There’s a moment about twenty minutes into Sun Kil Moon’s punishing three-hour show at Dublin’s Vicar Street when Mark Kozelek has his first whinge of the evening. After expressing his deep hatred of The Edge’s guitar playing, he goes on to berate U2 and bands like them for taking classic albums out on tour. Instead, Kozelek prefers to continually create the best work he can rather than feeding off the glory days of the past. That’s a worthy mission, of course, but the irony in Kozelek’s rant is that he himself has released so much below-par music in the last few years that it is starting to threaten his own legacy. Between his own work and collaborations with others, he has put his name to four (FOUR!) albums this year alone. And there’s more to come: tonight’s show is peppered with new songs, some unfinished, some written in the last few weeks – or even days – for another new album next year. For Kozelek, too much is not enough and it’s impossible to keep up anymore.
Confusingly, he plays songs from his collaborative albums under his Sun Kil Moon guise. Tonight’s opening song ‘Daffodils’ is from his album with Parquet Courts’ Sean Yeaton and it’s pretty dreadful – a tuneless dirge that goes nowhere. Next up is ‘The Black Butterfly’ from his collaboration with Ben Boye and Dirty Three’s Jim White which isn’t much better, sounding almost indistinguishable from what went before it. ‘Blood Test’ is an improvement as Kozelek taps into the weird political climate currently at play on both sides of the Atlantic but then ‘Linda Blair’ is puerile nonsense about being annoyed by a kid on a plane with a ferocious cough but at least it raises a laugh. And so on. It’s that sort of night.
Thankfully, the Kozelek of old returns with the sweetly affecting ballad ‘My Love For You Is Undying’, one of the night’s (few) highlights. The epic ‘The Possum’ and a full-on ‘Dogs’ allow the band accompanying Kozelek to show their mettle, with Kozelek and band letting their inner Neil Young reign to full effect.
Two and a half hours have passed, and we haven’t even reached the encore. When we do, it’s another new one ‘House Cat’, a forgettable collaborative effort with Boye/White along with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ for the Irish audience. The sadly introspective ‘Ceiling Gazing’ – a co-write with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle from their excellent 2013 album Perils From The Sea (keep up) – ends the show on a positive note but can’t fully rescue what’s turned out to be a wildly uneven night that felt more like an endurance test than anything else.
To even his own die-hard fans, Kozelek remains an infuriating conundrum. On stage he veers from truculent and self-obsessed (We get it, Mark. You’re 50. We all get older) to funny and charming, bolstered by an edgy onstage charisma. His output has always been maddeningly inconsistent but when he’s on form Kozelek’s song writing is exquisitely wrought and heartrendingly beautiful. On a good day, he’s untouchable. Sadly, those days are becoming fewer and far between.
Imagine you’re playing with your band in a jazz bar in Greenwich Village, as you have done for many years previous, when a reclusive cultural icon rocks up to your show and – so impressed is he by the musicianship skills on display – he announces that he’d like to use your group to play on his next record. This is what happened to Donny McCaslin and his band when the late, great David Bowie attended one of their shows in 2014. It’s a dream scenario for any band but McCaslin’s group seemed like a perfect fit. Coming from an experimental jazz-fusion background, they proved to be ideal collaborative partners in the creation of Bowie’s bold vision for his final album, Blackstar. Now, it’s nigh on impossible to imagine what sort of album that might have been if McCaslin and company weren’t on board.
In a small studio space hidden away in a corner of the vast National Concert Hall, we can see immediately what Bowie had encountered that night. McCaslin is the engine of the group, his fluid playing bringing myriad dimensions and wringing odd squeaks and sounds from his tenor saxophone. The band may operate under his name alone but this is a collective where each member brings something special to the table. Switching between an array of sequencers, keyboards and classical piano, Jason Lindner adds layers of emotional nuance to the physical energy of the music, especially his gorgeous interlude on ‘Glory’. Tim Lefebvre’s plucky bass-lines prove a melodic counterpoint to the mercurial, cymbal-bashing drumming. Yet, what may appear chaotic and loosely improvisational at first sight is deceivingly coherent, especially on ‘Shake Loose’ and ‘Bright Abyss’. Despite the apparent juxtaposition of sonic textures and an ever-changing tempo, the centre always holds because there is real genius at work here.
