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Perhaps because the musical landscape shifts so relentlessly, it feels like an awfully long time since John Peel died. In a post-Peel era, The Arctic Monkeys have been twice asked to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury; Dizzee Rascal has navigated a path from the underground to his current position to a place beyond stardom: the Sun-sponsored Raging Bull of grime. Elbow’s status as national treasures has become so unassailable that their singer can be found on CBeebies ushering the nation’s pre-schoolers to dreamland. Oh, and hapless indie triers Snow Patrol didn’t split up in a blaze of apathy. They pack arenas with their ubiquitous Relate-rock anthems.
In pop’s sheltered margins, however, the pace is less frantic. Perhaps because Oly Ralfe’s subdued cinematic narratives have yet to catch flame, commercially speaking, they still feel like a newish thing. A thing that might yet happen in the wider world. And because of that newishness, it’s all the more surprising to pore over a few old reviews and note that their early days overlap with the final months of Peel, who declared himself a fan of the group. For Peel, Ralfe Band’s USP was the fact that “it’s difficult to tell who they’ve been listening to.” Nine years on, Oly Ralfe’s inspirations remain elusive. We know he’s a Bob Dylan fan, less because of his music and more because – in his other life as a cinematographer he worked on Dylan-related documentary The Ballad Of AJ Weberman. A more useful comparison might be the timorous back-porch lullabies that populated Lambchop’s first two albums. As with Kurt Wagner, Oly Ralfe was too good a melodicist to be relegated to mere background noise.
But even if you already knew that about about his songs, it feels like, from the very outset, something much greater is at play on the band’s fourth album Son Be Wise. Possibly a punning reference to his postcode (he lives in Oxford), opening track Ox is a standard fashioned from the unlikeliest of premises: man falls in love; man declares love; man wills himself to turn into livestock to carry his love to her destination. Ralfe’s hush-voiced delivery here recalls that of James Yorkston. Elsewhere, ghosts of Ralfe Band’s defunct early contemporaries Ella Guru abound in a string of arrangements whose apparent raison d’etre is not waking up the sleeping baby six feet away. Oly Ralfe’s approach to recording is almost akin to that of a hustler. Always sounding slightly unrehearsed is a good way to catch even the most resistant listener off-guard, thus compounding the impact of a spectral dancehall lament like the Piney Gir-assisted Dead Souls. Try dropping the needle randomly on either side of Son Be Wise and you’ll comfortably be able to hold your breath before a knee-trembling major-to-minor chord change forces an involuntary sigh.
On this thorough index of little epiphanies, the cantering afterlife reminiscences of Barricades and the dewy oriental inflections of Oh My Father warrant special attention. For all of that, it’s the sublime synergy of violins and piano on Cold Chicago Morning that most amply repays admission into Oly Ralfe’s cobwebbed carousel of 4am fever-dreams. Sung from the perspective of the sole survivor of some terrible unspecified disaster, it’s an apt metaphor for anyone attempting to get by in 2013 out of making beautiful music. Thus far, we haven’t done much to deserve such a labour of love from Oly Ralfe. And he certainly hasn’t done anything to deserve our continuing indifference. So isn’t it about time we all got together?
[You can buy Son Be Wise from here: http://highlinerecords.greedbag.com ]
One of the pitfalls of playing a show at a 414 year-old German fortress is that, back in Renaissance times, no-one could have foreseen what this building would eventually go on to be used for. As a result, there are no dressing rooms at the Berlin Citadel – just a series of curtained-off areas where bands are expected to change. All of which explains why, even though, B-52’s vocalist Fred Schneider has yet to emerge, it doesn’t take long to establish his precise whereabouts. “How long till showtime? I’ll be out in a second,” he says, to no-one in particular. Before you even meet the 57 year-old Schneider, you realize that having the same speaking voice when conveying mundane everyday information as the one you use on your records must be something of a curse. You keep expecting him to declaim, “LOVE SHACK, BABY!” at the end of everything he says.
Worst of all, you suspect he knows it too. He’s the last of the band to appear – and when he does, he initially seems circumspect and, well… rather serious. Seated around a table with his bandmates of 32 years, he can afford to be. The rest of them – Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland – struggle to keep a straight face through the entirety of the next hour. Next week, they land on British shores for their first UK tour since their reformation nine years ago. A life spent oscillating between lucrative corporate events and greatest hits shows has been rejuvenated by the appearance, four months ago, of Funplex – their first studio album since their early 90s commercial peak. As comebacks go, it was a clever one. Not only did they locate what Pierson calls the “surreal suitcase” of ideas which yielded Love Shack, Planet Claire and Rock Lobster – but reclaimed a little of the initiative from some of the bands they’ve so clearly influenced in recent years. Listen to Eyes Wide Open and Love In The Year 3000 and it’s hard to ignore a sense that The B-52s are taking back what they prepared and gift-wrapped to the likes of Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior the first time around.
