samedi, juillet 30, 2005

Los Lobos

Los Lobos: Out of Mexico, by way of America

The Chicano superstars Los Lobos had a huge hit with 'La Bamba', but there's much more to the outfit than that. With a new live album out, their leader and veteran front man, David Hidalgo, gives Andy Gill a lesson in the ways of Latino popular music

Published: 29 July 2005

For a big man, David Hidalgo carries himself with an unassuming nobility that hints at an inner sensitivity. Though naturally quiet and diffident - in previous interviews, his monosyllabic discomfort could easily be mistaken for aloofness, rather than shyness - he nonetheless shoulders the burden of being the spokesman for Los Lobos, the Mexican-American band he's fronted for more than three decades.

They're probably best remembered over here for their hit version of the title-song from the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, though that hardly does justice to the range and variety of their music. Nor, for that matter, the skill with which it's performed, not least by Hidalgo himself, who hefts his Telecaster like it's a ukelele as he rips out stinging lead lines, before switching to accordion, fiddle or one of the acoustic guitars with which the band play more folksy, Latino songs.

In the open courtyard of London's Somerset House on a balmy summer's evening, Los Lobos deliver a rousing set of tough blues-rock spiced here and there with charming conjunto songs and the cumbia pieces that offer many in the crowd the opportunity to show off the steps they've learned at the capital's increasingly popular Latin dance classes. The infectious cumbia rhythm, I suggest, is rather like the Latin American equivalent of reggae.

"Yes, it is," he agrees. "They do fit together, and there's a lot of bands that kinda mix the two rhythms. Cumbia comes from Colombia, but it's real popular throughout Latin America. The Cumbia Kings do a pop version of it - they were formed by the brother of Selena, the Mexican pop singer that got killed in 1995. Kinda light, but it's alright - the people love it, so what the heck?"

Hidalgo's laissez-faire attitude is characteristic both of his own easy-going nature and of his band's all-channels-open approach to music, which in Hidalgo's case leans strongly towards country and Southern soul, from Hank Williams and Merle Haggard to The Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor. And while he's over in the UK, he's keen to acquire the John Entwistle anthology, The Ox. It is a pretty diverse range of influences. And, while Los Lobos may play the more Latinate parts of their set with due fastidiousness, they're not averse to mixing genres together, or striking out in directions that have no previous musical signposts. How else would they have come up with such a strange, idiosyncratic piece as "Kiko and the Lavender Moon", a song that seems haunted by the past even as it pushes at the future? It's one of the stand-out tracks on the band's new live album, recorded live last year at the legendary Fillmore West, once the focus of the San Francisco hippy scene.

Always mindful of their cultural history, Los Lobos jumped at the chance to record there, particularly since San Francisco, like their native Los Angeles, supports a sizeable Chicano (Mexican-American) populace.

"Well, it's more of a mixed Latino community," explains Hidalgo. "There's a lot of Mexicans, but there's also people from Latin America - Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Hondurans and so on. There's an area called the Mission District, which is where they all live, that's pretty much the Latin side of town. They've always had a large Latin music scene up there, though it's more like salsa."

Is there much difference between the native Mexican culture and the immigrant Chicano culture of North America?

"Well, yes and no," he says. "We're familiar with each other's cultures, and there's a lot of pride involved between them - each country thinks they're better than the other! So there's a little bit of rivalry there, but when it comes down to it, we pull together."

Applying my own adaptation of Norman Tebbit's cricket test, I enquire whether Hidalgo follows soccer or American sports, like gridiron football and baseball. He admits to a passing interest in soccer during the World Cup, but is basically an all-American kid when it comes to games. "Mostly it's football and baseball, because I grew up in the States," he says. "I support the Dodgers, but as regards football, I don't know now."

The Dodgers, of course, were the baseball team brought from Brooklyn to LA, where their stadium was built in the former Chicano neighbourhood of Chavez Ravine - a story now made famous by Ry Cooder's latest (and best) album, with which Hidalgo was marginally involved.

"Ry called me about some Mexican musicians, such as Lalo Guerrero, who's just passed away," he explains. "Lalo was a friend of ours from LA who did the original zoot-suit music - he was the first of the Mexican-Americans to do music that reflected what was going on in LA, a kind of Latin swing." Lalo Guerrero and Willie G were two of the guiding lights of Chicano music in the post-war years, as the immigrant culture strove to establish its own sense of community in an often unwelcoming land. "I knew how to get hold of Lalo," continues Hidalgo, "and Willie G, who used to be with The Midnighters - I gave Ry the numbers, and it worked out great, because Willie ended up writing a lot of the numbers with Ry, and singing a lot of it. And I played a little rhythm guitar on it, but not much."

As befits a band whose cartoon-wolf logo bears the legend "Musica Es Cultura", Los Lobos have a deep interest in their antecedents. Though Hidalgo acknowledges that those regional differences have, effectively, been destroyed by the spread of MTV - "things are more alike than they used to be" - Hidalgo remembers the local stars of his youth with great fondness.

"In the neighbourhood, Willie G and The Midnighters, they were the biggest thing to come out of East LA," he recalls. "They had regional hits, and we'd see them on TV, the dance shows and stuff like that. And Cannibal and The Headhunters, they actually opened for The Beatles when they came over on their US tour. And there were other bands that we listened to when we were growing up: The Premiers, who did 'Farmer John', another regional hit, and R&B and doo-wop bands like The Flirtations, The Exotics, and The Jaguars. It was mostly R&B based. The same thing was happening in Texas, and across the country - Detroit had ? and The Mysterians; and though Doug Sahm was German, the rest of his band, besides Augie Meyer, were Mexican guys from San Antonio. So there was a good mixture of things."

