Louder Than War caught up with singer/songwriter Dan Haywood and discussed Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, punching out folkies, living with murderers, and refusing to compromise as an artist.
LTW: For those people who don’t know you, how would you describe your music?
“It’s my music. The music is about not being really happy about it being my music, but trying to make the best out of a bad situation. I’m white and middle class and male, so there are millions of us.”
The bad situation you talk about is that there’s so much music out there it’s hard to get heard?
“Yes, but I wouldn’t want to be so defeatist publicly! But you’ve teased it out of me. I’d rather be somebody else. I’d rather be James Carr, Otis Reading, Josephine Foster, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith. But those things aren’t available to me.”
It’s almost like you’re saying you’re making the best out of a bad deal?
“Well, it’s a bad deal for the listener, in a way! Because what you’ve got is a white, middle-class rock influenced male, and there are so many of those. And that’s fine, but the key for me is to make something that’s different, in light of all those privileges. It has to be different, because if I say the same thing as all the other white middle-class blah blah blah it’s just pointless. As well as being myself, which presumably is like everyone. Steven Fretwell, Ed Sheeran are all trying to be themselves. I’ve always viewed music from the outset, even pop music, as art, and it has to be different, otherwise you’re just repeating so many cliches.”
But does that put a burden on your writing because you’re always second guessing yourself when you write something? Do you think: anyone could have written that and discard it?
“Obviously, these things are advantages in every other area of life, in a sick society these are advantages, and I don’t want to come across as a bigot, because I don’t think I am. I often listen to music and think the people aren’t trying hard enough. People are content to express themselves, despite the fact that they are expressing themselves in a way that’s been expressed so many times before.”
It is difficult to be original.
“It could be difficult, but it’s not difficult for me, in my defence, lest I seem ashamed of myself, my class, my skin, my everything else, which is partly true, but not the whole story.”
Saying that some people don’t try hard enough, reminded me of a Lou Reed lyric, and I know you’re a fan of Lou Reed: Some people try very hard and still they never get it right.
“Beginning to see the light, yes.”
He also said, that you can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce, which I guess means just be yourself.
“But he did write that lyric when he was in his 50’s. “You can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce. And you’re left with yourself, and a rage that can hurt you”. But as I’m in my 40’s I think I’ve still got a chance at being Shakespeare or Joyce!”
And when you’re Lou Reed I guess you can say that.
“You can, and so can I. He’s given me permission. He’s given me a lot of bad advice over the years, one way or another through his songs.”
Which brings us nicely to Pill Fangs, which is where I was first introduced to your music. Firstly, where does the name of the band come from?
“I’ve got dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of songs, as I’ve been writing for something like 25 years or so. And actually, that was a name of a song I wrote about 20 years ago, when I was writing for another group, called the Puma Sutras. So, in terms of the horrible experience of wracking your brains for a band name…The drummer hates the name of the band, anything else but, would have been better than what it is. I think originally, I thought I could resurrect that song with the new band. But it does seem to work, because I was trying to be derivative, in terms of some of the sounds and some of the indicators of what your record collection might be, which had never really been the case before. It seemed to me that I’d tried to be obscure, and I’ve tried being original, but let’s see how many Velvet Underground fans are out there, and let’s see how many Richard Hell fans are out there, and let’s see how many people would like to hear Robert Quine’s guitar again, despite the fact he’s been dead for 20 years. And maybe this will make my job easier in terms of communicating.”
I thought it was a great album, and that’s what brought me into your world.
“Well, it worked to a certain extent. It wasn’t quite the landslide victory that I needed at that time. To take some elements that people can go ‘oh that’s that’ and ‘that’s that’. I never felt confident enough to do that before in terms of ‘am I being a sell out by doing that’?”
Were you happy with it then?
“Very happy. Because what happens with writing songs is, it wasn’t really a case of writer’s block, but it gave it a boost, because it suddenly became easy. You did a riff like ‘I’m Beginning to See The Light’ backwards, or ‘What Goes On’ backwards – I mean it wasn’t as simple as that, but it just accelerates the whole process of writing. Maybe that’s one of the reasons people rip people off all the time, I don’t know. It’s one thing to want to identify with a kind of music, and want to be identified with other bands. And I’m certainly proud to say I’m a big VU fan. But when you get into the mode of thinking, what would I say if I was in the Velvet Underground? It just seems to move everything along quickly. Now a lot of the things that are being said in the songs are entirely personal to us or personal to me, not necessarily personal, but unique to me. Most of the stuff isn’t anything somebody like Lou Reed would be interested in at all. But because it’s superficially like that, it opens up channels within you to write and express yourself, particularly through the guitar, and I hadn’t been doing a lot of guitar playing for a long time. I’d been playing acoustic guitar and popping up doing rhythm guitar for other lead instruments like violin and mandolin. But I actually thought I was a good electric guitar player and I hadn’t done that for years and years. So, it was a really good way to accelerate the process. A friend of mine called it Trojan poetry, when he first heard Pill Fangs. Because you just get into a groove and before you know it you’re writing in an unselfconscious way. And you’re actually sneaking quite difficult stuff out there in that medium. I think that’s what he meant by Trojan poetry. You think you’ve got just another rock song, you’ve heard those influences a million times, but actually you’re getting a story outside that world entirely. I’ve never been to New York, I’ve wouldn’t claim to, so everything in the songs is derived from elsewhere.”
