In my first piece for LONDON IN STEREO, I interviewed Jamie Lee, lead singer of MONEY.
“Be perpetually drunk!” Baudelaire implores in Paris Spleen. “With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.” Bah – syphilitic old pickle! Name me a sober poet and I’ll buy you a drink. Still, it’s a proven formula. Booze-soaked balladeers from Wilmot to Waits have always propped the bar of some tawdry tap house, uncorking all manner of characters and curiosities along the way. Where else doth the priest sup alongside the prostitute?
It’s a charm not lost on MONEY‘s frontman Jamie Lee. Ahead of the band’s performance at End of the Road, Dave Brooks caught up for a few rounds with the musician and poet to talk barstool voyeurism, its creative implications, and the challenges of poetic ambition.
Formed whilst studying at the University of Manchester, MONEY were signed to Bella Union by Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde in 2013. ‘Bluebell Fields‘ followed that May, bleeding woozy Panda Bear vocals and inquisitive Marr jangles over a pistoned Lancastrian patter. Radio 6 spread the word, Cillian Murphy made his directorial debut on ‘Hold Me Forever’, and in June 2013 MONEY’s sold-out performance at The Waiting Room saw Lee return to the capital – his birthtown – a cherubic Rioja-flushed bard: bowl-cut, jubilant and hypnotic. August brought debut album The Shadow of Heaven: an expansive, shimmering collection that placed MONEY as heirs apparent to WU LYF’s red-rosed crown. Channelling the same neo-biblical imagery, Lee chose red wine over Roberts’ red mist, whispers over rapture.
A second album – Suicide Songs – was released in January 2016. “I was disappointed with the songwriting on the first record,” Lee recounts. “I tried to wipe away any desire for success, in the hope of finding something raw.” Beguiled by the sexual liberalism of Jean Genet, Shane MacGowan’s paralytic prophesying, Frank O’Hara’s streetwise romance and a host of other pen-wielding savants beat and beatified, Lee turned to the night.
The pubs of Manchester “offered an opportunity to get close enough to people to hear their stories, whilst still being inconspicuous,” Lee marvels. “I can’t think of any other public space like it. Dangerous that, isn’t it?” A poem published last summer –Sucking an Old Man Off In The Pub – charts his feckless pursuit for ecstasy and enlightenment in Manchester’s piss-soaked underbelly. It’s a provocative, thrilling read: risible, revelatory, but ultimately tender. “After the first album I definitely sought out that kind of experience. It’s shameful, I think, but my mission was never to glamorise anything. It’s the job of writers to shine a light on the unvoiced corners of the world: to give them their standing, show that they’re important and that there’s something to be learned from them which can result in empathy between people.”
Fuelled by the pie-eyed wisdom of writers such as Brendan Behan and John Healy, Lee’s once methodical drinking eventually veered towards the catatonic. “Like people always say: alcohol abuse starts off fun. Then it gets really bad.” Manchester – formerly paradise – became “one big pub,” and those close to Lee expressed their concern, with one trusted friend sighing: “You look like a sad painting mate.”
“MANCHESTER WAS HELPFUL TO ME. IT’S A ROMANTIC PLACE, MUCH MORE INTIMATE THAN LONDON.”
It’s clear that his time in Manchester ended unhappily, and when asked about the city, Lee maintains a gracious sense of relieved detachment. “Manchester was helpful to me. It’s a romantic place, much more intimate than London. You can meet everyone, drink with everyone, charm everyone, and piss off everyone too. I wanted to learn and to be around that energy and I found what I wanted to, much to the detriment to my sanity and my liver. The problem is that I had no time to write. I used to go out and get pissed and stay on some grubby mezzanine, and the next day I’d find a pub and scribble down my recollections. I’d end up with floorfuls of indecipherable notes, but I’d never really focus on producing something I might be proud of.”
A move back to his native South London gave Lee the time he needed to concentrate on both his health and his art. Thus, work on Suicide Songs began.“Being in London was great. It lacks all of Manchester’s poetry and romance, but allowed me to focus, and work hard.” With bandmates Charlie Cocksedge and Billy Byron remaining in Manchester, Lee fleshed out the bones of the album before the three reconvened to take his ideas forward.