Not that the young Chicanos ignored the mainstream Anglo-American pop of the era. "We were American kids," he explains. "Of Mexican descent, but we grew up in the States, so we were affected by everything in the media, like everyone else. I was nine years old when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show - I fought with my brother over it! His band had practice at the house, and they wanted to watch the roller derby, which was on at the same time as The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, so we were fighting over the TV - 'No, man, we don't wanna see that shit, we want the roller derby!' 'No, man, it's The Beatles!'.

"And James Brown was really big. He was the cat! James Brown was everything in those days. That's all my brother's band played, James Brown - but they made a good job of it. They learned a lot from James Brown - the whole presentation was really slick, they'd wear the uniforms, do the steps and all that. James Brown, and Jackie Wilson too, had a big influence on all the bands from East LA, in the style, the way they carried themselves. It was a pride thing: let's show the world that we're not just a bunch of hooligans and crazy people, let's prove that we have class and can present ourselves in a proper way. We could relate to the R&B - it was a passionate music, about love, and sung with a lot of soul, which is why so many Chicano kids adopted R&B. The sentiment was the same."

Alongside Anglo-American and Chicano pop, the future Los Lobos musicians were also getting a grounding in the more traditional Mexican music forms, like conjunto and norteno, which Hidalgo explains are effectively the same thing.

"If it's from south of the Texas border, they call it norteno, because it's from northern Mexico," he says. "If it's from north of the Mexican border, they call it conjunto. Then there's Texano, which means 'from Texas', that's more of a modern, pop version of conjunto music, with keyboards and horns. That stuff has been around from the Sixties too - there was Little Joe & La Familia, Ruben Ramos, and the Tortilla Factory, who played mostly blues; and back in the late Sixties, early Seventies, there was another movement, kinda like a Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago version of conjunto music, with all the horns and the fancy arrangements, mixed up with rock and funk and stuff - but it always ended up a polka! So there's different variations, but it all comes down to the same thing, the polka that comes from Texas, that was brought over by the Czechs, Poles and German immigrants."

Unsurprisingly, there's strong support for Los Lobos in the Chicano heartlands of Texas and South California, although Hidalgo says that their most fervent following is in Chicago. "There's a big Chicano population in Chicago," he explains. "We Mexicans follow the railroads and the crops, so there's a lot of us spread throughout the Midwest. I didn't realise that until we started touring those areas. Mexicans and Latinos just follow the work, and settle where it takes them, and a lot of families ended up in Chicago."

But even immigrant settlers move on eventually, not least the members of Los Lobos. Despite having once written an emotional paean to the "peace and serenity" of "the neighborhood", Hidalgo no longer lives in the same district of Los Angeles where he spent his childhood. It's a familiar story of rising crime, declining infrastructure and predatory gang culture forcing a move to more salubrious environs.

"It's changed, you know," he concedes. "Families move out, and it's getting rougher. We're still on the east side of town; but back where we used to live, the people there wouldn't even know us any more."

'Live at the Fillmore' is out on Warner

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.

John Lennon

John Lennon Scrap Paper Sells for $1million

by Paul Cashmere @ Undercover

30 July 2005

John Lennon's handwritten lyrics used on the day of the global television broadcast of The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' has fetched for than $1million at an auction in the UK.

The piece of paper sold for £600,000 ($US1.05 million, $AUD1.39 million).

The paper was authenticated at the end of the television performance when Lennon is seen dropping it on the floor at the end of the song. It was later picked up and kept by a staff member of the BBC studios where the filming took place. The girl who picked up the paper provided a signed letter of proof of the document.

'All You Need Is Love' now holds the record for the most expensive Beatle lyric ever sold beating a hand written 'Nowhere Man' which went for $£250,000 in 2003.

The bidder was present in the room at London's Hippodrome theatre and competed with a telephone bidder for the prize possession.

Other items sold included a military jacket similar to the jacket Lennon wore on the Sgt Pepper cover which went for £10,000, an organ which Lennon played at the final Beatles concert at Shea Stadium in 1966 which sold for £180,000 and a painted done by Lennon in 1958 at Art school sold for £25,000.

vendredi, juillet 29, 2005

Maximo Park: Maximum strength

Charlotte Cripps meets Paul Smith, the charismatic singer with the North-eastern band who are up for the Mercury Prize

Published: 29 July 2005

Paul Smith - the lead singer with the Newcastle rock quintet Maximo Park - is standing alone in a hotel lobby in west London, wearing a suave black Prada suit and tie and sporting his signature Great Gatsby-esque comb-over hairstyle. He has the look of Bryan Ferry - a native son of Newcastle, of course - crossed with a demented deputy bank manager.

It's unsurprising that he's alone because, since he was recruited to be the eccentric front man of an existing indie pop band, that's how he spends much of his time. That can't be easy, surely?

"Being the focus of Maximo Park can make me feel quite isolated from the rest of the band, but I always knew what I was taking on," says Smith, as we go upstairs to his room. "Nobody resents me."

For Smith, solo interviews are not a problem. "Words are my forte," he says, though he confesses to always taking a little notebook with him on stage, lest he should forget his lyrics that he types on brown envelopes. "And I have a lot of ideas about how to present the band. Some indie bands play it down, but I want to be an exaggerated version of myself. I am trying to entertain people. It doesn't draw away from the impact of the songs as emotional vehicles. There is a transformative aspect to the songs - they are hopeful rather than stuck in one man's emotional mire."

Smith joined Maximo Park three years ago for one reason: to be a rock'n'roll main man. Plucked from the obscurity of his instrumental art-school band, Me and The Twins, Smith had never sung on stage or written a song in his life. "I had no ambitions to be a singer-songwriter. I played guitar."