It’s not New York in the 70s, and if you had done that…
“Well, it would have been embarrassing. If I’d have been saying, ‘Hey, man,’ all the time, it would be really phoney, and kind of like the band I wanted when I was 16. The first band that I had, when I was about 17, in the Midlands, was a band called Twenty-Six Dollars. We started off doing Velvet Underground covers, singing in an American accent ‘Twenty-six dollars in my hand’. The whole thing in retrospect was embarrassing.”
It’s excusable for a 16 or 17 year old
“Of course. I’m faintly embarrassed now but not ashamed. But that’s a catalyst for getting into music. You hide behind someone else, or another scene, to get into it and I certainly wasn’t interested in what my peers were into at the time. This was in Stourbridge, and Stourbridge was actually happening at that time in the early 90s. There was Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Pop Will Eat Itself and The Wonderstuff. All those three bands we’d bump into in pubs. In fact the first gig that I did, there were members of each of those three bands sat at the back of the room. At the time I had zero respect for what they were doing. All I wanted was for there to be a band in that town who wore jeans instead of shorts. They were all jumping around in Bermuda shorts, and I was like ‘fuck that, my legs are too thin for this’. I’d rather be in a band like Velvet Underground.”
In the early 90s, how does someone that age get into the Velvet Underground?
“Everyone was, as far as I was concerned, at the time. I think that through the 80s and early 90s the NME and Melody Maker just brainwashed everyone into thinking that the Velvet Underground were above criticism. And most of the stuff that they said was patently untrue, but in this case I think it was true. Either that or the brainwashing did work in that case and none of the others! They certainly didn’t sell me on Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The Velvets did seem to be everywhere at the time and every record shop I went into had their records.”
“And, of course, they reformed in ’93 and I saw one of those gigs. It was the night before my English A level. I went down to Wembley and watched the band and I thought fucking hell, man, I’m gonna be a state in the morning. It was good. Luna were supporting, who were an offshoot of Galaxie 500, I think, and then VU and it was the original four members. It was certainly a lot better than it came off on the live album or the videos. It was a good experience and then my head was trashed, for one reason or another, but luckily one of the questions on the English exam was: write a review of a concert, or a play, you’ve been to recently. So at that point I began to believe there was a god and maybe there might be some future in music. So I started off the essay with: in actual fact my ears are still ringing from a recent concert. So it went pretty well and I began to think that rock and roll really does work for people.”
I did get to see Lou Reed playing at Leamington Spa. It wasn’t long after he’d done the album with Metallica, Lulu. Which was an album I really like but it got pretty bad reviews.
“I think both parties, Lou Reed and Metallica, knew it was going to be disastrous, and it was. None of the Lou Reed fans liked it and none of the Metallica fans liked it. In a way I think that’s why they did it. It was a very suicidal sounding album with a suicidal concept! The last song on that, Junior Dad, I think is amazing. There’s nothing else like it, that album. I’m not into heavy metal. A lot of the time it’s so grandiose. The pomposity pistols are out when there’s a lot of heavy metal. You get a lot of that pretending that we were talking about. You’re a young white guy from Leamington Spa, and yet you’re also the spawn of the devil, and the seventh son of a seventh son…there’s a lot of make believe in that. And there’s make believe in Lou Reed’s life as well but he’s got a lot of fire. So many issues in his head that are coming out in that music that it’s like finally there’s someone who is so fucked up enough to tackle this genre authentically. And the result is the metal fans don’t like it! ‘What’s wrong with this bloke? He seems like he means it’.”
On the first Pill Fangs album the only cover is a Leonard Cohen song. And it’s a great cover of Tower Of Song. Where do you stand on Cohen? Big fan?
“I wouldn’t say a huge fan. There are people that I like more, but not many. He’s someone who I’m kind of envious of really, in a way that I’m not with some of my other heroes. I think he’s got a formula. He never quite gives you the truth, which is something I’ve always strived to do.”
You think he holds something back?
“Yes, definitely. But I really like that cover and the radio liked it too. Radio 6 covered it a lot. This is part of the same thing I was talking about. If you can say you’ve never heard of me, and never heard of this band, but you’ve heard of Leonard Cohen, then it’s a different thing. And I think the song was improved, which sounds almost blasphemous, for someone who’s got so many Leonard Cohen albums over here, but the middle 8 in that song is rubbish. It adds nothing to it. Then you think, right, well it goes, G C D or A D E or whatever it is, apart from the middle 8 which we won’t bother about, and there are too many verses, so if you speed this up it actually makes more senses as a song. So that was all we did to it, was speed it up.”
I thought it was a great version and it may be blasphemy, but I thought it was a better version.
“Well, he’s dead now so you can say what you want. At the time we did the song he wasn’t. I think we paid him £60.00 for the use of that song so all fair in love and war. I don’t think the song losses anything by chopping three verses out and a middle 8. It is a rock song, but he didn’t realise it.”
I think Nice Cave did a version and his lasted about 15 minutes.
“Did he? Well, he got it the wrong way round. He should have made it 2 minutes long.”
So, Pill Fangs led me into investigating more of your work and I got hold of a copy of your New Hawks album. And I was stunned by it. I think it’s a lost masterpiece. With that album did you always intend releasing a 32 track album or did it just grow like that?
