An evening with Spy From Moscow

“So if that’s Ireland”, his fingers trace the shape of the glass, “and there’s Dublin, and there’s Belfast, then I’m from just here, in the North, but on the border.” Declan Feenan, better known as Spy From Moscow, leans across the table and gathers the half-full pint in his hand, his smile already on the edge of laughter.

Much of our conversation with Declan is like this. He’s enthusiastic, warm and completely lacking in any kind of pretention.

We meet downstairs at The Hope & Ruin – the lower part of one of Brighton’s famous music venues, with its broken-down, higgledy-piggledy furniture and band posters pegged to washing lines strung haphazardly across the windows – to discuss all things Spy From Moscow.

“I studied English, just a generic McDonald’s degree, and then I came to London to start a band and ended up writing plays.. and just personal circumstances, I ended up, one day, just deciding I’m gonna do music again… collaborating with other musicians has been more of a thing for me the last few years than sitting in a room with a blank page.. I will get back to it.”

You get the sense from Declan that, while working alone is something he enjoys, currently he finds greater satisfaction in the collaborative process. Either way, beneath the laid-back demeanour, is someone compelled to make art. Lately, he has been working hard on his new single and video, The Priests of London Fields, which is due out in the autumn, and the city clearly has a grip on his heart.

“I landed in London to stay for 6 months and then it was 12 years later. Fell in love with it, fell out of love. Fell in love.. so I’ve stayed ever since.. don’t know if you’ve ever been to London Fields in Hackney? You should go, on a Saturday it’s an interesting place.”

I wonder whether his writing background has an impact on how he approaches music.

“When I listen to music I don’t think about lyrics, I just think about the music.. I’m really keen on capturing atmosphere in a lyric rather than a message. So it’s not what does it means, it’s how does it feel.. I kinda write androgynous lyrics.”

Declan is just back from a European tour and I ask him whether he struggles to balance his music with his day job (working for a housing charity in London).  “It’s quite easy” he responds, shrugging his shoulders. “You’ve gotta have the skills to pay the bills.”

 

**********

 

Upstairs, The Hope & Ruin is a dark and dingy sweatbox, stripped of all excess and hungry for music. It has fantastic sound, and as Declan’s guitar roars into life, reverberating across the room, there is a rugged intimacy between artist and audience.

Tonight is a stripped back show for Spy from Moscow, so it’s just Declan with a guitar and a bunch of pedals cracking out some fucking songs – as he would put it. For 45 minutes, he is imperious, the fragile, raw beauty of his voice punctuated by surging, angry guitar noise. There is a necessary intensity to his music which is only accentuated by the location.

He’s a restless, mesmeric force, always trying to get closer to the sound he hears in his head. This isn’t about the size of the band – though he admits he’d like to have the resources to do something superbig”, but about how it feels.

 “I’m more about capturing atmosphere and a feeling than telling somebody how to vote. I think that’s a wasted journey as a musician.. There’s an emotional landscape that you can explore.”

You can buy the Little War EP by Spy From Moscow here.

And he’ll be in Brighton playing at The Gladstone on 6th July. 

 

 

Down The Rabbit Hole, Part 1

quiff2The weekend is a broken ornament, a beautiful twisted relic lying fractured on the floor, glistening in the early summer sun. I stagger as I lean down to pick through the myriad pieces – the rabbit hole; the headphone dancers; the Strang man; the sunken wreck; the land time forgot; the synthetic dream; the funfair; and the rolling stone – because I’m bewitched.

It’s early Friday evening when we stumble into the Alice in Wonderland bar, the rush of alcohol washing us down the rabbit hole and out onto the street with an awkward step. Our guides await us, a stylish mess standing in that graceful, honest way that only the young and reckless can manage, like rocks sliding down a deserted hillside.

It’s a warm evening, the air fragrant with the hypnotic scent of freshly bloomed flowers and freshly smoked marijuana. People throng around us, a clash of festivals – music and theatre – belching forth an eclectic brand of modern madness. A congregation mill around us, giant lanyards strung around their necks so that they resemble oversized children with a day pass to the theme park. A man on stilts tiptoes between them making regular, ovoid laps, his head bouncing back and forth like a jack in the box, his smile a sea of teeth. A band of brave dancers tear through the centre, headphones pinned to their ears as they swagger and sway to a song no one else can hear. Our senses buckle but hold and we are transported.