As polished vehicles for Lee’s writing, Suicide Songs is a distinct improvement on The Shadow of Heaven. Permeated with slurred stories lived and relived, it’s a Guinness-stained parcel of love letters from the edge. Arguably standing as MONEY’s most timeless accomplishment to date, its triumphant final call ‘A Cocaine Christmas and an Alcoholic’s New Year’ sketches a tableau far more vivid than any song on The Shadow of Heaven. Blending bruised trumpets, closing-time keys and bleary-eyed romance, it’s a brilliantly evocative piece of songwriting, tacitly acknowledging that for many Christmas is not a day of jubilation, but a piss up just to get through. Vulgar, beautiful, real and captured, it’s a commendable societal observation.
It’s been over six months since Suicide Songs’ release, and MONEY have just polished off the album’s European tour. Looking ahead, it’s hard to see Lee willingly embark upon future projects with the same hedonistic thirst that predicated the second album. In his mind, the aim is clear. “I’m desperate to be a great poet and writer,” he admits, a wicked smile burning it way across his face. “I just happen to have found myself in a band. Songwriting is tricky, because unless you’re Bob Dylan the form doesn’t really allow for the complexity and viscera I want to give to my writing. I think the songwriting form will go out of the window for the next album, and it’ll just be a series of rants to music.”
Playful as ever, it’s hard to know whether or not Lee is completely serious. Still, poets of yore have certainly made a good job of putting their work to music. Kerouac’s 1959 appearance on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show sparked off a recording career that produced three spoken word albums, which featured collaborations with Allen on piano, as well as jazz saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. “I find the sound of someone speaking over music very appealing,” Lee continues. “The spoken word is arrhythmic; you can’t score it out as would with a conventional vocal melody. When you put that over music it’s intriguing, because it breaks the basic rules of melodic interaction.”
Besides touring with MONEY and writing poetry, Lee is the founder of an independent publishing house, PARIAH PRESS. He has also been busy penning an account of some of his experiences from his ten or so years spent in Manchester. “I want to share some of the funny things that happened, but also express how it felt to be an alcoholic,” he outlines. “Over those ten years I lost it. I lost any interest to engage with life except to try and make myself a better writer. My highest hope is that people reading it will feel and understand the excitement and misery of it all, through my writing. I want people to see the faces, to taste the air.”
“SAY I ONE DAY BECOME A GREAT WRITER…WITH ALL THE TROUBLE I’LL HAVE GONE THROUGH TO GET THERE, THERE’S A GOOD CHANCE THAT IT MAY NOT EVEN BE WORTH THE EFFORT.”
Still, “writing a book is fucking hard work,” and Lee is brazenly aware that the costs could outweigh the benefits. “Say I one day become a great writer, a revered literary presence: with all the trouble I’ll have gone through to get there, there’s a good chance that it may not even be worth the effort,” he says. “Look at Kerouac, or Berryman, or Bukowski. They all came to that realisation. Writing is a lonely art form and you prioritise it above anything else. Your friendships, your relationships, your health, they all come second place, and if that’s not the order then you probably won’t get to where you want to be. It’s not an enjoyable way to live your life.”
So what drives him to keep writing? “It’s like a sickness,” he muses. “You have to learn how to deal with it. If you’re not living up to your own expectations then you take it out on other people, which is unfair. But on the flip-side, when you write something half good you feel like the king of the fucking world.”
A product of intense experience, melancholy, and artistic dedication, Suicide Songs has rightly attracted widespread acclaim for its refined lyrical portraiture. Whether there will be a third MONEY album isn’t entirely clear, but it’s still early days. What is clear is that whatever Lee turns to next, his writing will be the priority. “I’ve been too afraid for too long, but hopefully that is changing. Milkmen, barristers, poets; anyone can sculpt language in such a way as to be personal and profound. It’s one of the most common materials we have. Imbuing it with maturity, character, self-belief and self-awareness is what transforms it into art.” Lifting an ale to his lips, he pauses. “There lies the challenge!”
As the London-based five-piece prepare to release Threnodies on the 22nd April, Khaled Lowe (guitars/vocals) and James Gomez Arellano (drums/percussion) stopped off at HRH Prog festival to tell Dave Brooks how forgotten family, lost heroes and a few new additions have helped shape their second album.
(((o))): Threnodies struck me as a more full-throttle release than 2014’s Illusory Blues. Less preoccupied with orchestral flirtations, it’s gone for a straight-up classic progressive rock sound that sets it apart from its predecessor. Was this a deliberate sound you were aiming for?