“It was all written together in a very short period, a very fervent period of creating music, so it was all written, kind of like spinning plates, so that you had one song on the go and then you had another eighteen songs on the go at the same time. And you kind of go between them. My head was in a bit of a mess at the time. It was kind of flashing between those things. So they all became interlinked, there was never any question that the 32 pieces shouldn’t be together. The record label, at one point, said, well as this is taking such a long time to assemble and record this material, because although it took weeks to write it, the actual execution was very drawn out, why don’t we break this into three 11 song albums, instead of what I wanted to do. And my thinking was, what if the albums a flop, what have you got to do with the second installment of it? But I make all the wrong decisions. Either accidentally or on purpose. So, I said, no, it’s got to be all together and they said fine, but we thought we’d mention it because it seems like you’re crazy and we’re not. I didn’t want to be left high and dry – if installment 1 or the 3 flopped then where’d you go? Because all of this needs to be out. I was really driven to have it finished and out there. The result was that it was a hugely costly package. You have a short run of 500 12” records pressed three times, so there was no saving, everything was going back to square one again. And then I wanted it all to be in a box, like those things you used to get in the ‘70’s. But you look around and realise nobody does that sort of thing anymore. We had to get some bespoke company to make these things for about £5 per box. So the whole thing was just hugely extravagant. And then what I also want is a 32 page full colour booklet. So what happened was, the label, which had had a few small releases and done ok, when New Hawks came out, it bankrupted it within weeks. But they were like we don’t care about that, we’re just waiting for all the good reviews to come and they thought it would be really legendary, they were really behind it.”
New Hawks came out in 2010. What were the reviews like?
“They weren’t as bad as the sales suggested. There was a real mixture. There were people who were saying, this is really different, and they said it in a tone of voice that I used there i.e. good. There were quite a lot of reviews but most of them I set fire to and threw in the bin, because I thought, they’re getting it all wrong. There was a really snotty review, which said, this is a really Americana type project, said Americana magazine. But this idiot is singing in an English accent. They thought none of it worked, but it worked perfectly in terms of what I and the people involved had envisaged for the whole thing. It was remarkable that it was as close to the original impulse that it was.”
I think it works as a 32 track piece. If you’d released it as 3 separate albums, people would probably have criticised you for sounding the same across your 3 albums.
“But I think that’s what most people do. Like I was talking about the sensible thing to do, and then I generally do the opposite in every aspect of my creative life, if not my life full stop. I’ve no regrets but it would have made more sense, because really what people like is to hear the same thing over and over again. So people who were warming to installment one, by the time installment two came out would be like, oh there’s some good songs on this as well.”
They are all great songs and it would have made for 3 great albums, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
“Absolutely not. Bur if I’d have been more of a careerist, then that definitely wouldn’t have been the way to do it. But it wasn’t an option. The whole thing ‘came to me in a dream’ and it all had to be as it was with no compromise whatsoever. And what do you get as a result of that? You bankrupt the label. But there were some people who really liked it and I occasionally still bump into people who say they were listening to it yesterday and that it’s one of their favourite albums. And that’s incredible. Going back to what we were saying about how much competition there is, you think of the odds of what it is for people to say it’s one of their top 5 albums. That’s a huge affirmation of what you thought you were trying to do.”
But does that make you more frustrated that more people haven’t heard it?
“I’d love more people to hear it.”
What the internet did was allow anyone with a tune to get it out there. Which is great, but it just means your flooded with music. It must be so hard to publicise yourself and get your music heard.
“It’s hard and it’s expensive. But if I was to think too hard about myself and the role of my music, you’d maybe think I don’t care and don’t want people to hear my music. Because it wouldn’t be so out there, as they see it, and people do. People think my stuff is so weird. And of course, I don’t at all, it’s just what comes out of your mouth and your head. It’s kind of like a fart, you can put up with your own and you can see the advantages of your own aroma, in a way that other people can’t. I think people think I’m saying, stay away, because some of the music is a bit difficult in some ways. But what I really want is for the whole world to love me. Not in a people throwing gladioli at me or money, I just mean that I think that what I’m doing is good and I want more people to listen to it.”
Looking ahead now, what have you got planned for this year?
“Definitely one album and maybe two for this year.”
I’ve heard Country Dustbin, which I believe will be your next release. It’s one track at over 50 minutes. Is it an album or a song?
“I think it’s an album. I’m a very album orientated person. And again alarm bells are ringing in terms of how the industry has moved away from albums in the last 10 to 15 years. And the way people can consume music, and so the first thing I put out was New Hawks, a 32 track triple album, which was suicidal in 2010. And we knew that but thought fuck it. But to me a good album is better than a good film. And it’s better than a good painting. It’s not that I don’t see a distinction between all those things, but in terms of the effect they’ve had on me and my imagination, and the way it has on other people and no doubt you, it’s just better. Like the Godfather, all of that stuff is stuff people have thrown millions of dollars at. And often very emotionally manipulative. Throw everything at it in order to for it be an unforgettable film. But the more that happens, the more forgettable it becomes to me. I still believe in the power of music and you can record something for next to nothing. And it can be really life changing for people, regardless of how many people hear it. I just think it’s the highest level of art. So I’ve got a very high opinion of albums, and that’s what I want to do. What I’ve just put out is a bit of a departure for me, because I’ve just put out this EP type thing. It’s kind of been like a fun little holiday, but it isn’t the same at all as making a 40 minute statement. Or in the case of New Hawks a 2 hour 20 statement!”