Much of tonight’s setlist is in tribute to Bowie yet, somewhat surprisingly, there are no outings for anything from Blackstar. Instead, we get a cover of ‘Art Decade’ from Low which is in itself a small consolation. Yet we are treated to so many reminders of Blackstar’s motifs within McCaslin’s own compositions – namely that superlative control of saxophone and the fluidity of the drumming – that, ultimately, it scarcely matters. Forget Bowie, it’s high time to appreciate this extraordinarily talented collective entirely on their own terms. It’s what he would have wanted.
In Terrence Malick’s existential anti-war epic The Thin Red Line, a pivotal scene featured US soldiers slowly impinging upon an invisible enemy, unequipped to deal with what was confronting them. It was a study of chaos and vulnerability, with the theme of the movie – the utter futility and grim banality of war – distilled down to this one scene. It was veteran soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer’s accompanying piece entitled ‘Journey To The Line’ – a haunting, ever expanding slow-build of clicking percussion and swelling strings that builds to an almost unbearable coda – that gave this scene its visceral power. To hear it live, stripped of its cinematic context, takes nothing away from it.
It comes in the second half of tonight’s show, when pieces from less feted movies like Sherlock Holmes, The Da Vinci Code and Pirates Of The Caribbean have already come and gone. For ‘Journey To The Line’, proceedings take a more sombre tone with the enormous semi-circular screen at the back of the stage slowly showing a flickering line expanding to a wash of deep, bloody red, a not-so-subtle hint to the movie it’s taken from. It’s these moments that resonate most at the 3Arena tonight. Sure, Zimmer can do jaunty and frivolous and bombastic but it’s the more introspective cuts from his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan like ‘Day One’ from Interstellar and ‘Time’ from Inception, along with ‘Journey To The Line’, that leave the most resounding impact.
To have that impact you need quite an array of talented musicians at your disposal, and that he certainly does. A choir, an orchestra, a suite of drummers, several female violinists, a double-bass player, a handful of guitarists and possibly even a kitchen-sink form a vast configuration on stage, an audience of musicians looking back at us. It works brilliantly most of the time, especially on the four-part Gladiator medley, but at times nuance is lost with the choir especially failing to be heard above a cacophony of string-instruments, electric guitars and frantic percussion. A traditional Irish set by two local musicians is a somewhat jarring diversion but it inevitably brings some of the biggest cheers of the night.
After the interval, Zimmer goes full-on rock, bordering even on metal, in the more intense, surprisingly loud second-half of the show, with a generous selection of tracks from The Dark Knight and Interstellar. One gets the impression Zimmer and gang are just getting started. The protracted running-time can perhaps be blamed on the 59-year old German’s long introductions to some of the pieces and his eagerness to praise his troupe of talented musicians. The master of proceedings is happy to chat to the audience at length, giving the impression he is relishing being away from, as he says, ‘his windowless studio’ back home.
Towards the end, as swathes of attendees are already heading for the exits, piercingly bright searchlights scan the audience before the encore, which features the aforementioned suite of compositions from Inception. It’s pitch-perfect and as slick as the big-budget movies he scores, and with a brief strike of violin, it’s over. Zimmer lines up his musicians and gives each a hug – he seems genuinely in awe of them. In truth, though, none of us would be here if it wasn’t for his unique way to pierce the heart with the music he creates. An emotionally draining and rather extraordinary night at the movies.
When My Bloody Valentine re-emerged in 2008 to play a series of acclaimed shows and festivals, it appeared to have sparked a resurgence of interest in the shoegaze scene they inadvertently spawned in the late 80s. Since then, other stalwarts of the scene such as Swervedriver, Lush and Slowdive have all resumed touring and recording activities, with Ride returning in 2014. Although their first album Nowhere was in thrall to the effects-laden sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain and MBV, the follow-up Going Blank Again appeared to show a willingness to leave their shoegaze roots behind and bring the pop hooks to the fore. Yet, they remained lumped in with the shoegaze gang and when it came for the all-powerful music press at the time to stick the boot into the scene they themselves had built up, Ride were part of the cull. Like so many of the acts that existed in the first few years of the 90s, they shone brightly before fizzling out quickly when labels and the music press lost interest and music fans were looking for the next bandwagon to jump on. That duly came in the form of Britpop. The swagger of Brett Anderson and Jarvis Cocker, the edgy charisma of the Gallagher brothers and the self-reflexive intelligence of Blur trampled on everything than came before. How were these introverted dreamers that preferred to stare at their effects pedals instead of making eye-contact with the audience (hence the term ‘shoegaze’) supposed to compete with the extroverted showmen of Britpop? Ride battled on with two more albums but by the mid-90s, shoegaze was dead in the water and Ride called it a day.