The shop, built to hold 15, already holds 50 and as the band gather behind a hastily assembled stack of speakers, more push through until we are a mass of heat and sweat and spilt lager barely a hand’s width away from the men from Madrid. The drummer, yellow cape cascading down his back, counts a beat, the guitar roars into life and we explode, a spiralling corkscrew of expectant energy. At the heart of it, one of our guides conducts the chaos, bouncing and buffeting but immovable, the room pivoting around him. The Parrots adore us as much as we adore them, their crazed brand of 60’s punk-pop psychedelia is a deafening roar overwhelming and empowering us all.

20 minutes pass as if time were racing against itself and, suddenly, we stand briefly alone and forlorn until a DJ presses the needle to a 7 inch. Beguiled, we consider asking him for the name of the song, instead reaching for our phones and then, Shazam! We are away again.

We drop anchor at a crowded bar, a swell of distracted chatter obstructing any path to the bar. In the far corner a fairly decent band are broadly ignored. Someone needs to take charge of this menagerie before momentum is lost. We need a Strang man. He emerges from the side, skinny and wilful, powering his way to the front, and we follow in his wake. There is a restless buzz to Kane Strang’s music, his artful 90’s DIY pop a mask worn to obscure the doubts and fears that are strewn within his lyrics.

Outside, we cast the stragglers onto a passing truck as it pauses to recruit. In the gathering night, glowsticks twist leaving an echo of colour in the air, bass thumps through our bodies and many are drawn away to a brighter, noisier future.

We stagger and smoke, somnambulant as we await the call. Sound reverberates from the depths, a forgotten wind whispering and whistling in the distance, the press of a single ivory rising above the quiet cacophony as if from a long forgotten piano in the bar of some sunken wreck. Our guides return to lead us by the hand, plunging downward towards the seductive melancholy until we are submerged, happy to never to return.

Matt Maltese’s vocals are dark and heady. His lyrics, visceral and harsh. His music, warm like the barrel of a fired gun. He is where we end part one.

Cobbled Together

 

There is a great line in Julian Barne’s The Sense of An Ending, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” In life we narrate our personal history to new friends and share it with old friends.

I tell you this because two days ago I was explaining someone about the first time that I saw Pavement, at V Festival some 22 years ago. At the time, I was young and uneducated in the ways of music and I only went to the festival to see Blur headline. I have particularly strong memories of this day as I went to the festival by myself taking a coach and spending the day wandering around with 50,000 strangers, alone but happy. It was my first, real musical odyssey.

I’d heard one Pavement song (the sly, cutting ramble of Shady Lane which I had picked up on promo from a record fare) beforehand and was aware that Graham Coxon liked them so went to see what it was all about. They played in the summer sun and, unsurprisingly in hindsight, were considerably better than Space who came on afterwards.

Except that, that verifiable sources tell me this is not true. The V festival that I went to was actually two years later, which means I wasn’t young and uneducated in the ways of music. In fact, I’d already spent a year haunting the DJ booths at university,  chasing new music and wanting to know everything about everything played in a now all-too familiar way.

Pavement wouldn’t have been a mystery to me. By this point Brighten The Corners adorned my CD collection like a badge of alternative slacker honour. It also means that there’s absolutely no way Space were at that music festival (thankfully) and it’s unlikely that it was my first musical odyssey, it’s just the one that I unclearly remember.

Still, it’s important to me because I fell in love with Pavement that day. Their loose idle, waywardness hiding a subtle brilliance in both song structure and lyrical wit. They lolled around the stage being magnificent and became the first band that I truly wanted to be in. I’d see them twice again after that but this was the moment.

So I’m blessed that tonight a number of excellent bands are gathering in Brighton to  pay homage to Pavement. If you’re  in the vicinity you should come down and check out Can Shaker Pi, Fur and The Geisha Girls. This is bound to be an evening of thrills, spills and serious musical joy.