In fact, it’s fair to say that the world has long since caught up with the thriftstore “pop Dada” aesthetic which set them aside on the release of their eponymous 1978 debut. When Pierson sported a beehive on the cover of that album, it must seemed bizarre. By the time fellow Athens Georgia habitué Michael Stipe wrote his own B-52s homage Shiny Happy People and asked Pierson to sing on it, that beehive (not on show today) had become iconic.
That was never part of the plan, but then, as The B-52s are wont to remind you, no plan in the world could have got them to this point, 30 years later. “We owe it all to serendipity,” beams 54 year-old guitarist Strickland, who, with his shorn hair grown out, could be mistaken for a tanned, camp Teddy Sheringham. Legend has it that the band arose from their shared enthusiasm for gatecrashing house parties. “That came later,” says Strickland, “Before that though, I went to a street dance at the University of Georgia, all glammed out, dressed in a David Bowie/Marc Bolan sort of way. I’d had a huge bag of foam – like the bits they stuff pillows with – and I was sprinkling it over everyone like fairy dust. Anyway, I saw Fred with a Hawaiian shirt on, dancing a little oddly, and I thought, ‘Well, he looks like a fun person.’ And that was it, really.”
The climate of pre-Aids positivism blazed a disco inferno through New York. But in the artier university town of Athens Georgia, it makes sense that the same positivism created the preconditions (and a ready audience) for The B-52s. United by a love of magic mushrooms and a rum-based cocktail called a Flaming Volcano, it was full of both that they returned to a friend’s house after an evening at a Chinese restaurant and happened to tape the song that they improvised that evening. “That was all just an extension of our lifestyle,” says Strickland, “We would go out to the University of Georgia where they had this agricultural department and they had all these cow pastures – and one summer’s day, we got word that the mushrooms were sprouting. So everyone drives out to these pastures…”
“With shopping bags!” interjects the New Jersey-raised Schneider, “It was like a social thing, you know? You could go and meet all your friends, bagging ’shrooms. Then, that night, we’d all be tripping.” Presumably, many of those early songs were written on substances? Take, for instance, the lysergic anti-logic of Rock Lobster’s narrative. “I think it was mostly pot,” recalls Schneider. “I smoked pot for a long time. Not so much now – although Deviant Ingredient from the new album is a pot song. And you can kind of tell, I think.”
Given how idyllic the early years of The B-52s sounded, it’s perhaps no surprise that the period after their eponymous debut album saw them attempting to perpetuate them. They moved into a house together in upstate New York. “Was it like The Monkees? It was more like The Shining,” recalls Pierson. “I don’t think a band should ever live together.” However, in the time it takes for Pierson to utter the words, she suddenly finds herself overcome with nostalgia. “Do you remember that time, it was just us, sitting at a table with nothing to do and Keith said, ‘I’ve got some acid. Do you want some?’ We captured it on video. We wound up doing the Hokey-Pokey for what seemed like forever.’”
If the group’s existence was predicated on chance decisions that determined the course of their life, the same could tragically be said of The B-52s’ original guitarist and Wilson’s brother, Ricky. In 1985, the group’s world momentarily halted when, aged 32, Ricky succumbed to an Aids related illness. As the band’s main songwriter, Ricky’s passing made their continued existence barely tenable. The reason, however, they are sat here – not as a tribute to their younger selves, but as a continuing entity – is Keith Strickland. It was Strickland who swapped drums for guitar and became the group’s main tunesmith. In 1989, sales of Cosmic Thing – the album that spawned Love Shack and Roam – comfortably eclipsed anything the band had created as a five piece. But just as The B-52s re-established themselves, they found themselves frozen out by a new musical weather front. It can’t have been much fun being a B-52 at the height of grunge. “It was strange,” recalls Schneider, “because we really loved what Nirvana were doing. But it would have been preposterous if we were seen as in any way attempting to join in.”
So they didn’t. Save for a money-spinning turn as The BC-52s, recording the theme to The Flintstones movie, they explored other avenues. Schneider became a radio DJ. Wilson, the group’s sole heterosexual, became a mother. Most famously of all, Pierson put her name to a new business venture, Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel in Woodstock. “I just drove one day and saw this beautiful property and decided it would be an easy investment.” If you haven’t already inferred from Pierson’s hair and wardrobe what Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel looked like once it was finished, then the website doesn’t disappoint. Leopardskin upholstery, post-war fixtures and Frigidaires seem to be the order of the day. However, to some holidaying B-52s fans, appearances have proved deceptive. Key the motel in the search field of to www.tripadvisor.com and several posts suggest a little too much shack and not enough love in Pierson’s enterprise. “When we got there,” writes Amber, “Many of the things we had asked about were just not there. The kitchen with adequate pots and pans for cooking? …Oh, and the phone in the room did not work.” Another poster makes similar complaints about the phone, as well as “a fridge with stale milk, a single saucepan… and three unanswered pages to their ‘emergency’ number.”
Pierson seems unfazed by the criticisms. “People come out to the country and they think it’s going to be a deluxe hotel, and it’s a rustic kind of place.”