Now he reels off his lyrics as though they were poetry, without being tempted to water down his northern accent when he sings. This caused some confusion on tour in Germany recently.

"A journalist asked me why I was singing about tales of war, but I was actually singing about tales of woe," he recalls.

What distinguishes Maximo Park - who were nominated for the Mercury Prize last week - from the current conveyor belt of indie-pop bands that includes the likes of Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party, is Smith's larger-than-life persona. He is in the same vein as other proudly regional pop mavericks, particularly Sheffield's Jarvis Cocker and Manchester's Morrissey.

"I am a servant of the music and I've got no self- confidence outside of that," he says, modestly. "When I get on stage, I transform. I deliver the songs in a flamboyant way. The music filters through my body. I react physically to it and I leap around the stage in a suit making lots of gestures. There is an irony to it, of course, and I sing about emotions with a humour."

Smith, the 26-year-old son of a working-class family, grew-up in a small town called Billingham and attended art school in Hartlepool. He studied drawing and painting, finding himself drawn to "industrial landscapes for their strange beauty".

At Newcastle University he gained a BA in English Linguistics and Art History and an MA in The Americas: Histories, Societies, Cultures, at the same time as discovering and drawing inspiration from the work of the New York beat poet Frank O'Hara. He may have joined Maximo Park as a tyro style icon, but he clearly had the literary ability to take to song-writing like a duck to water.

But life can be pretty lonely at the top - Smith recalls a testing time when the rest of the band abandoned him by mistake in a hotel in Canada as they drove off to do a sound check before a gig in Toronto.

"It was a bit frantic because my mobile phone didn't work in Canada," he says, "and I couldn't call them to say they had left me behind."

He also describes watching Jean-Luc Godard films on the tour bus, while the rest of the band - Duncan Lloyd (guitars), Lukas Wooller (keyboards), Archis Tiku (bass) and Tom English (drums) - watch John Travolta.

Lloyd apart, the band studied at Newcastle. Smith only knew the drummer at the time and met the other members after they had left. English and Lloyd became care workers, working with people with learning difficulties in Newcastle, while Wooller worked in Telesales. Tiku is a qualified GP. "It is quite handy," says Smith. "He once took the stitches out of our tour manager's back."

Maximo Park's uptight and sharp sound still has romance at its core. "One of the few songs that is not about relationships is the b-side of 'Gone Missing', which is called 'A19'," says Smith. "It is named after a road that leads from Billingham to Newcastle. It is about being stuck in a place. If I had never travelled on that road, I would never have found new horizons."

Smith's love life is currently in limbo, but much of the material for his songs comes from his past experiences in relationships.

"They always say with first novels write about what you know, so that is what I've done with the debut album," he suggests. "The album is a map of my feelings. I have weaved together a web of emotions to make a rounded pop album with as many hooks as we can cram in without it becoming ridiculous."

Maximo Park signed to Warp Records, an experimental electronic dance label, in July last year. Warp's head Steve Beckett saw in the band and their strange-looking front man something of the vision he had earlier identified in Pulp - the record label established the Gift imprint specifically to release such Pulp classics as "Babies", "O.U." and "Razzmatazz".

Since being signed, Maximo Park have had three top 20 singles from their debut album, A Certain Trigger - "Apply Some Pressure", "Graffiti" and "Going Missing". They have just returned from Ibiza, where they played at Manumission, and are off to the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan this week; they also played at Glastonbury and Scotland's T in the Park festival.

"From day one we always said we have to give every last single drop of energy every night we play," the singer says. Smith even got a little nod from Liam Gallagher the other day in the BBC toilets, when the band were appearing on Top of the Pops. "He asked me how it was going," he reveals nonchalantly.

He also had a little chat with Natalie Imbruglia and he is on waving terms with McFly. "I am very pleased by the courteous attitude of other bands, from Bloc Party to The Futureheads," he says.

Lyrically, Smith has been influenced by acts Smog and Bonnie Prince Billy.

"They paint a lyrical picture," he says, a note of admiration in his voice. "It can be poetic but it is also stark. They are not afraid to write something quite brutal. A lot of pop music is about creating an image. I don't mind glossing over things with the way that we look, but the lyrics have to be honest. I am not frightened about showing my own faults in a song."

He quotes a few lines from "Gone Missing", the current hit single: "I sleep with my hands across my chest/ And I dream of you with someone else" ("It's about suspicion and jealousy rather than based on any reality"), and he is very proud of "Acrobat", another song on the band's debut album.

He dissects the lyrics as if discussing a great novel, and even plays it for me by way of illustration. "It begins with the amplified sound of the pages turning from my notebook before I speak the verse of the song about a girl catching a plane - 'I don't remember losing sight of your needs' - before the chorus, which then moves back into spoken verse with vivid descriptions of the sky: 'The sky is often used as a metaphor/ and I suppose that's because it's so big and expansive'."

Had he ever dreamed of being nominated for the Mercury Prize? "No, I was only in my first band for fun, but when opportunity knocked, I took it."

'A Certain Trigger' is out now on Warp Records (

mercredi, juillet 27, 2005

Daniel Lanois: The frontier spirit

Daniel Lanois's music has taken him to the Moon and back, via U2. Now he's taking pedal-steel guitar into a new realm. Alasdair Lees hears how

Published: 27 July 2005

Watching Daniel Lanois play his pedal-steel guitar up close is a remarkable experience. Hunched all in black over its rectangular stand in the basement studio of his Gothic mansion in the Hollywood hills, he goes into a state of what he would call the "arrogance of concentration", a commitment not to be distracted by anything other than the work. The instrument makes a lovely, limpid sound as he moves the steel slide along the strings and plucks them with his picks, lightly depressing the foot pedals, finding the perfect pitch. He likes to play high up on the strings, where it makes a "raindrop sound". "It's a powerful tool. It's one of the things that I can do that gets me out of my head," he says passionately. "I like to lose myself in the sound."