In the meantime, join the discussion on the Skewed Quiff Facebook page where we’ll be sharing our top 3 Pavement tracks and talking to some of the bands about their favourite tracks.

 

 

Dark side of the tune

It’s not exactly profound to suggest that there is a link between the quality of art produced and the state of the world. Yes, art requires funding and support and education and people to have enough time and money to both enjoy it and pay for enjoying it. And, yes, there is a point at which art becomes basically impossible for people because they have neither the time or resources to make or enjoy it. However, it’s also true that some of the greatest art comes from some of the most difficult times. That for many artists struggle is an important part of their process. That it’s how they find their voice. Every protest needs an anthem.

In music, you can look at the folk and blues that came out of dustbowl, depression era America, or the rise of punk and new wave from the industrial meltdown of late 70’s and early 80’s England. To me, it feels like the last year has resonated in a similar way to those times.

The rise of far right, nationalistic, xenophobic politics magnified through the prism of Brexit and Trump. The never-ending crises of war, poverty and famine leading to an explosion of  refugees who are seemingly to blame for having nowhere safe to call home. The continual failings of modern capitalism to balance individual freedom with societal responsibility leaving meritocracy as a fading dream. And all this punctuated by moments of terror about which we must show no fear, because to do so would be to give the criminals that enact these horrors exactly what they want.

Meanwhile the music has got better and harder and more honest. In the States, alternate hip-hop – led by a vanguard of YG and the returning A Tribe Called Quest – has found it’s voice again. Musically, the spectrum is as broad as it’s ever been and the beats as strong. Lyrically, there is a new-found vigour. No one is going quietly into the night.

KXNG Crooked’s Alternative Facts seems almost whimsical at first. Over a lackadaisical beat you’re encouraged to lie to your girlfriend, your boss, the police and your family. And why the hell not? After all, if the President can do it, why shouldn’t you?

The message here is really important. It’s not just about what Trump does, it’s also about what he represents. What does it teach us when the ‘leader of the free world’  thinks it’s not only okay to lie, but also that it’s not a lie if enough people believe it to be true.

Mr Wise’s The Man of Orange is a menacing first person encounter with the mind of Donald Trump. The President’s own words are swallowed whole and spat out again in angry roar. As I learnt to my cost, you shouldn’t listen to this at full volume in your car,  unless you want to give people the wrong impression.

And we haven’t even touched the excellent new tracks by Joey Bada$$ and J. Cole. Maybe, another day, because I can’t get through this blog without mentioning the fantastic ‘Our First 100 Days’. 100 artists, 100 songs, one for each of the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. This compilation has been providing fuel to my musical fire for months now and if you haven’t got on board with it, then you should. For a minimum donation of $30 you too can have all these tracks. Not only is this a complete bargain but all the profits go to charities fighting for LGBTQ rights, sensible climate change and immigration policies, and access to safe, objective family planning options. If you haven’t got the point yet, this project  gives me a warm, tingly feeling and that’s before we’ve talked about the music.

Adam Torres is relatively new to me but has been quietly stretching the Americana envelope for a decade now (his 2008 record Nostra Nova, in particular, is really great). Dreamers in America is melancholy and gorgeous:

Nathan Bowles is a fantastic banjo player from Virginia. His track the I In The Silence gently quakes my heart, reminding me a little of Dirty Three in their quieter moments:

I cried when I first heard the Piano Version of Julien Baker’s Good News. Her album from last year, Sprained Ankle, was pretty great but this is a wonderful, if brutal 4 minutes:

Most of these songs appear on  May’s Skewed Quiff. You should listen to it and then go and buy some music.