“They want Kate behind the desk,” says Schneider, before Pierson continues: “People in the city get freaked out by little things… someone complained because there was a ladybug in their room.” If a certain set of brand values can be attributed to every artist, it seems that Pierson has found hers and created a business out of them. For Schneider though, being mistaken for the music to which you put your name isn’t always a good thing. Reading reviews for Funplex, he says he struggles to grapple the way his band are sometimes perceived. “Sometimes it’s a complimentary interview and they still get it totally wrong. It’s like they want to write [that we’re] ‘the campest, nuttiest this or that.’ I mean, camp means that you’re unintentionally funny and I feel…” His voice trails off.
Surely it’s not all bad, though. I notice that, over on the merchandising stall, a potential albatross has been turned into a commercial opportunity.
“What was that?” says Schneider.
I tell him that I’m referring to the cuddly lobsters – €25 each. “Well, people are bringing their… I mean, we’ve had everything from two year-olds to 200 year-olds. Everyone’s invited to our party.”
And if they throw them at you, it doesn’t hurt.
“That’s right. It doesn’t hurt. And we can just put it back on the merchandise table.”
The buzz on the intercom unlocks the door. From thereon in, it’s just a matter of following the noise at the top of the building and, indeed, your nose. With glass of white wine in one hand and a hand-blender in the other, Laura Marling is applying the finishing touches to the soup she has made ahead of my arrival at her West London abode. “It’s from the Ottolenghi book,” she says, “Roast sweetcorn and aubergine.” In your correspondent’s 20-odd years of interviewing bands, this constitutes a first. If artists ever feel the need to prepare for their interrogators, that preparation rarely extends to catering. “Is that right?” she says, with a typically inscrutable smile. “Well, I’m going away tomorrow, so it was a good chance to use up a few ingredients.” In fact, she’s a keen host. A few weeks prior to our encounter, she had “a dozen or so” friends over for a poker game. The events of that particular day stick in her mind because, as she walked back home, a couple of youths jumped on her and stole her mobile phone. The way she tells it, the altercation was less a trauma and more of a huge inconvenience. “I was planning to make bruschetta, so I had a bag full of baguettes,” she says, “These two teenagers knocked me to the ground. I tried to grab one of their legs, but they got away with the phone and ran onto a nearby bus. So there I was lying on all my baguettes. Crumbs everywhere. Getting up was like trying to climb out of a bread bin. So, yes, we had to forego the bruschetta.”
Certain adjectives have a way of swarming around Laura Marling like bees to blossom. “Prodigious”, “quiet” and “mature” frequently do the rounds. Most pernicious of the lot, however, is “shy”. Three years ago, she found herself – under some duresse, it seemed – at the Mercury nominations which included her own debut Alas, I Cannot Swim. Downstairs in the brightly-lit press room of a Covent Garden private members club, British Sea Power, Estelle and Adele paraded before the flashbulbs, alerting the wider world to their existence. Up on the fourth floor, Marling – 18 at the time – dabbed a piece of pitta bread in a mound of houmous and decided that, on balance, she would rather not go down and join them. That afternoon, she seemed conflicted about what it meant to faithfully honour your art whilst giving your major label paymaster something they could work with. She judged herself harshly next to contemporaries such as American anti-folk songwriter Diane Cluck. “None of my heroes release singles,” she explained, “I find the way that people are promoted and sold… I just… it really sickens me.”
In 2011, it’s easy to mistake a certain reticence for that same shyness. In truth, however, the Marling readying release of her third album A Creature I Don’t Know seems far more comfortable in her own skin. She hasn’t yet achieved the global ubiquity enjoyed by her old friends and sometime backing band Mumford & Sons. But few who heard 2010’s I Speak Because I Can could doubt that her talent was soaring at an exponential rate. In describing the pitiless battleground of human relationships, songs like Hope In The Air and Rambling Man cast her as an impassive Greek chorus to the travails she wrote about with breathtaking acuity. At the 2010 Mercury awards, Paul Weller made a beeline for her and declared himself a big admirer. After a brace of European shows with Neil Young, she was called into Young’s dressing room and told by him that he was a fan of her work. Last summer, it was Young’s The Needle And The Damage Done that she elected to cover (along with Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Runs The Game) when summoned by Jack White to record a single for his Third Man imprint. And, indeed, it’s in talking about episodes such as this that you realise the extent of Marling’s snowballing self-belief. Prior to arriving at White’s Nashville studio, she says she had avoided talking to him in person “because I hate phones.” Nevertheless, she remembers it was an “awkward and bumbly” Jack White who allowed her to use his pre-war Gibson. Despite never playing it before, she nailed both songs in one take. “Was he surprised? Not as surprised as I was,” she laughs.
As surprises go however, you suspect that none will quite match the one that awaited Marling on the day she attended this year’s Brits. In the most shocking victory since Belle & Sebastian trumped Steps to bag the Best New Band prize in 1999, it was Marling’s name that Boy George got to call out over fellow Best Female Solo Artist nominees such as Cheryl Cole and Ellie Goulding. Lighting the first of several cigarettes (Marling was introduced to cigarettes, aged 13, by “a kid at our school to whom my parents were guardians”) she recalls something akin to “a drug-induced trip. It was the way Boy George announced it as much as anything. Before he called my name, he said, ‘I’d like to be a rambling man.’ I was there with an old friend of mine who is from Wakefield and has the best accent ever. I remember her saying, ‘Babe, it’s you!’ Even my manager didn’t know what to do.”