He is playing a piece from his new album, Belladonna, a dark collection of instrumentals that places the pedal steel centre-stage, backed by little more than drums, piano and acoustic guitar. Full of the kind of murky sonics that Lanois has brought to his Grammy-winning production work for Bob Dylan, U2 and others, it sees Lanois taking pedal-steel-playing into fresh territory.

"The playing I'm doing now is a continuation of the playing I did with Brian Eno, but maybe a little less western," he says, referring to their 1983 collaboration, Apollo. "I've found a more gospel style and my knowledge of the instrument is far superior. Traditionally the pedal-steel is played in a much more country way, but I've been evolving my chord sequences."

After three song-based solo albums, Lanois decided it was time to clean his palette. "I did it just to get myself off the song hook. I thought it was time to revisit that great chapter that I had with Eno in Canada," he says. "There was something about the dedication we had in finding sonics that had never been expressed before. It was a great laboratory, a fantastic place of experimentation and great results. We became masters of ambient music simply because we loved it and we were dedicated to it. I hope this album is a revisit of those values.

"I decided that I wanted to make an instrumental record because the mind and the imagination of a listener is freed in a certain kind of way in the absence of lyrics. I didn't want to dilute the effort of this instrumental music by putting lyrics on it. I wanted to make a really beautiful, timeless record - perhaps wear the shoes of Miles Davis - and make a record that would be transcending and elevating to the listener."

Lanois's father and grandfather were both noted French-Canadian fiddle-players in his home town of Hull, Quebec. "On the piano, you can hit a few notes and you'll be in tune because they're just keys," he explains. "On the pedal-steel, it's like a violin - you constantly have to be using your ear to pitch. The pedals are quite complex, too; everybody has their own tuning, as I have mine. It represents dedication: it's not an instrument you can dabble with." His cherished "piece of green maple with 10 strings" is the same one his mother, a singer, bought for him in Ontario when he was nine.

He recorded Belladonna on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. "I've always had a fascination with the South," he says. "As a Canadian kid, I went to New Orleans [where he set up his Kingsway studio in the Eighties, and recorded the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon and Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy] to further my education. The bass gets better the farther south you go," he laughs. "I grew up with a lot of beautiful melodies - it was a storytelling culture - but we never really understood the sexuality of bass. New Orleans was the beginning of that journey for me." It was the next logical step, therefore, to move over the border. "I really like the sound of Mexican records. I think south-of-the-border music is exotic and sexual.

"I like the idea of suggesting that, in these fast times, there is a place you can go to: a desert place; a place of isolation or the desert within oneself. When you go to a place where you might experience silence, you could find out something about yourself."

Belladonna was performed in New York in June, and Lanois is to tour the album with the Chicagoan post-rockers Tortoise in October. It should make for a powerful live experience. "This is a heavy record. It's not to be confused with a sweet, atmospheric record that you might do massage to. That's not the nature of the beast."

'Belladonna' is out now on Anti- Records

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.

samedi, juillet 23, 2005


Cream of Devon puts rural rock on music map

By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
Published: 23 July 2005

Manchester had the Smiths, the Stone Roses and Oasis. Glasgow produced Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol, while Liverpool gave us the Beatles.

Now Devon, often derided for giving us the Wurzels, is being hailed as the latest region to spawn musical talent. Chris Martin, the frontman of Coldplay, the rock band Muse and the soul singer Joss Stone all come from the county, while Seth Lakeman, a folk violinist and singer from Dartmoor, achieved recognition this week after securing a Nationwide Mercury Prize nomination.

While it would be hard to label the divergent talents a Devon music scene they have all proved it is possible to emerge from a rural backwater to success.

Genarro Castaldo, of HMV, said it was always much harder for musicians outside major cities to win attention. "Music is very much an urban thing. The whole idea of an underground buzz needs a large number of people and, in rural areas, you don't get that kind of a network."

HMV sold none of Lakeman's albums last week but that is now 50 a day. He will also be noticed by more people in the industry. "Being nominated gives you credibility," Mr Castaldo said.

For Lakeman, Devon is what he writes about as well as where he lives. His album, Kitty Jay, is inspired by the haunting folk stories and legends of the wild moors.

"I've always been aware of the folklore. There's such a wealth of stories in this area - they inspired [Conan Doyle's] Hound of the Baskervilles and things like that," he said. And the lack of gigs to go to had only encouraged him to make his own music, he said.

Martin comes from Whitstone, near Exeter, but he only met his fellow band members when he reached University College London.

Matthew Bellamy of Muse sounded like any other aspiring muso in a small town when he described what growing up in Teignmouth was like. "The only time the town came to life was during the summer when it turned into a vacation spot for visiting Londoners. When the summer ended they left and took all the life with them," he said.

"I felt so trapped there. My friends were either getting into drugs or music, but I gravitated towards the latter and learned how to play. That became my escape. If it weren't for the band, I would probably have turned to drugs myself."

When challenged as to how a white girl got soul, Joss Stone, too, hinted at a county less idyllic than what visitors remember. Asked if she had seen the seedy underbelly of the music industry, she said: "I've seen more dodgy stuff in Devon. People think it's all flowers and sheep - well, it ain't."

Castaldo said one theme of the artists was that they were largely white, middle-class and educated - unlike what was expected of rock stars in the past. Perhaps anyone is allowed to be a star now, he said. "You don't have to be some distressed punk who has lived in some squat to feel that you have real-life experience that you can sing about."