1 Arabesque by Pronto Mama
2 Different Now by Chastity Belt
3 Mockingbird (w/ Mimikyu) by Luupy
4 Two Of The Lucky Ones by The Droge & Summer Blend
5 Luxury Vintage Rap by Nick Grant
6 Keston Cobblers Club by Almost Home
7 Filthy Boy by Mental Conditions
8 The I In Silence by Nathan Bowles
9 Imagining My Man by Aldous Harding
10 Good News (Piano Version) by Julien Baker
11 Moonfire by Boy & Bear
12 Let The Drums Speak (Dj XS Right Thing Edit) by Bah Samba
13 Walk Don’t Run by Chimney
14 Animals by Laura Gibson
15 High For Hours by J. Cole
16 Hot Thoughts by Spoon
17 Hey Can You Come Out And Play by Megan Sue Hicks
18 Bird by Kelly Lee Owens
19 Permanent by Carla Sagan
20 Vintage Red by Jay Jay Pistolet

1 Do The Whirlwind by Architecture in Helsinki
2 Sparkle (Teck-Zilla Remix) by Camp Lo
3 The Lives Of Elevators (Findspire live session) by Orouni
4 Chance The Dog (The Song) by The Kraken Quartet
5 Predator by Will Johnson
6 The Sea by Eliza Carthy
7 Turncoat by Pickwick
8 Alternative Facts by KXNG Crooked
9 Smoke Of Dreams by Thurston Moore
10 Laminated Cat by Jeff Tweedy
11 Can’t Hold On by Black Lips
12 One More Love song by Mac Demarco
13 The Man of Orange (prod. by Team Demo) by Mister Wise
14 Modern Highway by Luke Abbott
15 Hellhound in The House by Hip Hatchet
16 Halfway Home by Broken Social Scene
17 Caramel Dreams by Blue Movies
18 Just A Dream (Alternate Take) by Bert Jansch
19 Lil Dead Eye-d by Richard Edwards
20 End Of The World by Sharon Van Etten

Those Sudden Nights

It had been a week of sleepless nights, and now in the brief respite of day, the glorious early spring sun has left the world saturated and overexposed. Colours shudder and linger, the passing landscape a haze of lines behind a cloudy, childhood cordial of sky. My thoughts crackle and pop like dry wood on an open fire, splintering in a thousand directions before collapsing in an ashy mess.

Somewhere down the road a cherry picker has died and I’m stuck in snaking, growling backlog of impatience. A trickle of sweat rolls inexorably and itchily down my spine and my hand shakes as it raises the cigarette, warm and tarry and harsh, to my mouth. My fingers flicker over the buttons of the car stereo, incessantly seeking distraction.

Middle Kid are the latest in a fine stream of Australian bands finding global recognition. Never Start is the quiet roar of repressed anger, of not knowing why, of knowing that you’re gonna pick a fight because you need to pick a fight. It’s wild and messy and an utter joy. I scream along to it, much to the amusement of the surrounding pack.

Sacred Paws are a two piece London/Glasgow reggae/riot grrl hybrid who have just released their debut album on Mogwai’s Rock Action label. They are jittering pulse, all poise on the surface, wayward and wild underneath. I sway like a broken stalk in the breeze.

We stutter forward and Hamburg’s Sick Hyenas fill the void with a wall of surf that crashes over my body shaking loose the fillings in my teeth, bending muscle and bone to it’s will. I’m home again, my home away from home: Saturday night’s pressed up to the edge of a stage the world washed away by the flood of noise.

All of these songs (and lots of marvellous other ones appear) on this month’s Skewed Quiff:

 

 

 

 

 

Treading carefully

The problem with life – because there’s only one problem with life, obviously – is that you constantly want to embrace new things, to be mesmerised by the wonder of something new and vibrant and beautiful but that you often don’t notice what you’ve lost along the way.

Taking music as an example (and Quiff is as bad as most for this) new music is too available to us now. We can get it when we want it and can organise and arrange it as we want it. Artists no longer need traditional means to get their work to you and this means there is a profundity of music out there. There is a bygone era where you had to go a shop and buy a record if you wanted to listen to it, now it’s a few clicks away and – if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor – the shelves are infinitely long and wide and fully stocked with every type of music you could imagine.

This is a wonderous thing, I truly fucking love it, but along the way the ease of access and sheer volume of choice has meant that we have stopped listening to albums anywhere near as much as we used to. Albums should be the high point of a musicians output. Months, years even, put aside to the creation of a singular object. All that heart poured into a perfectly formed hour. Getting an album right is hard, much harder than writing one great song, but the reward for both performer and listener is so much greater.