If the evening assumed a dreamlike quality at that point, the ensuing few hours did little to dissipate it. Marling was told that the only way she could get home from the ceremony was on an EMI-chartered boat moored outside the 02 Arena. “I dutifully sat on this boat for two hours, feeling thoroughly overwhelmed, surrounded by Tinie Tempah and his gang. I’d been up since 5am and, to be honest, all I could think about at this point was how cold I was.”
Hours previously, as she left for the Brits, Marling did something she had never done before. She rotated her iPod click wheel and alighted on the album whose forest-fire word-of-mouth reception had put her into this position. “I wanted to remind myself why I’m doing this,” she explains.
And did she like what she heard back? “With the first album, I sort of felt protective of my younger self. But with I Speak Because I Can, I didn’t exactly feel fondly towards it. I felt a certain distance, perhaps.” In some senses, it might perhaps seem odd if she did relate fondly to Hope In The Air with its Old Testament downpour of drums and hammering pianos or the biblical Appalachian monsoon of Devil’s Spoke. A few months prior to the release of I Speak Before I Can, her ex-boyfriend Charlie Fink had funneled his grief at their break-up into Noah & The Whale’s The Last Days Of Spring. Fink had clearly been smitten with Marling – who, for a time, had been a member of Noah & The Whale. She recalled one difficult day during the sessions for Alas I Cannot Swim, which saw her struggling to pull out a satisfactory vocal for a song. Fink – Marling’s de facto producer at the time – went into the studio ahead of her, turned off the lights and haloes the base of her mic stand with candles. A perfect take duly followed.
Unlike Fink’s songs though, the battle-hardened narratives of I Speak Because I Can steered well clear of self-pity. As if pre-empting such a reaction, Alpha Shallows saw her hiss, “I believe we were meant to be seen and not to be understood.” On the title track, she took inspiration from Greek mythology, assuming the guise of latter-day Penelope. As Odysseus’s wife, it was Penelope who found herself silenced in domesticity as her husband went off on his adventures. Increasingly, you sense a retrospective mortification in Marling that, had the cards fallen a different way, her creativity may have been silenced. The website of Leighton Park Quaker School in Reading, where she attended as a day boarder is rife with the language of “mutual respect” and “the development of individuality with a social conscience.” But Marling’s main recollection of her time there centres around a profound inability to fit in. “All I enjoyed was music and writing and reading. And I didn’t have very many people who liked what I liked.” What would she have had to change about herself to feel included? She shrugs apologetically. “I don’t even know. If I’d known that, maybe I could have got on.”
In that apartness, she found her songwriting voice. At 16, it prompted her to leave her hometown of Eversley in Hampshire and follow her two older sisters to London – the same sisters who, aged 11, she remembers being delighted when seeing on the television that PJ Harvey had won the Mercury Music Prize for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. With every passing year though, the notion that Marling’s creativity might have ever been contained within the ranks of Noah & The Whale seems increasingly preposterous. Covering similar thematic ground to her aforementioned paean to Penelope, Salinas is named after the Californian birthplace of John Steinbeck. “I picked up a book he had written about the Knights of the Round Table [The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights]. He was obsessed with that story. He came over to Glastonbury to research it, and in the front of that book – which, actually, I found a bit boring – there was a short biography written by his second wife. And it was really weird. It was like she was falling at his feet, worshipping him – and all he did was sit at a desk and write till he died.”
It’s perhaps fanciful to imagine that anyone who was obsessed with her parents’ Best of Joni Mitchell CD at the age of six was ever going to develop a straightforward view of human relationships. During the making of A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling terminated her relationship with Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford. Given the incredible year his group have had, perhaps that’s not so surprising. The nearest the pair got to a exotic holiday together was when they agreed to go to India and play with Indian musicians as part of a British Council-sponsored “cultural exchange”. Since then, another brief liaison has come to an end. Under such circumstances, any artist might question their own motives in looking for love. On the album’s opening song, a restless syncopated shuffle called The Muse, Marling casts herself as predator, scenting material where most people might merely seek companionship. “It’s a joke, first and foremost,” she explains. Albeit one rooted in experience? “Mmm, definitely. I was thinking about that a lot. It’s tempting to make life fit your criteria [as an artist], but it never ever works. That’s how I ended up writing a song like that.”
For A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling once again worked alongside Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray Lamontagne, Tom Jones). However, this isn’t the long-promised “second instalment” of songs from the sessions that spawned I Speak Because I Can. Marling sidelined the album that she initially planned for release in the autumn of 2010. Exhaling smoke upwards, she runs her hand through her bright blonde hair. “I realised that the reason those songs didn’t make it on to I Speak Because I Can was that they weren’t very good. The moment I realised I wasn’t going to make that album, a bunch of new songs came very quickly.”