It was a sad end to the band, and shoegaze as a whole, as the sub-genre was a cathartic and innovative detour away from the conventions of formulaic, guitar-based music. It was, in its own way, a scene as powerful and influential as punk and grunge but without the credibility those two movements continue to possess. With homogeneous pop reigning supreme and bona fide rock bands bizarrely thin on the ground, it is as good a time as any for it to return. As a comeback project, Ride seem to be going about it in all the right ways. Reports from previous shows reveal a band sounding better than ever and the two new songs that have appeared online – the wonderful ‘Charm Assault’ and ‘Home Is A Feeling’ – are clear evidence that the songwriting chops are still in place. It all bodes well for the new album Weather Diaries that will appear in the summer on Wichita Records.
And so it is on a miserably wet Wednesday night that they descend on the Olympia for a night of wistful nostalgia, with obvious nods to the past but a very real sense of a new journey about to be undertaken. The band’s guitarist and co-vocalist Andy Bell once said a reunion would ‘not live up to expectations’. He’d probably be the first to admit he was wholly wrong in that assumption. The amiable Oxford four-piece look largely similar as they did two decades ago, the passing of time only evident via the bald crown of frontman Mark Gardener. It’s a no-frills affair, with the band’s name writ large and unadorned on a banner behind them. Two new songs – ‘Lannoy Point’ and the aforementioned ‘Charm Assault’ – open the show and it’s testament to the band that these new songs are a match for any of the older classics in the set. Yet, the biggest cheers of the night are reserved for old familiars. ‘Twisterella’, ‘OX4’ and ‘Vapour Trail’ receive whoops of approval which are rewarded with the band playing them with a precision and enthusiasm that belies the fact they took a twenty-year break as a band. ‘Drive Blind’s mid-song interlude of coruscating feedback and white noise could either be viewed as a homage to, or a rip-off of, My Bloody Valentine’s similar stunt during ‘You Made Me Realise’. Either way, it’s an impressive display, showcasing Ride’s desire to delve into pure noise when the moment requires it. ‘Leave Them All Behind’, still their finest moment, is reserved for the encore. It’s their own Paranoid Android, an ever-shifting, eight-minute epic journey beginning with that opening coda of jabbing Hammond organ borrowed from The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ right through to its pulverising climax. It still sounds as idiosyncratic today as it did in 1992.
Tonight’s show is so effortlessly accomplished you wonder why they were absent for so long. Yet, maybe the very act of disappearing, to explore new avenues and to resolve creative differences (Gardener went solo; Bell became, somewhat ironically, bass-player with Oasis) has resulted in a new understanding and appreciation of how good they were in the first place. It’s good to have them back.
Polica’s quite brilliant debut album Give You The Ghost heralded something new and indefinable when it arrived in 2012. It was a woozy, immediately arresting brew of soulful electronica topped off with front-woman Channy Leaneagh’s pleasingly stylised vocals. It rightly garnered a significant amount of attention for the Minneapolis four-piece and its lyrics and moods told of dark secrets and irreversible trauma (Leaneagh’s bitter divorce informed much of the song-writing process). Yet, they have since struggled to build on that early promise. A follow-up album Shulamith appeared quickly in 2013 but it failed to have the same impact as the debut album while this year’s United Crushers, apart from the standouts ‘Lime Habit’ and ‘Wedding’, is more filler than killer. For such a promising act, the fall-off in quality has been a little disappointing.
Despite this, Polica are still one of the more intriguing live acts around. A visually idiosyncratic set-up of two drum-kits sitting side-by-side provide the rhythmic bedrock. Over that, bass-player Chris Bierden and Leaneagh work alongside invisible pre-recorded backing tracks. The drummers play in an almost supernatural synchronicity while Bierden wrangles odd shapes from his instrument that permeate neatly into the electronic foundations of their sound. Technically, they’re near-flawless. Yet, throughout, there’s a creeping sense of something being amiss. The waif-like Leaneagh seems disengaged, to the point of almost not being there at all. The rest of the band appear glum. They seem to disprove the argument that doing what you love and getting paid for it is the holy grail of human existence. Or maybe they’re just tired.