At this point some of you’re thinking either a) fuck, this is a long and fairly inane introduction or b) fuck, this is hypocritical for a blog that puts out a compilation of 40 odd tracks a month all by different artists, sourced almost wholly from the Internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were thinking both.

So, by way of explanation, this blog came about because earlier this week someone asked me what albums I’d been listening to and I didn’t have much to say. As a result, I decided to list some of my favourite LPs of the year so far so that you can indulge yourself in something special:

Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Marling’s six album may be my favourite yet. This is an artist at the height of her powers, musically and lyrically.

 

Jay Som – Everybody Works

A record of endearingly anxious and frazzled bedroom rock that twists and twirls through different styles. It’s frankly lovely.

Tinariwen – Elhan

Masterful, driving desert blues crossed with American folk. I struggle to see how anyone couldn’t love this.

Patch & The Giant – All that We Had We Stole

London based folk excellence from Patch. Recorded with care and love this is the album that captures their live sound and should catapult them towards stardom. Instead, they’ll probably just end up with a Radio 2 folk award nomination.

Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s gone

I’ve banged on enough about Loyle in the past but this is a great record. Refusing to bow to the huge pressure to make a bunch of ‘bangers’ and hit the radio 1 playlist hard, Loyle has done what he does and made an intimate, funny and warm album. More like this please.

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

I’ve saved room for a little bit of bleak in here. There is heartbreak and wisdom writ large across this record.

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

Priests debut album is so cool and considered it hurts. Sometimes a band just knows what it’s doing.

 

From Here: English Folk Recordings (Compilation)

A while back a few people decided it would be wise to wander around the UK getting a bunch of folk artists to record a song from their local area. It was wise.

 

Michael Chapman – Fully Qualified Survivor (reissue)

Imagine that it’s 1970 and Bowie and Jansch decide to make a record together. Imagine that it’s actually great. This has just had a vinyl reissue and is a necessity for your collection.

 

Many of these tracks either appear on this month’s new Quiff or last the two months. All of those can be checked out here:

Give them  a listen and then get down to your local record shop and buy some lovely, lovely albums.

Something From The Weekend

Friday night is fuelled by release. Release from work, release from pressure, release from the everyday irritations that add up to being responsible. We are in the pub for a truly English end of week, an intoxicating blend of overpriced drinks, empty stomachs and sexual tension descending on us like an invisible mist, whispering through our skin, driving us to frenzy like a plot device in some mid-budget horror movie.

Conversations happen in brief, random bursts, individuals and groups colliding with each other before spinning away, a shower of flames and debris left in their wake. The carefully preserved mask of social niceties cracks and frays. There is emotion here, love and joy and anger and fear, too much emotion. So, we pack away what we see and hear and do tonight, an unwritten pact that let’s us embrace the wild nothing. Only God Knows what happened.

Saturday is bathed in glorious sunshine and we nestle under trees, the sunlight dappling across our skin, the breeze crisp and sharp through our hair. We form a chain, a factory line of alcoholic intent, each person with their designated ingredient, lime, mint, sugar, soda water or rum. We consume slowly but methodically and as the light descends we rise and play.

Under the glow of paper lanterns, half a dozen people serenade a dashing hero, the rhythmic pulse of guitar battling with a tinny speaker lost somewhere on the ground. Some gather in the corners, plotting and planning and promising a series of events that will most probably never happen. Others sit cynically aloof, both actor and audience in this little play. Philosophy, culture and politics flirt with inanity and a quiet joy settles across the fallen paper cups and picnic blankets.  There is chaos here, as before, but it’s benign, gentle almost.  We whirl and cartwheel and cavort only standing still long enough for a photograph.

Sunday feels like a mistake, as if someone else has commandeered our bodies and then left us to pick up the pieces. The world smells of fresh vomit and stale bodies and tiredness kicks like an angry mule. I spend an unnecessary amount of time wondering whether I’m empty or worthless, as if there should be a winner, as if a decisive vote one way or the other would at least give me a path to follow.