And when those songs did come, Marling realised two things. Firstly, that – unlike her previous albums – she had to oversee every aspect of the arrangements; and secondly, that connected together, these songs formed part of a greater story – as she puts it, “an interaction between a character and [their] conscience… torn between trying desperately to be good and forgiving and failing miserably at every turn.” Some songs foreground that conflict more explicitly than others. “Where I’ve been lately’s no concern of yours,” she repeats on Sophia. Marling’s memories of writing the album’s centrepiece The Beast are bound up in the relative ignominy of her circumstances at the time. “I’d come to the end of the lease on my last flat and I was sleeping on a friend’s sofa in the middle of winter. It was freezing cold. I was lying there with their cat – a semi-wild Bengal – sitting on me, thinking, I can’t go on like this. For the first time on a Marling record, electric guitars – three of them on that song – circle in on Marling’s performance, threatening to envelope her if she doesn’t rise up to be heard over them. Echoes of Low’s 2005 single Monkey – latterly covered by Robert Plant – abound when she sings, “Tonight I choose the beast.”
“When I wrote it, I thought, ‘Fucking hell, this isn’t going to fit anywhere. But I think I was slightly blindsided by the fact that I’ve been called a folksinger so many times. So, I think at that point I decided that I’ve never really been folk. And, for the first time, I was hearing electric guitars and sticks on drums.” Marling has yet to hear this album back since she finished it. Perhaps she’s saving that moment for her next awards ceremony. When she does, she might hear what is becoming increasingly apparent to those of us gazing on at her creative trajectory: to hell with the Mumfords, Noah & The Whale, Johnny Flynn and the rest of touchy-feely, mutually-supportive artisan folk scene from which she sprang – this isn’t the work of someone happy to fit in with that milieu. A Creature I Don’t Know is palpably the work of someone who wants to outflank the lot of them. Leave them dead in the water.
Marling seems momentarily startled by the notion, so much so that fill the silence by offering to get my coat. “I don’t know if I can give you any sort of answer to that,” she says. But she’s clearly competitive, isn’t she? Wasn’t this the uncomfortable truth that she grappled with when attempting to work out what separates her from her anti-folk heroes? “Well, I’m very competitive when it comes to things like Scrabble and charades, and perhaps that translates into every area of one’s being.”
Let’s put it another way. I bet she’d be furious with herself if the next Mumford & Sons album was better than her one. “I think I probably might!” she smirks. “But that implies that, at the moment, I feel my songwriting is better than theirs.” She waves her finger, mock-accusingly, as if to suggest that she’s wise to any attempts to catch her out. Five days after our encounter, she will take to the stage in the mid-afternoon Glastonbury sun. An estimated 20,000 people update what they thought they knew about Marling as her voice rears up over electric guitar and, yes, sticks on drums. In the process, they become privy to a sonic firestorm that exceeds anything the afternoon’s other performers can summon. Her gaze alights onto the people at the front and follows the incline of the hill up to the horizon. Quietly and calmly, you can see her taking it all in, and far from being intimidated by the scale of the spectacle, her expression tells you she is ready for it. My how she’s grown.
Midlake’s Tim Smith is hunched over the small sink beside his Bristol dressing room. Possibly because an overnight trip from Belgium has left him bereft of sleep, the task at hand is causing him more consternation than it otherwise might have done. He wants to wash his face, but presented with a choice between cold and scaldingly hot water, he foregoes both. Instead, the Texas quintet’s rangy 35 year-old frontman turns to the nearest available European and proffers a suggestion. “Do you know what this continent could use? Mixer taps. People here seem to wake up in the morning and ask themselves, ‘What shall I do this morning? Shall I burn my hands or freeze them?’ On paper, the words may carry a faint aroma of prima donna. In fact, mild bewilderment is closer to the mark. That the group’s entire rider seems to have been decanted from two supermarket carrier bags doesn’t elicit the merest murmur of disapproval. Smith has the air of a man who would swap all the Sainsbury’s Deep Fill sandwiches in the world for a receptacle of lukewarm water.
Somehow it all fits rather neatly with what we already know about Midlake – a group whose word-of-mouth 2006 hit Roscoe waxed dreamily about the lives of 19th century stonecutters, using notes and chords ploughed a dreamy furrow somewhere between The Theme from M.A.S.H. and Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon. Months after its parent album The Trials of Van Occupanther was released, Midlake’s plaid-shirted FM pop struck a chord with an ever-growing fanbase – sitting near the apex of several end-of-year polls. In the interim, all Midlake needed to do was go away and write another album with a couple more Roscoes on it. Then, surely their big crossover moment would arrive.