Khaled Lowe: The main reason that Threnodies sounds a bit fuzzier is because it features a different line-up to our first album. Our initial intention wasn’t even to start ‘a band,’ so when we recorded Illusory Blues there were only three of us. That gave us a freedom to flesh out our recordings with flute and string arrangements, and we made full use of Gomez’s role as a producer to call in that help.
It was only when we settled on our new band members that Messenger’s current sound came about. We had to relearn the first album in a band context without the session musicians; replacing certain sounds with things we could do live. String sections made way for keyboards, flute parts were substituted by ambient guitars. We didn’t approach Threnodies with a particular sound or intent in mind; it’s more a product of where we now are as a group.
James Gomez Arellano: It was a very spontaneous process. We spent three weeks together playing and writing in the same room, and left ready to record. We started from zero, so when someone came up with a riff we liked we went with it. There was no overarching design to play heavier stuff.
(((o))): What about the album’s lyrics? Were there any specific themes you wanted to address, or lyrical trends you subsequently identified?
KL: On Illusory Blues we’d either written them start-to-finish before the songs were completed, or at least had ideas we wanted to explore. For this record the lyrics came afterwards, and they’re probably slightly darker. We weren’t aiming to be morbid or morose, and I don’t think that’s the way they come across, but lyrically-speaking there’s certainly a bleaker edge on this album.
(((o))): I suppose that ties in with the album’s title?
KL: Definitely. A threnody is a poem or song to commemorate people who’ve passed away, a kind of lamentation. After losing legends like Bowie, Dale [Griffin] from Mott the Hoople and Lemmy it certainly seemed an appropriate choice. Their losses really amplified the fact that socially and politically speaking, we’re living in particularly turbulent times. The first album was the product of a lot of crazy happenstances that culminated in us coming together and making music, and it was cathartic to document that on paper. This time round everything seems slightly bleaker, and we wouldn’t have been being honest with ourselves if we’d have gone for really happy lyrics.
(((o))): You’ve also joined up with InsideOut Music. What opportunity did you see in changing label?
JG: We had a great time with Svart. [Label founders] Tomi [Pulkki] and Jarkko [Pietarinen] are very good friends of ours, but we only signed a one album deal with them. I met Thomas [Waber] who runs InsideOut at Roadburn Festival. He mentioned that he was interested in the band, but we were touring and still working on our first album so left it at that. When the opportunity arose they sent an offer and we signed for them in January. I was a bit freaked out a first because I thought InsideOut would be too focused on technical prog, and we’re more about atmosphere than technicality. But it’s been a great move and they’re working really hard for us, so we’re very happy.
(((o))): The press release for the new album goes into quite a lot of detail about the cover’s artwork, designed by the Columbian, Berlin-based artist Daniel Correa Mejia. What’s the story there?
JG: He’s my cousin actually! My auntie kept on saying “Do you realise you have a cousin in Berlin who’s a really good artist?” and I was like “Yeah whatever, nice to know.” When we were writing the album she messaged me again so I got in touch with him on Facebook. We had a look at his work and straight away decided it was perfect. He ended up doing all of the layout and design for the new album, so it was a nice coincidence.
(((o))): And in terms of your creative process, was any of the songwriting on the album inspired by Daniel’s artwork, or was it just a good match?
KL: It was a serendipitous match, and it fit perfectly. It’s an ethereal, psychedelic cover image, but also has an organic quality. It fits in well with the various motifs and shades of our music.
(((o))): Jamie, in the band’s gig at Brighton’s Concorde 2 – which we covered in July 2015 – and again here at HRH Prog, you chose to play with your drums facing centre stage. Is that a sort of ritual for you guys?
JG: Yeah it is. It’s actually something that we’ve always done. Visual contact is really important because we do improvise between and sometimes during songs. Of course it depends on how much time we have to play with, but if a show is going well, it’s nice to be able to see the band and decide where we should take it next.
(((o))): You’ve performed both acoustic and main stage sets here at HRH Prog. Which do you prefer playing?
KL: We definitely enjoy both. Today I really liked the vibe of the electric one; the room was much larger so the sound could ring out more. But the acoustic shows are always fun, and I’m glad the dynamic works.
(((o))): You’re touring with Von Hertzen Brothers ahead of Threnodies’ release on the 22nd April. Any other plans lined up to promote the album?