Fortunately, I’m rescued by a call to arms, an overly ambitious walk and the warmth of dear friends. We continue as we left off, cocktails in hand, quietly, happily watching the weekend collapse. The sky drifts from blue to grey, the sea mist rolling across the streets, the heat dissipating within minutes. We sit and shiver and smile, cigarettes glowing in the darkness, a comfortable silence embracing us. It could be the apocalypse. To my addled mind it feels like the apocalypse. We should be miserable, but no one is.

All of these tracks will be appearing on the new Skewed Quiff, which should be with you this week. In the interim there’s loads of fantastic music here.

Tues Gaze

The new Skewed Quiff is almost upon us. All it requires at this point is for me to actually get my shit together and do something, which may have to wait a few more days as I’ve been enjoying one of my more maudlin periods of late. Okay, so enjoying may be a little strong but there’s definitely something in my personality that revels in an occasional mope.

As such, I’m as excited (or coolly disinterested) about the new records about to drop from indie stalwarts Slowdive and The Jesus & Mary Chain. The rejuvenation of the shoegaze scene has been truly serendipitous – given my recent mood. It would, however, be remiss, and out of character, if I focused on these fairly well-known artists. There are a bunch of bands out there who have listened to these great bands and then done it their own way.

Luxury Death are a Manchester based duo who’ve just launched the Glue EP – as a follow-up to two singles from last year. Listerine is a wall of chilling organ broken by a sweet duet of vocals and warm washes of furry, fuzzy guitar. It’s as if life could be washed away by something as simple as a 3 minute song, as simple as mouthwash:

You can buy the ep from Luxury Death’s bandcamp page.

Rebel Kind released their 3rd full length album in December and amazingly it got lost in the pile of stuff I was listening while compiling my end of year lists. Since then Just for Fools’ brutal simplicity has been burrowing into my consciousness like an angry realisation. This is just one of those songs that refuses to be overlooked:

You can grab the new record here.

Teen Daze is a Canadian producer who, despite being five albums deep, has previously escaped my attention. His newest record Themes for Dying Earth came out last month with the track First Rain catching my attention because it featured S. Carey (an artist who featured on a Quiff some time back in the dark ages). This is a beautiful slice of ambient wonder that hangs in that moment just before dawn, the icy chill of a winter’s night ebbing away in the rising heat of a spring morning:

You’ll be shocked to discover that this too can be found on Bandcamp.

All of these tracks will, eventually, feature on March’s Skewed Quiff. I’ll pop a link up when that actually happens..

Saving private Ryan

Many a moon ago, I had a friend who, within the social group, was surreptitiously known as Private Ryan. The mention of this nickname was usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and quiet chuckles. Ironic nicknames are of course a staple of an Englishman’s diet – see Little John for a good example of this exceedingly high-brow humour – and this was no different. Ryan’s love life was a ever-revolving shit-show of infatuation, impetuousness, irritation and implosion played out in front of our increasingly agitated gaze.

Being young, I had this conceit that I would solve this problem. Not only that, but that I would solve it by writing a song entitled Saving Private Ryan (I’ve mentioned before that I like a pun, right?). I even, at one point, wrote some lyrics about how the reasons we get together with a person are always greater than the petty recriminations of late night conversations. The lyrics were about as good as that sentence so you’ll be amazed to hear that the idea never came to fruition – and not just because I couldn’t get the rights for the song title.

Time slid by in that haphazard, jolting way that it does and I’d long since forgotten about Private Ryan until I heard the opening track from this month’s Quiff. Jon Parks is an American artist who seems to have decided that Canada is much more his thing. He writes pensive, florescent pop songs with a stylistic nod towards Neil Hannon or John Grant though without the biting satire that marks their work. If they are a main meal, Parks is the indulgent dessert.

I Don’t Wanna Fight Anymore is a rare breed. It seemingly only has one idea but it’s an idea so good that if your ears had arms they’d cuddle you:

If you like this then you should check out all of the Mercy EP, Park’s first new material for a decade.

Even if you don’t like this then you should still listen to the first half of this month’s Quiff which is jam-packed with awesome:

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