So by doing a 54 minute song is that a way of forcing people to listen to an album?
“Yeah, I think maybe that was in the back of my mind. It’s a tightrope act between spontaneity and actually thinking about what it is you’re doing, and boxing clever in terms of the creative side of it, not in terms of the career side of it. The main thing for me was, I’ve written hundreds of songs over the years, and I’ve recorded half of them, but I think there’s a gap, not in the market because the market doesn’t even exist, but a gap in the mental market. There is new ground to be explored. So instead of writing another 3 minute song, which thousands of people do every 10 minutes, let’s go for something different.”
And what was the process of doing that? Deciding that you’re going to write a song that long.
“I think how it started was, I got into a groove with the music, and it’s almost like kind of a hip-hop thing in terms of laying down a beat and the lyrical bombs start flowing. I made a demo of it, and it was 13 minutes long, and I thought, fucking hell it’s a long song. But it’s fun so let’s keep going and I thought what would be the ideal length for a song. I mean, not for a song full stop, because everyone knows what the ideal length of a song is. Generally it’s 3 minutes. I’ve listened to nothing but ‘60’s soul for the last 12 months and anything over 3 minutes and I’m thinking, fucking hell this is a long one. They’re saying everything in the space of 2 minutes and 20 seconds, and they’re perfect. So it’s not like I’m not a fan of all that, but I thought what is going to prompt me to write something different. And that was the idea – I just came up with 52 minutes and thought I’d write a verse for every week of the year, or every card in the pack. So it was kind of an arbitrary thing, but it’s got to be more than 20 minutes because that’s your average long song. The last Bob Dylan album, he’s got a couple of songs at around 20 minutes, and I thought fuck that, that’s just baby stuff. You’ve really got to be crazy for doing something going on for nearly an hour.”
It’s funny you mention Dylan, because he did come to mind when I was listening to the song. Certainly lyrically.
“It’s the same kind of thing. Pete Philipson, who was the boss of the Manchester record label we bankrupted, was invited to the recording session which was at Eve Studio, near Stockport. Pete was involved because I thought this would be a big live session, and he’s a music engineer, and he ended up just turning the pages of the 100 pages of lyrics. And he was perfectly happy to do that which I thought was great.”
“Everything I’m doing now is backdated, because this was recorded in 2019. And a year later Pete bought Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, and he was like, what’s this bloke doing all this Dan Haywood stuff! So he was listening to it and thinking, this is just like Country Dustbin! But only shorter and, as he said flatteringly, not as good! But I do see the similarity. I’m just glad I got in there first so people didn’t think I was jumping on some kind of bandwagon, by writing long lyrics. And that’s the difference. There are famous long songs in rock history, like Sister Ray, 17 minutes long, and when I heard that for the first time as a teenager I thought it was fucking brilliant, but I also thought, this things never ending! But you’ve just got to derange your mind a bit to think that it just doesn’t matter how long a song is. Then you’ve got Dark Star by the Grateful Dead, which is about 21 minutes long, and you’re thinking this is never gonna end, even if you like it! But the thing with all of these songs, is that they’re largely instrumental, like Neil Young’s Cowgirl In The Sand, which is about 11 minutes long, but it’s just 4 verses over that period of time. So I was thinking, I’m not interested in doing that. I’m interested in doing something like an opera. A solid libretto for that whole period of time. So it wasn’t like, I want to do a 52 minute song, it was, I want to do a 52 minute lyric.”
When I was listening to Country Dustbin I had an email from Richard Turner, who I know has played with you before, and he said he played second guitar on Country Dustbin. He was saying how he had to watch the projector for cues.
“Yeah, that’s what Pete was doing – making sure everyone could see the cues. It wasn’t rehearsed, there were a couple of people on that session who hadn’t even played it before. So it was like, this point is theme A, and it was led by the lyrics, so when you get to these words, you do it in style B. I can’t read or write music, I can’t even read or write, like James Carr in fact, so it was lyric led in that sense as well. Most musicians at sessions, it doesn’t matter to them what the lyrics are, they try not to listen to them, because most lyrics are embarrassing and shit. I don’t mind my lyrics being embarrassing, but I don’t want them to be shit. So the musicians were all looking at the projectors on the wall, and on some level, because you’re following that, you are reacting to the what the words are, in a way that they wouldn’t normally. A song like Rolling Stone, the players on that probably weren’t even listening to the lyrics. People think what a classic song, but the people playing on it were thinking, fucking hell when is this going to end, and what the fucking hell is he singing about, I can’t be bothered to listen to it. Because at that point it wasn’t a standard.”
Was it one take or a couple of takes?
“I wanted to do three. I think number three would’ve been great, but a couple of the band had to go. We did two hours of setting up, then first take wasn’t that good, second take was better, and I thought the next one we were going to get it. Most of the musicians either really enjoyed it, or at least it didn’t present any problems to them. But one of them was finding it difficult, and the idea of a third time was just too much. It was intense. Just the concentration of reading cues off the lyrics, it was quite an exhausting process. You might say there isn’t anything new under the sun, but I definitely think there are things about this song that do make it new.”
When will that be released?
