn’t have a microphone, I just sat in the room and sang. There were these four girls – I even know their names from the internet because they follow me and they’re always engaging with me – and they were singing along and they knew the words, and that for me goes hand in hand with any opinion anyone has; whether Pitchfork stick me on a pitchfork or whatever. I’m not gonna say that bad reviews don’t make me go ‘That sucks’, but it doesn’t make me feel anything different about what I’m doing, and I’m not gonna change anything.

Part of your what makes your sound unique is its stripped-back nature. Have you, or would you ever consider adding more instruments or playing with a live band?

I think it’s impossible for it to always just be me and my guitar, because the songs that I’m already writing for my second record are very percussive. I can see them [possible future band] in my head; brothers or best friends (there’s two of them) , maybe they’re sisters, maybe whatever – but bass and drums, and they want to be in a band. I don’t want to hire musicians, but all of these songs are put on a plate for simple arrangements – I love the Clash and what people like Jonathan Richman did.

I think it’s a natural evolution, I think it would be insane to say ‘No I will never do that’ because I’m already getting quite antsy and I mean, how long can you go on tour and do this? It’s satisfying but it’s also challenging. It’s limiting too- it happened the way it happened, and I had an acoustic guitar and I had to write, and I didn’t have anyone I could call and be like ‘Hey can you come to practice at 7pm?’. I had to just do it when I had to do it and I think that’s why it sounds the way it does. But I mean, I want to play festivals. I want to burn rooms down and channel new things and a lot of the new shit I’m doing will have bass and drums but still maintain that thing – whatever that thing is – that I think sounds like me. There’s a space between things that I can hear in my own music that I always wanna make sure is there.

Are there any artists in particular that you would say influence your style?

Yeah, I mean I think it would be crazy of me not to say Leonard Cohen isn’t very dear to me, and probably more than Dylan sometimes. Dylan’s songs are crazy, they paint crazy things in your head. Also the craftsmanship, the way he’s taken things and changed them subtly – I’ve done the same thing like what he did in taking phrasing from old Irish folk songs. There were songs that he would take and make the minor chords major, but it’s not because he’s stealing, he’s just making it his own. On my song ‘Angel’, it’s weird – I love Angel Olsen and I think she’s so great. I was sitting in New Orleans and took her song ‘Acrobat’ – I had kind’ve a crush on her for like an hour, I know it’s creepy to say that – but if you look at the phrasing of ‘Angel’, you could put ‘Acrobat’ over the top of it. I got that from Dylan.

I think with Cohen, I felt like I wanted to sing to people but I didn’t have any songs, so the next best thing was just to sing Leonard Cohen songs, so I learned all of them and could sing them on cue. I think the best way is not to think about it too much and to keep exploring – but what you listen to is in your head when you’re doing stuff whether you know it or not.

The album is often tragic, and at times heartbreaking. Would you say that you’re a sad person?

No, not at all. I’m definitely a moody person – all my girlfriends can testify to that. It’s hard to spend time with me sometimes I think because I love being alone so much. I’m not a dick, but sometimes I just get really quiet. Sometimes I’m like the brightest, happiest person, and people that have met me and done interviews and stuff say things like ‘Oh shit I didn’t really expect that’ and it’s like ‘Well what did you expect?’.

I think people expect the dark, gloomy, solemn, shrouded in mystery songwriter.  I’m a happy guy, I feel good. That was a time in my life, and in these songs are strange little bubbles from that time, and when I step into them, I’m in them – but as soon as I finish the song, I usually laugh or smile or make a joke. I’ll play ‘So I Cry Out’ and then I’ll make a joke. I think you kind’ve have to do that, otherwise it’s like going to watch a car accident – nobody wants to do that.

Do you feel satisfied that – with the album and touring and interviews – you’ve said all that needed to be said about that time?

I think so, I don’t really know. I always get new questions – like you’ve asked me questions that people haven’t asked me yet. It’s just me, the record is me. It wasn’t like I had some grand concept. I think the record says everything  I needed to say to that person, and I don’t know whether they think that it’s insane and cruel that I’ve done this – and I do worry about that sometimes – but at the same time I think that if you’re going to date an artist or marry an artist (and she knew that when she met me) then you’re kind’ve in for it, and that’s gonna happen.

There’s also stuff that I haven’t said because I can’t say it – ‘Animal’ is about somebody else, and that happened very recently. I can never really talk about her because she’s kind’ve a public person and it was a crazy thing. She’s incredibly dear to me, and she knows it’s about her. There’s definitely hidden corners in the record, but I don’t think I have anything more to get off my chest.

What does happiness mean to you?

I think happiness is truth, being honest with yourself. I know what it feels like to have either, and I think if you’re doing what feels right for you, then fuck everybody else. You just have to forget everyone, forget your parents, forget anyone that has any idea of you. It’s your world and it’s your life and if you don’t feel good about it then you won’t be happy, and even if you’re alone in a basement  -if you wanna be there, then cool. It’s trial and error, but you’ll figure it out, right? (Written for the Thin Air, here)

 

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