Yet, when the band air the strongest suite of songs from the last three albums, suddenly the reason we’re here is made clear: when they’re good, they’re very good. ‘Lime Habit’ is a wondrous blast of electro-pop, made stronger by the propulsive beat of the twin drummers. The ascending coda of ‘Wedding’ is striking. The haunting ambiences of ‘Amongster’ and ‘Lay Your Cards Down’ alongside the funky swagger of ‘Dark Star’, all from the debut album, show how those early calling cards haven’t been bettered. And that’s the problem: most of the other songs in the set-list fail to connect in the same way and after 65 minutes they’re gone. Sometimes leaving them wanting more can be a good thing but tonight it felt too truncated and rudimentary, oddly veering from greatness to mediocrity and back again. Consistency wouldn’t go amiss and Polica know they can do better than this. For now, the jury’s out.
When Giorgio Moroder contributed a spoken-word track to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, there was a sense that the Parisian duo were repaying a debt to an artist they believed had been somewhat overlooked. Moroder was one of a coterie of French, Italian and German musicians whose pioneering work in the 1970s still resonates with electronic artists, producers and DJs in 2016. Yet, arguably the most influential but uncredited of them all from that period is Jean Michel Jarre. On his third studio album Oxygène (1976) he laid down the basic constituent elements of ambient, new-age, rave, techno and trance in his makeshift home-studio. The problem for Jarre was that the album was a runaway success: it has sold 12m copies since 1976. And he went on to play gargantuan outdoor spectaculars from the pyramids of Egypt to 2.5 million people in Paris. Ironically, global fame lead to his unique influence being under-appreciated.
Yet, if Daft Punk sought out Moroder to bring him in from the cold, Jarre has inversely sought out modern day artists whose music bears a direct lineage to his own. On his Electronica project – two collaborative albums released separately in 2015 and 2016 – the likes of Moby, Massive Attack’s 3-D, Peaches, Julia Holter and Fuck Buttons are all on board. Even Edward Snowden is roped in. It sees the Frenchman reclaiming the music he once influenced. It’s his best work in decades, and the bulk of tonight’s show is comprised of it.
Compared with the mega-concerts he has played in the past, tonight’s show at the 3Arena is intimate in comparison. Standing behind and in front of thin meshes of LCD screens that part and conjoin continuously throughout the show, the youthful 68-year-old cuts a sprightly figure behind his banks of equipment. Jarre has spoken of electronic acts using ‘technology today as a safety net, as a way of limiting human error’. So he’s keen to make the performance as live as possible, using both analogue and digital configurations to add spontaneity. He’s aided by two separate keyboardists and drummers to his left and right.
The throbbing bass-lines of openers ‘The Heart Of Noise 1’ and ‘The Heart of Noise 2’ gives us a taste of what’s in store, which is mostly loud and surprisingly aggressive slabs of trance-lite and melodic techno. ‘Oxygène, Pt.2’ is played early in the set, its precise Morse-code-like bleeps sounding as crisp and eerie now as they did in 1976. ‘Exit’ is an uncompromising, high-BPM juggernaut that slows down to a crawl to allow Edward Snowden appear on screen to talk about the importance of privacy in a connected world. The Pet Shop Boys collaboration ‘Brick England’ brings the crowd to their feet (well, some of them) and it produces a noticeable shift in energy, from sedentary politeness to a half-hearted rave-up. ‘Oxygène, Pt 4’ makes an appearance in the latter half of the show but his newer material is so slick and stylistically different, it results in his hitherto ‘greatest hit’ receiving a more muted response than one might expect.
There’s something endearingly child-like about Jarre: he seems to be having the time of his life on stage, like a child playing with his new toys on Christmas morning. And one of his biggest toys is the laser-beam synthesizer harp, consisting of seven or eight vertical green lasers that Jarre plays with his gloved hands, coaxing weird notes from it as if sending cryptic messages to a far-off civilisation. It’s silly yet immensely entertaining. For an encore, a track from his forthcoming final part of the Oxygene trilogy is previewed but it simply sounds like an offcut from the Electronica sessions. Nothing wrong with that as this is where Jarre is now: a modern electro artist in tune with the prevailing musical zeitgeist, of which he seems to be enjoying every second.