With the benefit of hindsight, you can hear Van Occupanther and realise where Midlake would be headed when they finally returned earlier this year. Back in 2006, Smith described his musical safe place – “something very pastoral, rainy at times… You know, sometimes if I hear really good music, I just visualize English scenes… those great old paintings.” It turns out that when he uttered those words to The Times, the nearest the singer had heard to English folk-rock of the 1970s – an entire genre built on Smith’s musical safe place – was a Jethro Tull album. Needless to say, when he finally stumbled upon the genre’s core exponents – Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Fotheringay – Smith fell in love. Arrestingly beautiful modal reveries like Winter Dies and Core of Nature poured out and didn’t stop until Midlake had finally completed their third album, The Courage of Others. The more Smith talks about his life, the clearer it becomes that moderation is an alien concept when it comes to music. It’s a trait he wears like a hair shirt at times. Talking to Mojo about the new songs, Smith only just stopped short of issuing a full-blown apology, “We didn’t really want this to happen.”
Through the smoked windows of Midlake’s tour bus, the only English scene visible is the rain-sodden student union where – ahead of next week’s Glastonbury appearance – the group are playing. Fifteen years have elapsed since Smith first picked up a guitar. Watch him on stage, however, and he still looks down at his instrument seemingly confused as to how it got there. Given how it did get there, perhaps that’s not so surprising. Had you told the teenage Smith that he would end up making his living as the singer and guitarist in a rock band, he would have suggested you were out of your mind. Having taken up the saxophone at the age of ten, Smith already had a degree in jazz performance by the age of 19. Moving 200 miles north of San Antonio to enrol at the North Texas School of Music, his ultimate aim was to make a living from the saxophone. “Believe it or not,” recalls Smith, “Rock’n’roll had pretty much passed me by until this point.”
Is it really possible for any child in post-MTV America to get to adulthood without being exposed to some contemporary music? A call to Billy Gene’s, the Texas restaurant owned and run by Smith’s parents seals the matter. Billie Gene Smith paints a vivid picture of a child seemingly endowed with values from a distant era. “He would break a stick of chewing gum in four, and it would take him the best part of a week to get through it,” recalls his father. “Even now, he only buys his clothes from the thriftstore.” With disarming bluntness, Billy Gene adds that his son “wasn’t much fun to be around as a child, but that all changed with the saxophone. You had really never seen anything like it. He used to rehearse from 8am and allow himself a break at 11. He literally played for ten hours a day. In the summer, all the other kids would go out and play baseball or go swimming – and Tim would be indoors playing on his saxophone.”
Any parents who had elected to subsidize their son’s ambition to make it as a jazz musician, would be anything but thrilled by the news that their offspring had suddenly renounced their instrument. And yet, when Tim Smith had heard Radiohead’s OK Computer for the first time, that was what happened. At a stroke, he decided that he would learn to play guitar instead. To his immense credit, Billy Gene Smith reacted by giving him a guitar he had played as a young man. “We just wanted him to be happy and find his way,” he says.
For all of that though, the ensuing years suggested that, in his early 20s, Smith was further from “finding his way” than he ever had been. He supplemented a sideline fixing instruments with a series of short-lived jobs. “I worked at various ice-cream and yoghurt establishments. The nadir was a place called Marble Slab. You have this slab and you place a ball of ice-cream and then you mix M&M’s and gummy bears – that kind of thing – into it. But it took me so long to mix it in that it just melted.”
In the meantime, embryonic versions of Midlake made slow progress. The falling-apart psych-pop of 2004’s Bamnan and Slivercork was a breakthrough of sorts – but it sold negligibly. Smith’s hitherto supportive parents finally ventured a suggestion. Billy Gene remembers that after his son “wrote the music for their first album, his mother told him to write something she could hum to.” Within a few months, Smith had written the songs that would go on to comprise The Trials of Van Occupanther. No need to ask what his parents thought of the result. Written in 2006, one of the two reviews sitting beneath the Amazon listing for the album, credited to a certain Billy Gene Smith, declares that “the songwriting, arrangements, musicianship and harmonies are head and shoulders above anything I’ve heard so far this year.”
It didn’t take long for more impartial judges to concur. The Chemical Brothers got Smith to supply vocals for The Pills Won’t Help You Now, from their 2007 album We Are The Night. Paul Weller contacted the group to ask them if he could sing Young Bride with them next time they played London. “We were told he was a legend,” remembers Smith, “although I didn’t know who he was.” It’s rare for a group to find favour with fans, critics and peers all at the same time. From such a charmed vantage point, Midlake should be experiencing the best of times. Their bassist Eric Pulido certainly thinks so. “If we’re going to be away from our partners and loved ones for weeks at a time, then the least we can do is try and enjoy the moment.”
You might think that the almost Amish simplicity with which Tim Smith – himself married for seven years – views the world would lead him to concur. In fact, it’s precisely that trait which leads him to worry that being in Midlake has already been as much fun as it can possibly be. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I like the tour bus, but until recently, we used to have this 15 passenger van,” he says, “It didn’t have a TV, so we used to duck-tape one to the table and attach it to the battery. I’m not talking about a flat-screen thing, you understand, but a big square old thing. We would turn it on and we would have movie time. And now… I guess it’s nice having the extra space, but everyone just does their own thing. They listen to their iPods or check their emails.”