South-westside story

* MUSE Matthew Bellamy, above, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard met in Teignmouth. "All we used to do was hang around, smoke and listen to music. There wasn't anything else to do", Bellamy said. Signed to Moadonna's Maverick label in 1998, they have three albums: Showbiz, Origin of Symmetry and Absolution.

* JOSS STONE Soul singer Stone, now 18, grew up in Ashill near Tiverton and got her first record deal in 2002. Her debut album, The Soul Sessions, a collection of covers, stormed America even before its British release and her second, Mind, Body and Soul - all original songs - topped the album charts. She has won two Brits.

* SETH LAKEMAN The youngest of three musical brothers from Yelverton on Dartmoor, Lakeman released two solo albums on his own label, I-Scream, after working with other musicians such as Kate Rusby. He received two Radio 2 Folk Award nominations this year. His album Kitty Jay attempts to evoke the spirit of Dartmoor

* CHRIS MARTIN AND COLDPLAY Martin was born near Exeter in 1977 and began playing the piano at an early age. But he met his future bandmembers only at university in London. Coldplay, like Lakeman, was nominated for the 2005 Nationwide Mercury Prize and are now superstars. And, of course, Martin is married to the actress Gwyneth Paltrow

vendredi, juillet 22, 2005

Hard-Fi: The Staines massive

Hard-Fi came from nowhere to secure a nomination for the Mercury Prize. Ed Caesar meets their front man and founder

Published: 22 July 2005

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for Richard Archer, the front man of the quartet Hard-Fi. On 25 June, his dreams were about to come true: his band, who are arguably the hottest British act of the moment, had arrived for their first Glastonbury Festival.

"We're not doing many festivals this summer," he tells me, in the estuary tones of his Staines upbringing. "So Glastonbury was the big one. And we'd been moved up the bill on Sunday. But we were so busy over the whole weekend. We recorded an acoustic session for Radio 1 as soon as we got there, and we were meant to be doing a show on Saturday night, where we were going to meet Jerry from The Specials. That was really important to us, and we were looking forward to it."

But Hard-Fi never played that gig, and they didn't play on the Sunday. Richard had to travel back to Staines, to be at the side of his mother, who died shortly afterward. "Someone told me that, for our slot on the Sunday, the tent was completely packed, and the crowd were gagging for us to come on. The boys were gutted, although, to be honest, I wasn't thinking about it at all."

Hard-Fi had been gathering critical approval among journalists and punters since their extraordinary mini-LP Stars of CCTV was released in October, (the CD changed hands on eBay for up to £70), but to be the must-see band at Glastonbury without an album in the shops is an extraordinary achievement. And it was this fanbase that pushed their debut album, also called Stars of CCTV, to No 6 in the album charts in its first week of release this month.

"For me, it felt as if I'd finally got to the place where I'd been trying to get," says Archer. "Maybe we're not there quite yet, but we're at Base Camp. And if it hadn't been for my old man and my mum who supported me, it would have been much harder for me to get there. They always said, 'Break out of the usual circuit, you don't have to get the McJob - we'll support you all the way.' And now, the one person who really wanted to see me do well isn't around to see it. It's heartbreaking."

What makes it more heartbreaking for Archer is that he founded the band around the time that his father was dying. "I dedicated the album to my dad. My mum never got to see the final printed copy [with the dedication on it]. It was going to be a surprise for her, but she never saw it."

The Archer family would also have loved the news, this week, that Hard-Fi's debut has been nominated for the prestigious, career-defining Mercury Music Awards. Catching up with Archer in New York a week after our first interview, where the band are playing two shows on their North America tour, the singer is clearly overwhelmed.

"It's amazing. It was so weird this morning. We're on some crazy sleeping pills to help with the jet-lag, and people had been trying to phone us for the last three hours. I found out while I was still half asleep. It was all a bit unreal. To be up there with Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay, Bloc Party. There are some great acts. The fact that Coldplay spent millions on their album and we spent about 300 quid kind of vindicates our approach."

It all started, in the spring of 2004, because Archer wouldn't accept less than the best musicians he could find. "I used to see Steve [Kemp, the drummer] around Staines, and we'd talk about music. I wasn't looking for a rock drummer, I was looking for someone who could play jazz, funk, breakbeat, whatever. Steve could do that."

Despite endless auditions with people who "weren't right", Hard-Fi slowly came together. "I met up with Kai [Stephens, the bassist]," says Archer, "outside Feltham Young Offenders Institute. He was working for Rentokil, and he was doing a job at the prison. I gave him a CD and two days later he came back and he could play everything perfectly. He said he was tired of the bad karma associated with killing things for a living. He desperately wanted to be in a band."

Ross Phillips, the lead guitarist, was the last to be recruited. The brother of a friend of Archer's, he was working in a Staines hi-fi outlet when Archer came in to play his demos on the shop's stereos. "He'd be sitting there with me going, 'who is this playing guitar, coz it's shit.' It was me. So I said, 'alright, you think you can do better?' And he could. He was right on it immediately."

It was a rapid process from first gigs to recording to fame. "It was only a month or so after we had formed that we had our first gig. And it was great, it felt really natural. We were all from the same town. We all knew the same people, and it just came together immediately. It felt like a genuine gang mentality."

The music industry woke up to Hard-Fi pretty quickly too. "We'd be at a gig, and there would be a couple of A&R guys there, scratching their beards. And then, at the next one, there would be a couple more, and it just grew from there."

When asked what he thought those A&R men found interesting about Hard-Fi, Archer takes a rather circuitous route. "We've always had a sound. The thing about Staines is it's insular. We're on the outskirts of London. You can get into town easily in the day, but you can't get back late at night. So everything interesting gets sucked into London. It's a cultural wasteland."