Since arriving on the scene with In A Safe Place in 2004, Jimmy LaValle – the Los Angeles-based musician and composer who operates under the moniker The Album Leaf – has been unfurling a series of distinctive, lushly atmospheric albums and EPs ever since. Ahead of a full-band live date at Dublin’s Workman’s Club tomorrow, we catch up with LaValle to discuss lazy pigeonholing, the new album and working with Mark Kozelek…
Your music is largely instrumental but describing it as ‘post-rock’ can be a somewhat lazy way to pigeonhole the music. How would you best describe the music you make and why did you mostly forego lyrics and vocals?
Thank you. I am really not a fan of the term ‘post rock’. I normally say it’s ambient electronic, which I realise can also be a broad term. But I feel closer to the electronic world of music more than rock. It’s a shame that most people often connect electronic music to dance music nowadays whereas electronic music has been around long before the current movement of EDM, etc…I never really focused on singing/lyrics from the beginning so the choice is really about when to sing. And there’s nothing really too deep about when I choose to sing. Sometimes I hear it from the beginning of writing the song or it comes out later.
Instrumental music allows the listener to become more emotionally invested in the music. Would you agree that the absence of lyrics or vocals liberates the music in a certain way?
Absolutely. I hear so many different interpretations of what a particular song means to someone. It’s great.
Although you operate under the Album Leaf moniker, you are – to all intents and purposes – a solo act. Would you like to be part of a band full-time or would you find the collaborative process restricting?
I would now consider myself the captain or ‘frontman’ of the Album Leaf. On these last couple of records I’ve collaborated with the players in my band. I do write the songs, but everyone contributed to the end result. I’ve also been doing a lot more collaborating in general. It’s a lot of fun for me.
Speaking of collaborations, how did 2013’s Perils From The Sea come about, your full-length album with Mark Kozelek? It must have been quite a creative shift to hear Kozelek’s idiosyncratic lyrics over your music.
Mark texted me and asked if I wanted to make a song together (and) have me write and create the music for him to sing on. The first song on that record happened and we decided to make another, then it turned into an album. I was a huge Red House Painters fan but hadn’t followed Sun Kil Moon, but hearing his voice over my music was really great. Listening closely to his lyrics was always a nice surprise, too.
I read an interview with you recently whereby you stated you have always been a ‘vinyl guy’ and make a point of ensuring all your albums are released on vinyl. What are your thoughts on Spotify and Apple Music and the way music is consumed today?
To me, it only helps. I prefer vinyl, that’s me (but) that’s not everyone’s deal. A lot of people still listen to CDs, most people listen digitally – it all helps. I would rather my music be readily available for anyone interested to listen to at anytime.
Apart from an EP in 2012, it’s been five years since the last full-length album A Chorus Of Storytellers. The new one – Between Waves – is imminent. What can we expect from it?
I worked really hard on this record trying to create something different. I’m very proud of it and very anxious to release it. Both the Rhodes piano and the guitar have taken a back-seat on this record. It’s a darker record, but still feels like the Album Leaf to me. That’s really all I can say about it.
When the Arctic Monkeys won the Mercury Music Prize in 2006, they sportingly declared that fellow nominee Richard Hawley should have won. “Call the police”, they said. “Richard Hawley’s been robbed!”. Yet, the bequiffed Englishman has always seemed like the perennial underdog, a status he appears comfortable with. After all, his music often chronicles the doomed fortunes of the inhabitants of his native Sheffield, while his old-school sartorial choices betray a man impervious to modern fads and fashion.
It leads to a worry that his moment in the (evening) sun at Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens might seem like an overly ambitious venture. He attracts a sizeable crowd, but it’s not sold out and his late-night tales of love and loss might be better suited to an indoor venue.
Yet these fears prove mostly unfounded. As the show progresses, we see that Hawley has enough versatility in his back-catalogue to make the night work. ‘Which Way’ from last year’s underrated opus Hollow Meadows is an arresting opener while ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’ is majestic and life-affirming. Later, Hawley’s weathered croon is to the fore on the gorgeous ‘I Still Want You’ – an unashamedly romantic ode to the pitfalls and rewards of long-term relationships.
Hawley has a full band with him, giving the songs added bulk on an outdoor stage. It’s the light and shade in the set, the effortless switch from tender romanticism to vaguely psychedelic rock that ultimately proves to be a winning formula. This is further reiterated when Hawley and his band run through ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’ and ‘Heart of Oak’ and later round it all off with a shimmering rendition of ‘The Ocean’ from 2005’s Cole’s Corner.