For someone who spent his childhood bereft of any ambition to be in a rock group, there’s something touching about Smith’s view of what such a band should be. With the saxophone, it was ten hours a day or nothing. His obsession with English folk-rock left him unable to write a song in any other idiom. Dabbling doesn’t come nearly as naturally to him as total immersion. “It’s never enough for me, I guess. I guess I’d love to live out in a place where we’re borrowing sugar from one another and we’re really close. It’s fine and we’re really good friends. I can wake up at 8am, but the other guys can’t do it. It’s a shame. Inevitably, there’s always some sort of drama going on in someone’s life. We very rarely all feel good about making music at the same time.”
Apart, perhaps, from the show itself. On stage, two hours later, Smith’s wish to get lost in a communal experience finds its natural outlet. “When the acts of men cause the ground to break open/Oh, let me inside, let me inside,” he sings on Acts of Man – prompting one lone West Country accent to exclaim, “You guys are…” As he pauses to find the word, the room briefly falls silent, in anticipation of the incoming adjective. “…good!” finally splutters the voice. Of all the compliments directed his way, Tim Smith – self-schooled exponent in the art of austerity – seems to appreciate that one most of all.
These days, getting any sort of audience with the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens is a procedure of almost military complexity. Questions have to be submitted for prior examination. Any deemed unsuitable are removed. Of course, there’s new product to promote – a live DVD and last year’s pleasant if not earth-shattering comeback album, An Other Cup. But it goes without saying that any interest in what Yusuf is doing now is predicated on songs that he wrote as Cat Stevens. All of which makes it a little confusing when most of the questions about the singer’s past are deemed off-limits. In an email cc’d to nine other people involved in the organization of this meeting, the (as it turns out, impossible) directive issued is that our purely present-tense conversation needs to stay within “music, culture and the arts”. If I ask him about period in the wake of The Satanic Verses, when quotes attributed to Yusuf appeared to condone the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, I am told there’s every chance he will get up and go.
Because he won’t talk about those quotes, it’s impossible to ascertain whether his views on that Fatwa have also moderated over the years. Writing in response to an article which played down Yusuf’s part in the controversy, Rushdie wrote to the Sunday Telegraph with a quote from the New York Times in which Yusuf apparently said, that burning “the real thing” would be preferable to burning effigies of Rushdie. Signing off, the author then added, “Let’s have no more rubbish about how ‘green’ and ‘innocent’ this man was.”
The Yusuf Islam that bowls into his local West London café doesn’t strike you as particularly innocent or green – rather he seems burdened by the momentum that events around him have taken. On the afternoon of our meeting, he is waiting to hear whether Brent Council will grant him permission to oversee the creation of the Maqam Community Building – a £4.5 million cultural centre designed, according to architect Robert O’Hara, to “get rid of the awful image that Islam has had put upon it.” Shortly after you read this, Yusuf will do his bit to try and rid Islam “the awful image put on it” by the recent attempted bombings linked to Islamic jihadists, when he performs at the Hamburg leg of the Live Earth shows.
Despite it all though, the 58 year-old cuts a surprising dash. It’s not just the blue jeans and t-shirt with Yoriyos written on it – the name under which his eldest son Mohammed releases his own music. His speech is rich in London colloquialisms and glottal stops. But, of course, why wouldn’t it be, given that he has spent his whole life within a three mile radius of the West End? And why exactly should I start giggling with surprise when he tells me that his breakfast of choice is a bowl of Golden Nuggets – a cereal as synonymous with the 70s as the albums which brought him to prominence? The answer, of course, has as much to do with us as him. After more than three decades spent in the sanctuary of a new identity, it’s only natural to start thinking that Yusuf Islam is a completely different person to Cat Stevens. And perhaps with good reason. Wasn’t that the intention in 1980, when he followed his conversion to Islam by auctioning his guitars for charity?
So why come back now? In truth, the tunes never dried up completely. Even a few months into his new life as Yusuf Islam, the singer celebrated the birth of his son by recording a song A Is For Allah. Having renounced his guitar, this unaccompanied paean to his new child topped the charts in Turkey. Soon though, even the Islamic nursery rhymes dried up. Yusuf Islam had four more children. His public appearances were mostly restricted to talks in which he explained to other London Muslims the reasons why his old life had left him unfulfilled.
With the benefit of hindsight, several Cat Stevens songs inadvertently seem to signpost his future path. On Into White, his desire to declutter his interior world sounds like a prayer of desperation. To anyone who knew a little about the childhood of the singer born Steven Georgiou, Where Do The Children Play didn’t require too much analysis. His Greek-Cypriot father and Swedish mother ran a café on the busy West End junction adjoining New Oxford St and Shaftesbury Avenue. “It was an area that people used to go to when they wanted to have a night out, and I was there every night of my life. Where did I hang around? Well, one of the little escapades I used to take part in was climbing roofs. It was pretty dangerous, and one time I nearly fell, but it wasn’t something you would dwell upon.”