“Probably at the end of July. I’ve got a label to put out Country Dustbin. It will be on CD with an 80 page book. Which is just the lyrics essentially, but there’s a lot of work gone into that. In the same way that New Hawks was unified in terms of it being 32 tracks, this is unified by being one piece, so the idea of turning your record over after 13 minutes, would change it. There is one pause, a rest in the song that’s long enough for someone to turn over a record, and you do think is it going to go on? Has it stopped? And then it goes on again. So it could have been done, but it would have been compromised. I think CDs are good anyway, and it’s good to have that discipline of not being able to go over 70 minutes – it’s good to have some constraints!”
So a record label will put that out in a nice CD/Book package?
“Well it’s not how the Wonderstuff had it, because it’s a record label ‘helping’. It’s Café Oto in London, who specialise in left field stuff, mainly instrumental, electronic music, sort of free jazz. And there’s me who thinks he’s James Taylor or something like that, who, by default, is lumped into that category of being very far out. I think that if this was 40 or 50 years ago everyone was insane in terms of what they were doing. I think things have just become more conservative in recent years. When I became better known, around the time of New Hawks, we did a large European tour on the back of that, and that was my highest profile, about ten years ago. And the music world has just become more and more conservative. I mean, what’s the difference between Radio 6 and Radio 2? A lot of the programmes, not all of them, there’s isn’t really a lot of difference. And then when a royal dies they dedicate 2 days – and this is the hip and happening left field – to hymns! How much more establishment could this possibly be? This is the truth of the matter and this is why people like me won’t win. If the world is going to the right then there are even more people who hate the thought of me than there were twenty years ago.”
Even being a white, heterosexual, middle class male!
“It’s still no barrier to hatred! When I finished New Hawks, 10 or 12 years ago, I sent it to David Berman of the Silver Jews. He was one of the few contemporary artists who I thought was taking lyrics and songs as seriously as me, but in a fun way. It was nice to know that he was out there in the world doing reasonably well. But he’d gone into retirement for one reason or other. I was sending him emails as a fan essentially, but he was listening to what I was doing and genuinely interested in it. And he liked what I was doing and said, don’t ever change it, don’t ever conform. I wasn’t going to anyway but it was nice to hear someone else say what you’re doing is right, despite the indications to the contrary. I was about 30 then, but I think he thought I was probably 15 or something, so maybe that’s why he was being kind! But he was saying, I don’t know how you can do it, how you can be in the music industry, you’re a lot braver than me. He was hiding from it essentially, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me. So, already by established people 10 or 15 years ago, they were already thinking, the smart ones among them, were realising that they never would have made it, had they never made it back in the 90’s or 80’s or 70’s or 60’s. Someone like Rod the Mod, who’s as thick as pig shit, would say that his rise to the top was inevitable, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d started in 2020 or 1965. But the truth is he wouldn’t have done. These rock stars have got such huge egos. But someone like David Berman, who’s a very intelligent person, he knew it was difficult when he started, but that now it’s ten times worse.”
When New Hawks came out, were you lumped into the folk scene?
“Yes, and it was fun. That was a nature orientated album, to a certain extent. It was inspired by living in the north of Scotland. I’m very into nature and birds in particular, so folk music, certainly the instrumentation and some of the Celtic thing, just seemed to be the obvious thing. I was singing about waders, which I was doing surveys of out on the mountains and the moors, and there was the singing (here does impersonation of bird call), and then you go to a folk session in the evening, and what would they be paying (miming fiddle and same tune as bird call). And you realise all these things were completely together. There was no coincidence between the fact that the areas where you have these birds singing in those ways, were northern and western places, which is where Celtic music comes from. I wanted to do an acoustic type of record. I was into Neil Young, and thought maybe I could do something like that, but I’d never felt comfortable with it as it didn’t seem like me, but having submerged myself into those kinds of environments it suddenly became viable and the right thing to do. I really felt it in my bones. But it was fun being folk, because a lot of this stuff is not folk in any way. And you can listen to it now, having come from getting into Pill Fangs, and hear it as rock ‘n’ roll. There’s quite a lot of attitude in it. Certainly how folk was regarded 10 or 15 years ago, it was a very neutered thing, or so people thought. But if you were the Chieftains, or someone like that, and hard drinking and fist fighting every night, it’s not how it seemed in the folk boom of the noughties. It was just a load of twee people singing twee songs.”
My impression of folk is that it’s a bit precious.
“Yes, but it led to some great experiments, in terms of…well, what is folk music? And most people will say, it’s just playing an acoustic guitar. And of course that’s not really true. There was one night we were playing a gig and getting heckled. We finished and some bloke was up on stage, in my face, giving me some shit and I just saw red. I grabbed him by the… I forget what I grabbed him by, but it wasn’t somewhere very nice, and I kind of shoved him off the stage. I’d torn my shirt very theatrically, as he’d grabbed onto my shirt as I was shoving him. So it was like some sort of Elizabethan fashion, that make it look like you’ve got slashes on your shirt, like from Blackadder, from buccaneering. Everyone was watching this, and it was kind of unlike me, but one of the band members, who was younger than the rest of us, this happened to be one of their friends, and so all of her friends were texting her after the gig, saying, ‘some folk band your singer is! He’s punched Tarquin!’ And I’m thinking this shows just how wrong you’ve got the whole thing. What you think folk music is, and what you think I am, everything was wrong about it. It did lead to some funny things. The circuit we were on, everyone was like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to everyone involved in the gigs and ‘I wonder if we could have a half of craft beer, please?’ And then there was us, and mainly me, who was just kind of all crazy and aggressive.”