In essence, it’s a back-to-basics show as Hawley is not one for visual extravagance or contrived showmanship. Instead, we get great songs with no dip in quality, played with heart and vigour. Throw in his sardonic, slightly off-kilter shots of humour and one can see how he continues to win over crowds with ease. Tonight, under a muggy night sky in Dublin city centre, that’s certainly what he does.
In a windowless room in a disused army barracks in Mullingar, Minor Victories – a band made up of members of Mogwai, Editors and recently reformed 90s shoegazers Slowdive – are coming to the end of an afternoon’s rehearsal. They are in the Westmeath town refining a live set for their slot that night at Castlepalooza Festival in nearby Tullamore. On drums, Martin Bulloch (Mogwai) shares a private joke with bassist Justin Lockey (Editors) while trying to get their rhythm section timing just right. To their left, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite is serious and seated, hunched over his guitar while eyeing up the row of effects pedals at his feet, wondering which one to activate next. Beside him is Slowdive vocalist and guitarist Rachel Goswell, adding some of her own guitar figures to the mix while laying vocals over the top. There are hesitant glances between the members, worried that it still sounds a little rough and unfocused but a welcome synergy soon kicks in as each member’s separate contributions neatly align into one coherent whole. Stuart kicks down on a pedal and the room erupts, the walls shuddering in a fusion of noise and melody. After each member flew over separately from different parts of the UK to be here, they appear relieved it has all been worth it.
The band may cringe at the thought of being described as a ‘super-group’ but, for want of a better term, that’s possibly what they are. Braithwaite is the de-facto frontman of legendarily loud Glaswegian instrumentalists Mogwai while Goswell was, and still is in fact, the voice of Slowdive – one of a batch of alternative bands that defined the look and sound of early nineties UK indie, before the onslaught of Nirvana and then Britpop knocked them into touch. On bass, Justin Lockey is part of the current Editors incarnation while Mogwai drummer Martin Bulloch has come along as part of the touring set-up. While Braithwaite and Goswell may be the relatively better-known faces in the group, it was actually Lockey who initiated the project. ‘Justin contacted me through our mutual management in September of 2014,’ reveals the down-to-earth Goswell, who along with the equally amiable Braithwaite, speak to State before hitting the road for Tullamore. ‘He sent me some instrumental tracks to see if I would be interested in doing some work with him. The first one that we did was ‘Out To Sea’. That’s the one everyone thinks Stuart has written! We then got busy with our own respective bands for the rest of that year,’ she continues. ‘And then at the beginning of last year we went back and started sending things backwards and forwards. We then needed a guitar player and I suggested Stuart,’ she says, smiling over at her Scottish bandmate. ‘We met at a lot of festivals and kept bumping into each other and got on all right. He’s also a great guitarist! Thankfully, he said yes. It was about April of last year that the nucleus of the band got together.’
Although Braithwaite and Goswell were already acquainted, Minor Victories are slightly unusual in that they had barely met as a group before playing live together. The album was put together via online exchanges of sound-files and email attachments, each devising their own parts independently at home. According to Braithwaite, this method of collaboration didn’t seem too out of the ordinary. ‘It wasn’t that different to how I do things with Mogwai,’ he admits. ‘The only difference with Mogwai is that band is actually there! I probably recorded more than I needed to because I wasn’t sure what everyone wanted. It was still very early stages for a lot of the songs. The songs really took shape when Rachel was singing or when more instruments were added. It wasn’t particularly weird or anything.’ Rachel, however, found the experience of working alone creatively liberating. ‘It’s easier, in ways. I didn’t have the time constraints of being in a studio, particularly when I’m doing vocals. When you’ve got other people around a desk, they might stop you halfway through a flow and stuff like that. You just need to do the whole thing and I tend to do four or five takes. Then you can take the best bits and blend it all together. So, for me, it was easier.’
How did the collaboration with Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek on ‘For You Always’ come about? ‘He’s been a mate of mine since the mid-90s,’ explains Goswell. ‘I was a massive Red House Painters fan back when we signed to 4AD as Mojave 3. I asked someone in London for an introduction and we have been friends ever since. We kind of dip in and out of contact, as you do when you live so far apart. We talked about having different people on the record and we sent him a track to see what he could do.’