He was still living with his parents when he first tasted fame. Interviewed in 1967 on the back of his feudal pop parable Matthew & Son, Stevens pondered, “When I try to sit down and work out what I am, it worries me because I don’t know.” When he returned in earnest with 1970’s Tea For The Tillerman, after a year laid low with tuberculosis, had found a sound that better mirrored his internal anxieties. Spend an afternoon in Leicester Square 37 years after its release, and there’s every chance that you’ll see at least one backpacking busker rattling out Wild World or Father And Son to a light rain of loose change.
Stevens found that the sudden multiplicity of choices opened up by success didn’t necessarily make him any happier. Fame had merely complicated matters. “I’ve gone too far to have an ordinary life and ordinary relationships,” he told one interviewer in 1975. “I can’t see myself ever settling down properly, unless something incredible happens.” Reminded of the utterance, Yusuf lets forth an amused nod. That was also the year he shaved off his hair and beard and decamped to Brazil, Ethiopia and Malibu for an extended sabbatical. “I knew how many sins I was accumulating and… there was a sense of waiting for an epiphany or something.”
Perhaps his faith was already there, seeking an outlet. Certainly, when Yusuf says, “I was one of those people who probably even thought of becoming a priest at one point,” you take him to mean that God – or a propensity to believe in God – was already inside him. And yet, talking about the moment which saved him, Yusuf is clearly describing what he feels was a physical act of divine intervention. “I was in serious trouble [swimming] in the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, and I had lost all power to swim. Suddenly I called out for God’s help. And then a wave came and helped me get back to the shore.”
Throughout the 1980s, you would have been more likely to find the former Cat Stevens “establishing schools, being very hands-on in the management process, helping to develop a structured curriculum.” As his own children grew up, it must surely have been a source of intrigue that their father used to be a pop star? Or did he try and withhold that information? “There was no question of doing that,” he smiles between long, measured sips of tea, “They had been in the audience at enough of my lectures to be fully aware of what I had done.” They were also in the audience this March, at the singer’s first UK show in 28 years – the same show that was filmed for the new DVD, entitled Yusuf’s Café. With his role in Father And Son having switched, how strange must it have been for Yusuf to find himself singing lines like, “Look at me/I am old but I’m happy?”
It turns out that Yusuf has every reason to remember the last time he performed the song. “It was in 1979 at the UNICEF Year Of The Child Concert at Wembley. My wife was expecting, but we hadn’t told anybody. And when I sing it now, I sing it from the point of view of someone who still has a lot to learn from his children.” Indeed, the sight of 27 year-old Mohammed playing the instrument his dad renounced at the height of his fame has allowed Yusuf Islam to be more accepting of his younger self. “Mohammed is like me when I was young, and yet he’s assertive of his own identity – which is exactly what I was like. So he helped me see myself with younger eyes. Also, [the guitar] had not been accepted by a conservative school of thought [within Islam]. But, on analysis, I discovered it wasn’t so long ago that Islamic culture thrived in Europe. Then, you get to find out that – guess what? – the guitar was introduced to Europe through Islamic Spain.”
If Yusuf supported the Ayatollah’s stance then but not now, why might that be? Comparing interviews from the late 80s, to those he has given in recent years, his relationship to Islam might be likened to driving a car. When you’ve passed your test, you drive very much as you’re taught to in the book. Some years down the line though, you learn to relax a little and trust your instincts. Whatever Yusuf might have once condoned in the name of Islam, the terrorist atrocities of recent years appear to have clarified his outlook. In the wake of 9/11, he flew to New York and sang Peace Train and the all-star benefit concert for families of the firefighters who lost their lives in the attacks. Even prior to 9/11, he was part of a mission to deliver $33,000 to refugees on the Kossovan border. In the light of his recent efforts, it’s perhaps no surprise that, four days after our meeting, Brent Council give his cultural centre the go-ahead
But even if the wider world has gradually warmed to Yusuf’s peaceful overtures, US securities forces have been more cautious. Three years ago, a United Airlines flight on which Yusuf and his 19 year-old daughter were traveling was diverted, following the discovery of his name on a no-fly list. With “refuelling” cited as the reason, the singer suspected nothing until the plane landed in Maine – “and six or seven tall, uniformed FBI agents walked on board. My daughter and I were separated through the whole ordeal.” Though he was due to meet Dolly Parton with a view to having her record one of his songs, Yusuf was deported, with the United States Transportation Security Administration voicing “concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities.” Challenged to deliver proof of their concerns though, US authorities failed to produce anything.
Months later, when the time came to make a new album, it was perhaps no surprise that one of the first songs Yusuf recorded for it was a cover of The Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. If the song is a response to what he sees as his typecasting at the hands of “others”, the decision to step back into music is fuelled by the same impulse. “As long as you’re singing,” he explains, “there are no interfering bodies trying to corrupt what you’re doing.” Calling his album An Other Cup was a symbolic act. “Tea and coffee are drinks that unite almost all people all over the world. “Therefore, there’s a whole lot more we have to share from this cup of life, regardless of faith.” To realize that was to realize that, far from being completely different people, Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam had an awful lot in common. If one sang while the other played, then why shouldn’t they spend the rest of their days making music together?