KL: We’ll be heading back to London for the 19th June to play the second day of Stone Free Festival at the O2. Rick Wakeman is performing the Knights of the Round Table, and our friends and labelmates Haken are also on the bill. Beyond that, we have Leafmeal festival lined up in Germany for later in the year, and will be organising other plans in the coming months.
Threnodies is out on the 22nd April on InsideOut Music. Messenger play Stone Free Festival at the O2 on 19th June. For full details, further dates and tickets, head here.
In my first piece for left-field music blog Echoes and Dust, I caught up with Middle Eastern proggers Empty Yard Experiment at HRH Prog festival: http://echoesanddust.com/2016/04/interview-bojan-preradovic-and-gorgin-asadi-from-empty-yard-experiment/
Hailing from from India, Iran and Serbia, Dubai-based progressive post-rockers Empty Yard Experiment channel a confluence of influences as diverse and ephemeral as the city they grew out of. In between acoustic and live sets at HRH Prog festival, Bojan (guitars/vocals) and Gorgin (keys) took the time to shoot the breeze with Dave Brooks. On the cards: creating a scene in one of the world’s most transient cultural landscapes, their plans to follow up 2014’s critically-acclaimed album Kallisti, and the best soundtrack to a good floss.
(((o))): First off guys, welcome back to the UK. Beyond gigs in Swansea, Basingstoke and Milton Keynes, where’s on your map?
Bojan Preradovic: When we came here to tour Kallisti in 2014 we were over for about ten days. Ten days in December was maybe a little ill-advised for a band from Dubai, but we had a great time and even made it out to Stonehenge. I used to live in London, so after the show in Milton Keynes I think we’ll hang in Yorkshire for a few days and see what’s going on up there.
Gorgin Asadi: Stock up on some proper tea!
BP: After that we’re playing Basingstoke and then heading home.
(((o))): You’ve played some huge arena shows back in the United Arab Emirates, supporting the likes of Anathema (2011), Evanescence (2012) and Metallica (2013). When you’re planning a tour, what kind of venues do you have your eye on?
GA: The stage here at HRH is a good size for us. Empty Yard Experiment began in 2006 as a post-rock band with no vocalist, so the music has always been quite cinematic. We like venues to be a little more spacious to allow us to hear each other clearly, and fit in visuals too. Unfortunately that’s not a possibility this time round, but they’re a big part of our show, and something we’d really like to include on our next tour.
(((o))): Several other bands we’ve spoken to would have liked the option to include visuals too. The festival is expanding next year: we’ve been told that the big theatre will feature a full AV set up, so maybe there’ll be an opportunity to stage the complete Empty Yard Experiment experience at HRH Prog 2017. On that note, how do you feel visual accompaniments enhance your stage show?
BP: It’s a great dimension to add because it provides the audience with another perspective from which to interpret our music. It’s been a core part of our live show that has helped us to build a name back in the UAE. Plus it takes the focus off me so I don’t have to gyrate on stage as much!
(((o))): What’s the creative process behind your visuals?
GA: We have a bank of illustrations, graphics and filmed footage that we’ve collected over the past ten years. Some of them are shot by us; some by our friends. Occasionally we incorporate material from documentaries, but we try not to do that too much because we want to put forward our own creations. Every two or three shows we change the set to try out new clips and new combinations. If people come to see us play numerous times, we’d like them to feel that each experience was unique.
(((o))): When you’re songwriting, do you ever start with a piece of film and try to soundtrack it?
GA: That’s an interesting approach. We’ve definitely drawn inspiration from certain books, movies and scenarios in the past. Still, the music and visuals tend to grow out of a mindset or concept that’s developed from that blend of influences. Our on-stage visuals always tend to come after a song is written.
(((o))): With a new album in the pipeline for 2016, what’s inspiring you at the moment and what doors do you think that’ll open for the next record?
BP: We’re working on the new album and hope to be able to put it out by the end of the year. If not, we’ll definitely have some tracks lined up to preview by that point.
GA: When the time comes to write, we’ll meet up a few times each month, and then eventually lock ourselves away for two months to really get everything sorted. Frankly, during that latter period I don’t listen to anything except the news. At that point I feel that focusing too much on what other bands are doing isn’t really helpful.
More generally speaking we’re all quite eclectic in our influences, though we share points of convergence when it comes to rock and post-rock.
BP: I brush my teeth to Karnivool. I’m looking forward to the new Deftones album too.