How was it when you all eventually played live together in the one space for the first time? ‘It was good,’ says Stuart. ‘Martin from Mogwai and Calum, who plays keyboards, really did their homework. They sounded really good, really quickly. If they had done as little preparation as me, it mightn’t have sounded as good!’ he says, laughing. ‘It was nice as we hadn’t spent a lot of time together – or any! – but we had spoken a lot. We had a relationship’. Do you both feel you each might bring a Slowdive or Mogwai element to the overall sound of Minor Victories? ‘We just turn up and do what we do, to be honest. We don’t really think in those terms, really.’ Braithwaite says. Goswell agrees. ‘No, I don’t think any of us sat down and came up with a blueprint on how the record should sound. We didn’t sit down and discuss our respective parts. We kind of just got on with what we as individuals thought it should sound like.’
Away from Minor Victories, I ask Goswell how it feels to be back with Slowdive. The band, along with acts such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Lush were synonymous with the early-90s subgenre of alternative rock, known somewhat dismissively as ‘shoegazing’. Does it feel different being part of Slowdive now? ‘Yes, definitely,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of angst in Slowdive, maybe due to me and Neil (Halstead). A lot of it was quite difficult, especially from ‘Souvlaki’ onwards. Well, I say that but I ended up doing Mojave 3 with Neil for ten years after that so it mustn’t have been that bad!’ she laughs. ‘Now, it’s great, we’re all getting on really well and enjoying it’. You’re back for good, a permanent reunion? ‘I suppose it’s as permanent as anything can be. Who knows?’
For Braithwaite, he’s enjoying the novelty of being a member of a more conventional band, with vocals. ‘It’s good. Sometimes we sing in Mogwai but we just don’t particularly like it – it just doesn’t happen that much. My favourite thing (in Minor Victories) is not having to say ‘hello’ or ‘thanks.’’ It leads to a discussion about on-stage ‘banter’ in general. ‘I was watching a load of stuff on Glastonbury over the weekend,’ muses Goswell ‘It was fascinating to see if the vocalist – with various bands I won’t mention – was interacting with the audience or not, and I came to the conclusion that it’s better not to say anything, just a ‘hello’ or a ‘thanks’ or a ‘goodbye’. Braithwaite agrees. ‘That’s all I say! Whenever I try to say something on stage it just goes over everybody’s heads. People just don’t understand my accent.’ I put forward the idea that keeping quiet on-stage retains a certain air of mystery, an otherness. Kraftwerk being a good example. ‘Kraftwerk? Which involves not playing any music live at all!’ jokes Braithwaite. Goswell isn’t a fan of the German group that invented modern electronic music. ‘I don’t like Kraftwerk. I just can’t get my head around them.’ Oh, well. With Kraftwerk dismissed, who are their musical heroes? For Goswell, it’s Nick Cave. ‘I’ve loved him since I was 15 or 16, have every album. He’s like a God to me. Him and Iggy Pop’. She also gives a shout out to a Belgian band called Silver Furs she caught at a festival in Switzerland. And Stuart? ‘The Cure, Mudhoney, Slint, The Orb, Nils Frahm. I like a lot of stuff on the Erased Tapes label.’
Since Slowdive, and possibly even, Mogwai started the music landscape has changed irrevocably. Gone is focused listening to a vinyl record or CD, replaced with streaming, downloads and artist royalty issues. Goswell has a particular grievance with Spotify. ‘I think iTunes is fine. Spotify I really struggle with. If somebody has spent twelve months creating a record and then you just get a load of people who just listen to it on Spotify and won’t buy it,’ she continues. ‘We should be supporting artists but everybody wants everything for free, which kind of pisses me off. I still love buying records, particularly buying vinyl. I still have that old school mentality of (choosing) if it’s a band I really love I will buy the vinyl but if it’s one I’m not so sure about, I’ll just buy it on iTunes.’ Braithwaite believes it’s a generational thing. ‘A lot of teenagers now would think you’d be mad to actually buy music these days. Vinyl is just a kitsch item.’
Now that you’ve all played and toured together and the debut album has been fairly warmly received, will Minor Victories be an ongoing project? ‘Well, we’re having fun and we’ve signed a two album deal.’ reveals Braithwaite. He’s corrected by Goswell who believes it’s actually a three-album deal. Either way, it seems Minor Victories are in it for the long haul, existing concurrently with their own bands as long as they have the energy for it. And it’s going to get busier as both Mogwai and Slowdive have new albums slated for release next year. ‘Hopefully ours (Slowdive) will be released in February,’ says Goswell while Braithwaite reveals Mogwai are working on two different soundtracks and are recording a new studio album at the end of the year, to be released in the summer of next year. Goswell likes this current arrangement.’ I think the beauty of it (Minor Victories) is that we can ping things back and forward all the time and just do things whenever it suits.’