When I listen to New Hawks there is stuff on there that is definitely folk, but I wouldn’t say it was a folk album.
I don’t know how I’d describe it as a whole.
“No, nobody does. Myself included. Which is the interesting thing. It’s just a complete mystery to me. It was when I wrote it, it was when I recorded it, and it still is.”
Are you someone who has to work hard on a song, or do you get the inspiration and it comes out pretty quick?
“Generally a lot of work. I played Country Dustbin to a couple of people and, as expected, they said, is this some kind of stream of consciousness thing, was this just improvised? But I don’t think the best rapper in the world could improvise for that length of time! So, I was like, no, I didn’t just make it up as I went along! It took me two years to write this! Every night for two years, between midnight and 4am, I wrote some more of the song. Just built it up like that.”
That must be annoying, when you’ve put all that work in, and someone says, oh you just improvised it.
“Well, I’d be very happy if I could improvise to that level. And I know where they’re coming from, because it’s an experimental use of language to a certain extent. They think, this isn’t the kind of stuff that I read in a book, or on my Kindle, because it’s got a certain amount of attitude and there’s a mind bending kind of aspect to the whole thing. But, yeah, it is an insulting thing to say! It’s kind of a tarted up version of stream of consciousness, but on Country Dustbin, there are things that I’ve avoided writing about. There’s a lot of autobiography in that, more so than anything else I’ve ever done really. And I think, why have I never written about that episode in my life. And one of the reasons is, you couldn’t get it into 3 minutes, and another reason was that it was too exposing, or upsetting for me to write about. But of course when you’ve written for a few years, you begin to run out of fucking things to say, so you end up thinking, I’ll bring up that traumatic event! If you listen to it again, about 30 minutes in, when it’s getting really good, there’s this stuff about Dark Eyed Russell. This is about a time when we were students, and we were put in a house with this mystery lodger. Turns out he’d come out of prison, but the landlady didn’t think it would be fair to tell us what he’d done. But it turned out that, as 18/19 year olds, we were living with a murderer, who’d just got out after 12 years for beheading someone with a samurai sword. He was a white South African and he’d been in the country about a year, someone had looked at his bird so he’d chopped his head off! Over a period of weeks all this became clear. So there were us timid little students living with this bloke and it was quite an experience. And I remember at the time, maybe a few months after we’d gotten over the trauma of this, because it ended quite badly, but we lived to tell the tale, but there was a lot of violence and insanity, and I said I was going to write this song called Russ the Murderer. I thought well the guy was called Russ, so I wasn’t going to call him Denzel or something. Then the other people in the band were like, you can’t do that, man, he’s gonna kill us!
So there were some things, on some level, that I had to get out of my system. And you’re never going to do that, if you think I’m going to write a 2 minute song. So you’re really going through several layers of consciousness in your head, man. Because you have the freedom just to write and write and write. There were lots of things like that in it. So this isn’t improvisation, this is actually what happened.”
It became a psychiatric session
“Definitely, yes. But it all happened and I have the dry-cleaning bills to prove it.”
I’m looking forward to listening to it again, now.
“In the book, which I’m working on with Bill, (whose one of the drummers on it, and we go back a long way, in fact he was one of the ones who said I couldn’t write a song called Russ the murderer, and I think he was right at the time, but I’m convinced he’s out of the country or dead now this fella, and he liked me anyway, so I think he would forgive me) there’s a kind of pretentious dramatis persona at the beginning, and one of them is Dark Eyed Russell, and the next one is Ragged Russell who comes in at 33 minutes. There’s about 20 different characters.”
Sounds almost Dickensian.
“I think what I’m trying to do with language is to try and make something timeless. One of the things to do is to use some arcane and archaic language – anything that’s got arc in it really – arc welding language maybe. It takes you out the here and now and you want to get inside reality in some sense, and sometimes you do that by having these lyrical bombs in a Milton style. I did that, I did an album that was like Sam Cooke sings Paradise Lost. That’s something I’ve not put out. But I will, because it’s really good. The more ludicrous it is, the more I like the idea of it. But to really look into the future of music, which is what I try and do, there has to be an element of taking it out of the present. And also as a writer, people 200 or 300 years ago, had so many more words to choose from. The thing that drives me crazy at the moment is that everyone talks about an industry being decimated or a species being decimated. And of course, the original meaning of the word decimated was to reduce by 1/10th wasn’t it, and that makes sense. Now decimated means, because it sounds like devastate or something, people use it wrongly. But the more you look into language you discover there was the right word for everything in the world, 200 or 300 years ago, in English. If you look at the average pop song these days, or indeed any time in the last 50 years, there’s only a few words repeated endlessly. So Country Dustbin, just by the sheer number of words, you can sneak interesting words in there, and people not go, ‘oh that’s a bit fucking pretentious’. Like ‘oh baby, baby, baby – decimalisation’. By the time you get the word decimalisation – which isn’t in there by the way – you’ve had 30 minutes of this shit, and you’re like, what the fuck! But you’re prepared for whatever word is next. And that’s the interesting thing about hip-hop, is that rappers use 300% more vocabulary than pop or rock writers do. A lot of those words are designer brands and machine gun manufacturers, which isn’t my cup of tea, but it means they are being more creative with lyrics. If you’re saying Kalashnikov or John Paul Gaultier, it’s still widening the repertoire of cliches. Even if it’s just different sounds and textures, it’s still better than ‘baby, baby, baby ooo’. Which I also like. But the rappers are like the new Shakespeare. There are fewer constraints, and that’s what I’m about, having as few constraints as possible. Even if that means putting constraints on yourself in order to do that.”