"But because it's insular it's helped us out. We were never like, 'Oh, the NME and all our mates in Camden are telling us that we have to make this kind of sound.' So we just listened to the music that we loved, and that could be anything from soul, dub, hip hop, reggae, house. When it came to making the record - we thought the same thing. We didn't have to be just a rock band."

And so the mini-LP emerged, a blazing collection of tracks drawn from the myriad influences of Archer and the band's own record collections. But it wasn't easy.

"There are no rehearsal rooms in Staines, so we were spending an hour and a half driving up to north-west London, where we'd have three hours at a time. By the time we had our gear set up and did a number, we'd have to take it down again and go home. It was ridiculous."

"So we thought, we could rent a lock-up for two weeks for the same price. It was an old cab office, and a pretty small one too. We started rehearsing there, and then we tried recording something there, and it sounded pretty good.

"I bumped into a mate of mine [Wolsey White], who remixed it, and suddenly the whole thing had another angle. He made us work really hard about getting the sound right. He started co-producing the album for nothing."

After listening to the recorded tracks in a variety of odd locations around Staines - the cab office, the pub, White's BMW - Archer and White became more and more confident that they were heading in the right direction.

"Considering the resources we had," says Archer, "I was really proud of it. But when we put the mini-LP out I was sure we were going to get a kicking for it. There we were, writing songs with hooks, talking about the ins and outs of the everyday life of everyday people. We weren't doing what was hot."

Cue a heatwave. Record labels were soon fighting it out over who could sign Hard-Fi. Archer reveals it was a tough decision for a new band.

"We went with Atlantic because they were one of the first - it was between them and Sony. But we were wary. Once you start getting hot, all these labels want to sign you just because you're hot, not because they are into what you're doing. I think Atlantic have bought into what we're doing."

The first job Atlantic had was to turn the promise of the original mini-LP into something they could sell in HMV.

"We just went back to the cab office," laughs Archer. "Atlantic told us we could go into any studio, anywhere in the world - Abbey Road, anywhere - to record the full LP. But we thought, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Rick Rubin [the legendary American producer] had called us to say he thought it was going to be a landmark record of the 21st Century, and you ain't going to argue with him."

What emerged from the second recording session at the cab offices was a fleshed out, fuller version of the original six-track effort - a skip-free barrage of punchy hooks and lyrical wisdom. There is an arresting variety of subject matter, too, considering the band's stated aim to write music about life in their dead-end home town.

"Middle Eastern Holiday", for instance, rails against British deaths in Iraq. "I wrote it when I saw the news that six young British soldiers had been killed," recalls Archer. "It just struck me when I saw the pictures, how young they were. It's not a pro or anti-war song. It's a song about how weird it is for a guy our age to go off and do that kind of shit when all his mates are here getting drunk, going to clubs, and seeing girls. It's about that parallel universe."

Archer is equally lucid about "Move On Now", the only ballad on the album, and one of the greatest songs ever written about Heathrow Airport.

"I don't know how many songs have been written about Heathrow. But I wrote it just after my old man had died. If you look out of my bedroom window in Staines, planes take off from Heathrow every 90 seconds, and when they take off, a red light flashes on one wing, and a green light flashes on the other. I could only see the red light. It's tracing a route out of where you are. The whole song is about wanting to get the hell out of Staines and experience something different, something better than what you've got."

It could be the tagline for the entire album. But the songwriting skill is only as important as the heady mix of punk, ska and funk influences that pervade Hard-Fi's music, particularly the music of The Jam and The Specials.

"I think it gets overplayed," says Archer. "Someone asked us what decade we were influenced by. We're influenced by this decade. This is the one we're living through. What's the point in recreating the sound of 30 years ago? We're influenced by it, and moved by the spirit of it, but we've lived through a massive dance culture in our lifetime. How can we ignore that?"

"We take things and make them our own. All the great British bands - and, for me, I'm talking about The Rolling Stones, The Clash, The Specials, Dexys, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Massive Attack, and maybe The Streets - they've always taken influences and made them their own. That's a great British tradition."

It is this heady catalogue of great bands which Hard-Fi aspire to emulate. So when Q magazine calls Hard-Fi "the next great British band", should we believe it? "We don't believe the hype," says Archer. "And we've always said that when people write nice things about you, it's great. And when people play your record on the radio, it's great. But it is not until the man on the street puts his hand in his pocket and buys the album, or comes and sees a gig, that it means anything. That's when they are saying, 'I'm part of this - and I want to be connected to it.'"

It must be particularly gratifying, then, for Archer and his Hard-Fi mates to see 30,000 copies of their album shipped in a week.

"Yeah, it's pretty exciting, especially considering we had to pull Glastonbury, but we still look at James Blunt with his 90,000 albums a week. We're thinking, 'hello, that's what we want.'"

But for a punk-infused four-piece from Staines to hit No 6 in the first week of their debut album is impressive. It has certainly infused Archer with a quiet confidence.

"I personally think we've got what it takes to be the next major British band," he says, "but it's not just about turning up. It's down to us."

'Stars of CCTV' is out now on Atlantic

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.

dimanche, juillet 17, 2005

Bjork: The Life Aquatic

When Björk started going out with the American artist Matthew Barney, they solemnly vowed never to work together. So why have they just collaborated on Barney's new film? And why is Björk all soggy?

James McNair met the greatest living Icelander to talk about the sea, Hiroshima, movies and the abiding guilt of the white American male...