With two bands on the go, mightn’t the travelling to various gigs and festivals become too much of a slog? Goswell admits to a deep fear of flying and wishes there was another method of getting from A to B. ’I wish you could do that Star Trek thing and just teleport yourself everywhere. It would be sooo much easier. You spend so much of your life (as a musician) just travelling. After a while, it tends to get a bit…dull.’ Braithwaite seems mildly disappointed at the reality of touring logistics, too. ‘When I was a teenager and wanted to be in a rock-band I thought I wouldn’t have to get up in the morning,’ he says, and I’m not sure whether he’s joking or not. ‘But I love playing live – the only problem is that you have travel to get there!’
Later that evening, Minor Victories are due to come on before Caribou on the main-stage at Castlepalooza, an intimate music-festival on the grounds of the impressive Charleville castle. The sky overhead is a treacherous grey, the air muggy and damp and the ground beneath our feet has already morphed into a gloopy layer of mud. As darkness falls, Minor Victories arrive on stage and run through most of the album; in a live context the songs become more expansive, harder-edged and aggressive, possibly due to the involvement of roughly one half of Mogwai. I think back to what they said about audience interaction. Braithwaite says nothing. Goswell says thanks a bit and complains of the cold. An audience member offers his jacket but Goswell smiles back him, saying nothing, sticking to her manifesto that keeping schtum on stage is probably a good idea. Let the music do the talking and when it’s good enough, it’s all you need. For Minor Victories, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.
Out of all the old guard of rock legends – Dylan, McCartney, Rolling Stones et al – Neil Young stands apart as the one that STILL feels like he always has something to prove. While the aforementioned careers have stalled in a kind of creative inertia brought on by advancing years and untold wealth, Young, at the age of 70, continues to release such a prodigious amount of new material it can be hard to keep up. Away from music, Young is a passionate environmental campaigner, with the effects of agrochemicals on America’s rural economy being an ongoing concern in recent times. His venture into audio technology with his pet Pono project has been somewhat less controversial or, indeed, successful.
And so it is that the show begins appropriately with two figures in poor, Grapes Of Wrath-era farming clothes throwing what appear to be seeds across the stage, continuing the themes covered on last year’s concept album The Monsanto Years. With that moment of theatricality out of the way, Young saunters onstage alone for a string of crowd-pleasers: ‘After the Gold Rush’, ‘From Hank To Hendrix’, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’. It’s a quietly impressive opening salvo of classic tracks designed to please the audience, to clear the air if you will, so that Young can get on with trying out some rare obscurities and turning up the volume later in the show, something he has enthusiastically embraced on this particular tour.
In another rather unsubtle moment, two men in biohazard suits pretend-spray the stage with fake pesticide (another dig at Monsanto, no doubt) before Young is joined by Promise Of The Real. The hitherto unknown band from California, two members of which – Micah and Lukas – are the sons of country icon Willie Nelson, appear to have given Young a new lease of life: Young seems revitalised while his young backing band simply can’t quite believe their luck. In fairness, they are up to the task, deftly handling any detour or false ending ol’ Shakey throws at them.
In an expertly-paced show, the band help to ratchet up the pace and volume over a generous two and a half-hour showtime: ‘Comes A Time’, ‘Alabama’, ‘Ohio’ and ‘Winterlong’ are given added heft and urgency by the Nelson brothers, while a protracted, jam-heavy ‘Love To Burn’ is the first genuinely thrilling moment of the night, with Young hunched over his guitar, indulging in a series of coruscating guitar solos and piercing feedback. It goes on forever but that’s to be expected at a Neil Young show. There’s more of it on a thrilling and timely ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and tour favourite ‘Love and Only Love’, the latter almost reaching the thirty-minute mark before going out on a blaze of glory.
There are rumours that this may be Young’s last tour on this side of the Atlantic but it’s difficult to see him slowing down just now. Based on the energy and vigour clearly on show tonight, where he seems to be in the form of his life, it feels like he’s just getting started. Keep on rockin’? Let’s hope so.