GA: I’ve been listening to a lot of Cage the Elephant recently, but last month it was Fifties swing. Constantly. That’s the beauty of being in a band: you listen to whatever attracts you and use that collage of interests to collaborate with other musicians, each of whom bring their own ideas and influences to the table. When we write it feels like we’re all from different bands, collaborating on a project.
(((o))): Kallisti gained plaudits far beyond the reaches of the UAE, thanks in part to Red Bull’s backing, which has helped to promote your music to a wider audience. What difficulties do up-and-coming Middle Eastern bands face in terms of gaining investment, marketing their music and getting on the road?
GA: The biggest struggle back home in Dubai is that there’s no platform to help new bands to develop.
BP: In fact, for a lot of bands playing our kind of music it really isn’t easy, and that’s not exclusive to the UAE. Everyone has a second career or a job, even well-established artists. Unless you’re touring every single day and putting out new material you have to work, because making music is just unsustainable on a day-to-day basis.
To put some perspective on it, Steven Wilson recently came out and said that for him “Every day is a working day.” If someone as revered on the prog circuit as Steven Wilson has to work constantly to be able to make a comfortable living, you can imagine what it’s like for bands in our environment where there are far fewer opportunities to work. There’s very little in terms of music industry infrastructure in the Middle East, and unless you’re making Arabic pop it’s really hard to gather any support from commercial outlets. A lot of people give up at some point.
GA: They die trying, and it’s not down to their music because a lot of them are incredibly talented. If you don’t gain the attention of the people who matter the most, you struggle.
BP: The UAE is a very transient place. It’s changed rapidly and there are a lot of people moving around. You never really feel like you’re at home. It makes it difficult to establish a music scene, and the result is that in Dubai there’s a real shortage of viable music venues. Unless you’re U2 or Madonna it must be quite a discouraging prospect to play in the region, and for promoters it’s unlikely to be commercially or financially worthwhile. There are a lot of barriers in terms of decent venues and good promotion.
GA: It’s much better than it was ten years ago, and the amount of festivals, concerts and shows on offer in the UAE is increasing. But they still tend to be one-off events. What we actually need is a platform that’ll encourage growth on a more consistent basis; something that’ll help emerging bands to keep developing and be rewarded for their efforts. For artists to survive they need to be able to perform regularly and build up a reputation.
BP: As you said we we’re fortunate enough to be supported by a brand like Red Bull, and they’re really doing a lot in the region to support individual scenes. Unfortunately, a lot of excellent bands out there haven’t been so lucky.
(((o))): It’s easy to take that established infrastructure for granted, living in Europe.
GA: Perhaps. As Bojan mentioned, there’s no easy ride to writing prog or post-rock, wherever you are. That being said, it does seem that in the Middle East it takes six to seven years to get where bands in Europe get in two to three. We have to apply for every tour about four months in advance, and accepting a foreign gig a month beforehand is impossible because you need to get flights and visas sorted, as well as giving notice at work.
(((o))): Visas must be particularly tough considering the band’s multicultural make-up?
BP: We actually didn’t get our visas through for this tour until a few hours before travelling, despite pleading with the embassy to let us know what was going on. Even arriving at the airport in Dubai, we almost missed our flight. We have three Iranian guys in the band, which doesn’t make airports the easiest place in the world. It seems we were hassled at every single point until we finally made it onto the plane.
GA: I guess all of these obstacles make the whole act of being in a band more interesting, because you really need to want it to do it. The UAE doesn’t produce a lot of artists, but those that are around are generally good. They put their blood and sweat into it because that’s what it takes. There’s some great music in Dubai just waiting to be discovered.
(((o))): So what’s the solution for bands coming up at the moment?
GA: You have to use any help you can get from outside of the Middle East to grow.
BP: That’s one of the reasons we really wanted to come over here and play, because a lot of bands that tour the region never manage to get out. It’s so important to get your music out to a wider audience.
(((o))): Even if it isn’t financially viable?
BP: Definitely. This tour isn’t financially viable for us, but it’s an investment. Playing a specialised prog festival seemed like a great opportunity.
GA: If bands in the UAE thought about it financially then no one would do it.
(((o))): And finally, where would you guys like to take on next?
BP: It’d be great if we could get back to mainland Europe at some point.
GA: We’re best suited to warmer climates!
Kallisti is available via Bandcamp.