Published: 17 July 2005

A posh hotel in central London. In a quiet ground floor room prettified by an expanse of stained glass, Björk's manager Scott is parked on a chaise longue. He is booting-up his Powerbook. He is about to grant me a sneak preview of a film shot in Nagasaki Bay, Japan, aboard the whaling vessel Nisshin Maru. Costing around £6m to make, and filmed so beautifully that random pauses generate stunning stills, Drawing Restraint 9 is the work of Matthew Barney, the American multimedia artist who also happens to be Björk's husband. Barney is also the father of Björk's two-year-old daughter, Isadora.

We don't have much time, so we mouse-click through various scenes: Björk and Barney dressed in mammal furs and apparently engaged in an intimate courtship ritual; lush footage of the Japanese pearl-diving girls know as amas; Björk and Barney in a "magic-realist" sequence in which they cut away each other's limbs with flensing knives, their bodies now seen to have the beginnings of whale tails.

Strange? You bet. But then the first creative collaboration between Björk and her enfant terrible husband was never going to be humdrum. After all, Barney is the man whose Cremaster Cycle sequence of films took its name from the muscle that determines the height of a man's testicles - which did not stand in the way of the work becoming the subject of a recent acclaimed retrospective at Guggenheim New York.

Movie preview over, I'm escorted up to Björk's hotel suite. She is wearing a floor-length blue silk dress by Vivienne Westwood, and hums softly to herself as I fiddle with my recording machine. She seems much younger than her 39 years, partly because of her habit of pulling child-like, almost feral facial expressions. "I must be the only person in London with woollen shoes on," she smiles, mindful that it's 30C outside. With that, she takes off a pump/stiletto hybrid and holds it up for us to admire. It is indeed decorated with grey and yellow wool.

Björk has written the soundtrack album for Drawing Restraint 9, in addition to acting in the film. According to the press release, the core theme of the film is "the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity". But whatever themes it explores - and whaling culture, the value of ritual and the possibility of physical/artistic rebirth figure, too - it certainly isn't the kind of plot-driven flick you might rent at your local Blockbuster.

"There's very little dialogue in the film," says Björk, twitching her nose. "You could speak to five different people and get five different interpretations. Matthew is first and last a sculptor. He invents his own mythology and looks at his movies as a way to tell the story of why his sculptures got made. It's not something I would say, particularly, but some people compare his films to stuff like Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. You just have to enjoy Matthew's films; it's not, 'Oh, what happens next?'"

In the opening scene of Drawing Restraint 9, we see an elegant Japanese woman engaged in a present-wrapping ritual. The accompanying music is "Gratitude", a gorgeous new Björk composition featuring the recessive American songwriter Will Oldham and harpist Zeena Parkins.

The song's lyrics derive from real letters sent by Japanese citizens to America's General Douglas MacArthur in 1946, thanking him for lifting a ban on Japanese whaling around the Antarctic. This seems a remarkably magnanimous act on the part of the letter writers given that the US bombing of Hiroshima was still fresh in their collective memory. As Oldham sings, we intuit that the gift being wrapped on-screen - a prehistoric fossil relative of the modern krill "that feeds the noble whale" - is for MacArthur. Drawing Restraint 9, it seems fair to say, is Matthew Barney's gift back to the Japanese.

"Using the letters was Matthew's idea," says Björk. "He was commissioned to make the film by the Kanazawa Museum Of Contemporary Art, and it's been interesting for me as an Icelandic person to see how he's dealt with that. Iceland doesn't have any guilt baggage because we didn't treat any country awfully during the Second World War. But for Matthew, a man who was born in San Francisco in 1967 - when he thinks of Japan the first thing that comes to mind is Hiroshima. It's made me realise how complicated it is to be an intelligent white American male these days.

"That was one of the reasons I asked Will Oldham to sing 'Gratitude'," she goes on. "He and Matthew have that shared history. They sort of accept the guilt and sort of don't, because there's part of them that respects old-school American values from before the world wars and 9/11 and everything. They don't want to associate themselves with a lot of American stuff, but are forced to in a way. I thought getting an American to sing the song rather than a Japanese person gave it more power. I mean, why on earth would the Japanese thank MacArthur when the US had just bombed them?"

Drawing Restraint 9 is not Björk's first soundtrack, of course. She wrote SelmaSongs, the score for Lars von Trier's troubling, some claim misogynous, musical Dancer in the Dark in 2000, music composed even as she rehearsed the film's lead role. But while making her big screen debut as near-blind Czech immigrant Selma famously drained Björk and left her unsure about further acting - "Lars has a way of throwing petrol on your soul," she said last year; playing alongside her husband, she says, was "inevitable". Nevertheless, one fan website has already cited her project with Barney as worrying proof that "she's going a bit Yoko Ono." Did she and her husband have any misgivings about collaboration?

"I guess we had some worries," she offers when pressed. "When we first met one of the first things we said to each other was, 'Let's never work together.' We just wanted that boyfriend/girlfriend thing; that was the priority. But in the end it was easier to do a project together than not. We were going to the same places, meeting the same people, and listening to the same music. In a funny way, the soundtrack and screenplay for this movie is based on those shared experiences, but knowing Matthew I'm sure there are 20 other layers of meaning I'm not aware of."

Aboard the Nisshin Maru for up to five days at a time, they breakfasted on whale sushi having slept in spartan cabins alongside Japanese sailors (whom Björk found reassuringly macho) - a challenge for Barney, given that he was initially susceptible to seasickness. Eventually finding his sea-legs, the artist sculpted a life-sized whale figure from Vaseline. "It coagulated on the deck, and he got the whalers to cut it up as though it was a real whale," says his wife. This ritual flensing naturally found its way into the film.