So instead of saying ‘I’m going to write a song today’ you’re thinking, ‘How can I push the song writing’.
“Yeah. The songs that I think are good by my own standards, I just throw them away. Because what is it bringing to the world? I don’t have to worry about it clogging up the charts or anything like that. But I think, if it’s already been said, particularly by myself, then there’s really no point saying it again. You’ve got to take fun more seriously. ‘It’s that one life, live it. I’m gonna have six dogs and go surfin’ every day’ (said in faux Mancunian accent) – it’s my version of that. Life’s too short, just to do the same old shit.”
You’ve just released an EP called ‘Glad That I Live Am I’. The song itself is an old hymn.
“Yeah, I didn’t actually realise that, it was just something that they made us sing at primary school. And most of that stuff was garbage, but I really liked that one. I didn’t know who’d written it, I thought it might have been the PE teacher, Mr Bryan, who wrote the odd song. He had one called Magic Penny, which was an execrable song: ‘Love is like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t get any. But if you give that penny away, you end up getting more.’ I think maybe he’d stolen it from Ken Dodd or something. But what I liked about Glad That I Live Am I, was the fact that I’d remembered it for 30 years. It seems like a truer folk process sort of record, than doing something that you’ve heard on an Alan Lomax record. Because I’d never heard a recording of that song. The only recording I’ve heard is my own. So talking about there being some sort of angle on everything, a bit different, this maybe falls into that category because of that. But also, it very much bucks certain trends, in terms of it was a really impromptu thing to do. And it’s different for me, because I wasn’t cross referencing with 20 or 30 other things, which is generally how I wrote all Pill Fangs stuff. It was nice just doing a one off thing and there being a freshness about it. Because the person who is duetting on it, and playing the autoharp, has never heard the song before. We just went into a studio in Birmingham and we did it. And you think, yeah that’s the thing we’re going to put out. Again, it’s giving the impression of having some joie de vivre by just doing something. Because everybody has great ideas, on the way home from the pub or something like that, but do they ever do it? And the answer is: do they fuck. If nothing else, I like to think I act on those things.”
Maybe that’s the difference between artists and ‘normal’ people, The artist actually does it.
“Yeah, and sometimes you think that’s the only difference. ‘That’s a load of cobblers, I could have done that’. That’s the old thing to say, but why didn’t you! But in my case, because I’m not as middle class as all that, there had to be some kind of utility or beauty to it as well.”
When I listened to it, I presumed that you’d written it. So when I researched it, I was surprised to discover it was a hymn, because it did sound so much like a folk song.
“I’ve got a lot of songs, and several of them have got that melody in it. When I was writing those songs with that melody, I kept thinking, where do I know this melody from? Where have I got that from? Then a few years ago I thought, shit, I remember that song they used to make us sing at school. And there was something that felt important about it, or moving about that melody. Just because it comes from that nostalgic place in your head, a time that you can’t even really believe existed. Was it you or someone else? When you’re knocking on, you think, I know that 5 year old looks like me, but was that really me? I like to think that it comes from a slightly different direction. Particularly someone who has always, besides the Leonard Cohen thing, been anti-covers. Because I see covers bands going out making money and I don’t want any part of that. I’m either gonna insult Leonard Cohen’s estate and his memory by completely re-writing his song; I’ll correct that for you, Leonard! It’s alright, I’ve improved that song for you! Or record an old song that you’ve never heard a recording of, purely from memory. I’ve always thought that when people start doing covers albums, it’s over for them really.”
Josephine Foster, who duets on the song with you, were you friends?
“Yes. At the time that I was regarded as a folk artist, she was from that same boat, albeit a lot more successful than me. She’s really good, and not everyone can have as bad luck as me. We shared the same booking agents, so we did gigs together and remained friends. She’s a really interesting person. Auto-didact, with no pretensions. Some of the stuff may be pretentious, but she’s got no idea about popular culture. If you mentioned The Beatles, she’d say, yeah, I think I’ve heard of them. And it’s not an act, it’s true. She’s on this Spring album which we’re hoping to get out, and the only kind of pop culture (and people talk in pop culture references because we get them ‘Oh, yeah, I remember Spangles!’) she knew was the soundtrack to Grease. That was the one record she had when she was a kid, that wasn’t opera or reading Emily Dickinson. I think it’s great that there are still people like that. People like that are purer of heart because they see things at their face value. Which is one of the reasons, I think, she likes my stuff. Because she’s not thinking, he’s of no use to my career, or he sounds like this person and I like that person. It’s really about you. But if she wasn’t so brilliant a musician, we might have found ourselves in the studio saying, well can you play it a bit more like, ‘Tell, me more! Tell me more!’. But she lives in a state of grace and music comes much more naturally to her than it does to me. She just gets stuff on an animal level, whereas the rest of us have to feed each other pop culture references. She’s just a really true artist. Not tainted in the way I am.”
So this is the second project of the year, she’ll be involved with that?