The time spent at sea had a deep impact on Björk's musical contribution too. "Pearl" begins with the sound of the pearl-diving girls hyper-ventilating; the strident brass arrangement on "Hunter Vessel" was inspired by ship sounds in her native Iceland. "I live near the harbour in Reykjavik, and ships are being repaired all the time outside my window," she says. "I've expressed to Matthew many times that I'm obsessed with ships, and I thought it would be great to make some kind of ship symphony."

Perhaps the sea itself has become an obsession for Björk. "Well, it's a big subject," she smiles. "Two-thirds of the world is ocean. Matthew and I are actually thinking about selling one of our houses in New York to buy a boat. It could be our home and our studio and we could travel around and drop the anchor wherever we found inspiration. I don't know why we didn't think of it before."

Another reason why living on a boat might appeal to Björk and Barney is that it would grant them more of the privacy they guard so zealously. For all the flamboyancy of their respective creations, they have successfully managed to shield their relationship from prying lenses. But then, ever since Björk clobbered a journalist for invading her son Sindri's space at Bangkok airport, Heat magazine and the like have tended to keep their distance.

Even now, there are moments when her defences are primed. When I ask Björk if Barney was pleased with her soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, her guard comes up immediately. She chooses her words carefully. "I haven't asked him straight out like that," she says slowly, "but I think I would have known along the way if he wasn't happy with it. He says, 'Give me some aggressive shit,' and I say, 'Okay, I get it.' I go to my studio, he leaves me to it, I bring the music to him and it's spot on. That only happens when you know a person really well."

And what of the weird cover image on the Drawing Restraint 9 CD? It's a still from the film, and features a strange hybrid figure, a cross between a clown, a fireman, and a lab worker. It's not easy to explain why, but it's an unsettling image.

"Oh, he sort of plays the prankster role," says Björk. "We have this guy in Icelandic mythology called Loki, and he's a bit like that. He's the wild card; the character who fucks things up. The equivalent in the Tarot deck would be The Magician, I suppose."

Whatever their eccentricities (it is, let's face it, hard to imagine Björk and Barney watching EastEnders over a cuppa), the pair share a fierce work ethic and a passion for pushing the artistic envelope. Björk estimates Barney and his small team of technicians shot Drawing Restraint 9 in less than seven weeks, while she wrote and recorded the soundtrack in six months, her quickest solo album turn-around to date. "There was a lot of not sleeping happening," she observes.

The couple also took care to ensure their project paid homage to Japanese culture without being either patronising or simplistic. Spending the whole of last November in the country, they travelled to five different cities in the South, then on to Yakushima, a rainforest and waterfall-rich island 135km south of Kagoshima City, Kyushu. Björk had been keen to visit Yakushima since learning it was the setting for Princess Mononoke, a technically astounding animation by the Ghibli Studio, sometimes referred to in the West as "the Disney of the East".

Björk wore a kimono for the cover of 1997's Homogenic, conspicuously flagging up her interest in Japan and its culture, but her fascination with the country began in adolescence. She says that, as a teenager, she was obsessed with the place. She would eat sushi by the boatload, pore over books on Zen Buddhism, and read novels by Yukio Mishima, whose The Sailor who Fell from\ Grace with the Sea would have an obvious allure for the singer.

"At one point I even applied to study at a Japanese animation school," she adds. "I was going to go, too, but then I joined some band." (That band was Tappi Tikarass, whose name translates from the Icelandic as "cork the bitch's arse". Björk was 17 at the time, the precocious, self-titled album she'd recorded as a child already six years in her rear-view. By the time she began co-fronting The Sugarcubes aged 21, her musical career was in its second decade.)

Her artistic vision remains stringent. While writing the score for Drawing Restraint 9 she consulted a virtuoso sho player, to try to get her head round this traditional reed instrument and its many quirks. The sho is properly made from bamboo blackened above a fireplace, and is built to loosely resemble a phoenix, the mythical bird and the instrument both having an association with fire.

"It's a very peculiar instrument, because it only has 15 notes," explains the composer. "It's very tricky to play, and for purely aesthetic reasons, it's shaped a bit like your hands if you put them like this [makes praying gesture]. It fits in with the 'restraint' theme of the album title very nicely, actually.

"After I met [the sho virtuoso] Mayumi, I had about two months to write for her. So it was a lot of research, a lot of Google." Did she have a go on the sho herself? "Well, I asked Mayumi, but she looked at me like, are you kidding? There is no fucking way you are gonna be able to play this. Full respect, though: it's very personal and part of a unique tradition."

For the record, how does she go about scoring for sho, harp and brass, instruments she doesn't actually play? "I use a computer program called Sibelius which notates things for you," she explains. "You have a virtual sheet of manuscript paper and you write the music in using the mouse. Sibelius is great because it has loads of different instrument sounds and you can work with just your laptop and headphones. You write a line, press play, and you can hear it immediately. You don't have to be Mozart, storing it all up in your head."

Does she have a favourite film music composer?

"What I most admire is when the film and the score are seamless, and one plus one makes five. Alfred Hitchcock's stuff with Bernard Herrmann is a good example. Although I'm not fan of Hitchcock or thrillers particularly, the relationship between the music and the visuals in The Ghost and Mrs Muir is almost perfect. You can't imagine one without the other. It's the same with Stanley Kubrick. He had a really sensitive, deep understanding of using music in film, even although a lot of the music he used wasn't composed specifically for him. Something like 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example, but just generally speaking, it's the music that drives his films forward."

And then, alas, Scott calls time on the interview. Björk smiles and we shake hands. Next up, she says, is a round-table session with several journalists from Japan. Passing them on the way out, I notice two of them are carrying beautifully wrapped presents. m

Matthew Barney's 'Drawing Restraint 9' premiered in Kanazawa, Japan earlier this month. Björk's soundtrack of the same name is out on One Little Indian, 25 July

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.