“She’s on it yes. Again, this is something we did a couple of years ago. It was recorded in London at a very interesting studio called the Fish Factory. It’s a bit of a secret studio where you have to pay for everything in cash. Channel 4 do work there, and they have to get someone with a briefcase full of money to give to the studio owner.”
What’s the theme behind this one? Is there one?
“Spring is the theme, which is a recurring theme for me, but just because I really like it.”
Your album Dapple, was very heavily spring influenced.
“That’s essentially about spring, and the story of that is that song revisits the same character, but at various springs throughout his life. So there’s a spring when he’s 5, and a spring when he’s 18 and a spring when he’s on his death bed. It’s an historical sort of fantasy almost. But this new one is just about how I was feeling that particular spring, a couple of springs ago, and I felt pretty terrible. But there’s nothing over 40 minutes on it. If you get into Country Dustbin, and I think you will, it’s very hooky, don’t expect part 2 with the next one! Because some of the songs are 2 minutes long. I think there’s one that’s 9 minutes.”
LTW will definitely be reviewing Country Dustbin.
“Well, I’m really interested in what people make of it. Obviously, people want to hear nice things, but I think I’m at the age now where I can take criticism a bit better. It’s an experience listening to a song that long. One of the reasons you come out of a cinema feeling different, after you’ve seen a film, is because you are different, because it’s 2 and a half hours later. You went in in the light and you came out in the dark. And you know that feeling when you come out the cinema, that’s what I wanted to do with Country Dustbin. One of the band members said, why don’t we record this in sections? And I said, no, I want you to hear the musicians getting tired, and the musicians getting bored, and I want that feeling at the end when everyone thinks, fucking hell it’s home time. There’s a one minute part at the end which is like bringing games in at school on the last day of term. And everyone says, thank fuck that’s over. But in order to have that effect, you actually have to do them. You can’t manufacture that, you have to do it. Most of the films I come out of, I think, that’s the most amazing film I’ve ever seen, I’m going to go out and buy a lightsabre and I’m gonna change the world. Five minutes alter though, nothing’s happened. You’ve gone to the pub, or gone home and put the telly on, and then you’ve forgotten about the film. But I hope that this isn’t like that.”
I do remember thinking, when I was listening to it, when it got to the last ten minutes, how is he going to end this?
“It’s kind of like a questing kind of song. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken acid, or that kind of thing (and I haven’t for a long time, but I used to take it a fair bit), you get that kind of thing where you’re latching onto a secret or you’re on the edge of some great discovery. The answer to everything is just there! Like you’ve got something on the tip of your tongue – you know it’s there but you can’t access it. On some level the songs like that, it’s always like these riddle things, and at some point there’s got to be a breakthrough. And I honestly thought when I was writing it, that there was going to be a breakthrough. I was doing this late night writing every day and I thought, man, simply by the law of averages some of this has got to be good. I think that’s true. But, also, I thought there’s going to be some moment of enlightenment, and there is that moment in there, and the challenge for the listener is to work out if it’s real or phony. But how do you move on from a moment of enlightenment? You either say nothing else for the rest of your life, because to speak would be a futile thing to do, or you do what I did in the song, which is that the last couple of verses get progressively worse and loses all thread! It’s kind of like sobering up at the end of the thing. But then you get this wonderful thing that the band do, who are all really talented, who have been doing something very structured for 50 minutes, then suddenly open up in the last minute. There’s just something that seems psychologically true about the whole thing.”
I will certainly give it a for more listens.
“Well, I’m not saying you’ve got to!”
Well, I’m from that generation that listens to a whole album. I love sitting down and putting a record on, so 53 minutes is pretty normal for me.
“Yes, that’s right. There’s a double standard because you get some people who say, you expect me to sit through that opera (I mean, I wouldn’t, because it’s not my thing) or you expect me to listen to this song that’s 20 minutes long? I’ve got things to do. Well, get your fucking priorities right, because there isn’t anything better to do, on some level. How is it, that you’ll go and watch the latest Marvel film for 2 and ¾ hours, which is absolutely saying nothing, but you won’t listen to a song that’s longer than 6 minutes – it’s a strange thing. It’s that thing that people don’t pay for music but they pay for everything else.”
It’s great. I love sitting down to an album.
“It is. It’s just nice to get lost in that world, and I do it every day. I listen to other’s people’s stuff and get lost in it. Who can travel at the moment? No one. But we’ve always been travelling in our minds every time we put an album on. As a fan or as someone making music or art of any kind, you are always moving, and getting lost in this stuff. Life would be not worth living without it, really.”
I think it was Nietzsche who said, without music life would be unbearable. And he went mad.
“But you do occasionally meet people who just don’t like music. And I just can’t relate to people like that. I think, I don’t like that. Someone who I vaguely knew said, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make. Not only do I not like your music (and I’m like, fair enough), I don’t actually like music. But it’s kind of a taboo thing to say. And I’m glad this person did say that, but on the other hand, you think, I just don’t get it. Life’s rich pageant, I suppose. But you can’t help thinking it’s not as rich for them. What can replace it? Maybe some of the biggest albums, and biggest films, are for people who don’t like music or movies. Like David Gray or something. How is it possible those big records can sell 4 million copies? And the answer is there’s more than 4 million people in the world who aren’t interested in music, and don’t know what its purpose is!”
Thank you, Dan, for a wonderfully entertaining interview. Look out for his future projects.
And we reviewed his latest EP here.