Was recently lucky enough to interview a long-time hero of mine, producer Gareth Jones (Wire, Depeche Mode, Einsturzende Neubauten) for this feature on the electronic temple that is Strongroom Studios. Everyone from The Prodigy to the Spice Girls cut records in this freaky fun spot ⚡️🎹💪
MOTH CLUB, LONDON | June 26, 2017
The stoic DJ and the wide-eyed songstress: it’s a scene straight out of karaoke. Gazing out from Moth Club’s gold-spangled stage, Peaking Lights’ vocalist Indra Dunis surveys the assembling audience with doe-eyed apprehension. To her right, husband Aaron Coyes looms intent behind a stack of plundered electronics. There’s a lot riding on this tour for the Wisconsin-cum-California duo.
Having worked with indie imprints such as Mexican Summer and Domino, Peaking Lights’ sweet-toothed take on psychedelic dub has steadily become trademark over the past decade. Earlier this year, they finally decided to go it alone. Their newly-minted label Two Flowers Records kicked off with February’s Little Flower / Conga Blue 12”, ahead of the band’s sixth studio album release The Fifth State of Consciousness on June 16th. With two young kids in tow, the decision to record, fund and tour the record themselves is bold by anyone’s standard. But as so many of their loose-limbed verses prove, Peaking Lights have a strong track record of slickly navigating the maelstrom.
The nervy opening to ‘Conga Blue’ suggests that Peaking Lights are all too aware of the risks at play. Coyes’ juiced-up bass loop initially overwhelms Dunis’ hushed vocals, but as he laces in waves of sparkling analogue oscillations a magnetic sample-driven crescendo slowly builds. A passive confidence emerges in Dunis’ swirling ruminations as she dips through Coyes’ swelling loops, and within minutes what began as cabaret transforms into an absolute four-on-the-floor belter.
It’s a similar story with The Fifth State of Consciousness’ opening track ‘Dreaming Outside’. Performed a fraction slower than on record, its sluggish plod eventually flourishes under shimmering glockenspiels, subterranean vocals, and a host of other melodic and textural interjections. Transforming eighth grade synth lines into chintz-fuelled charms, it’s at moments like these where Peaking Lights are at their very best.
Echoing a sun-kissed Talking Heads, the duo strike far more directly with ‘Every Time I See the Light’. Here Dunis’ valium-dazed verses take free reign over Coyes’ rampant slurs, proving that when the vocals are allowed centre stage, Peaking Lights can expertly pull off a twinkle pop banger. This dynamic is taken a step too far on ‘I’ll Be The Sky’, whose saccharine synthpop veers towards gloopy in the summer evening heat. Still, after a few forgettable verses, the duo’s marshmallow sequences multiply into an 8-bit celestial concord that could joyously soundtrack any number of N64 glories.
Oozing pheromones, Peaking Lights’ acid-laced pop is the perfect endorphin shot for balmy festival afternoons. At the same time, their pulsating cerebral collages would bubble just as ecstatically across laser-spiked dance floors. Occasionally the pendulum swings too far from one side to the other, but on the occasions where Dunis and Coyes straddle this confluence effectively, it’s nothing short of paradise.
HEAVEN, LONDON | MARCH 28, 2017
Before punk came along and pulled the pickle out of Britain’s mottled backside, old Britannia was really struggling for new ideas. Angel-faced choristers, sick of pulling the pud to Elgar’s refined pomp, had successfully swapped motion for motion, with bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes knocking out intense, studied compositions to bedazzle their audiences into believing cosmic progress really could come in capes.
While Britain’s choirboys were raging firmly within the machine, things were looking a hell of a lot tastier Stateside. Born of the blues, musicians like Mingus, Monk, Miles, the Coltranes and Nina Simone were breaking through the stratospheres of spontaneous musical interaction, and using their voices to promote new ideologies, and greater civil liberties for black and female Americans.
With jazz choosing the right moment over the right notes, punk had to go one step further. Bin your scales; fuck it, bin your instruments, if it helps you get your kicks. Opening the door for the industrial, noise and no-wave movements that followed, punk ditched the choral tradition for whatever felt right, calling popular music’s basic architecture into question through feckless experimentation and wilful ineptitude. You gotta transgress to transgress, man.
In the middle of all this heat lies Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA bassist who at 32 has already collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, not to mention a nine-year stint in legendary LA thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner’s latest offering, Drunk – released February 24th on Brainfeeder – is a perfect combination of all of these influences, and his dizzying flurries of amphetamine-riddled smooth jazz have drawn all sorts to Heaven’s packed arches tonight.
On stage, Thundercat’s studio recordings are enhanced with a series of madcap geometric fills, which are miraculously kept in check by his calm-set falsetto. He’s joined on stage by keyboardist Dennis Hamm, and drummer Justin Brown, whose left hand snare – some two inches deeper than that to his right – adds a gutsy acoustic weight that sits perfectly with Bruner’s six-string hollow body bass. On ‘A Fan’s Mail’, Brown’s drums could easily pass for a slap bass, whilst Hamm’s underlying synth rumble opens up the floor for Bruner’s bass to elicit a sequence of slick oily wahs. Maybe it’s just the sound of bottles popping in the mixing desk, but it all sounds way punchier than Drunk lets on.
The extended space between songs is where the band’s telepathic interplay really steals the show. With cerebral harmonics sparking from six flurried hands, the instruments’ own identities blur and interchange, and you’re forced to question whether you really are witnessing just three musicians on stage. Conservative and clunky in comparison, the studied unison of bands like Yes and Jethro Tull restricted them from ever cutting this loose.
With brain-melting riffs noodling out at a dizzying rate, many of the audience watch on in bemused astonishment. Others adopt the kind of hypnotized sway you’d expect Aphex Twin to summon. Unsure of what to hang shapes on, the audience just finds new ways to get down. Still, there’s plenty here for everyone. Thundercat’s set finishes on the more radio-friendly trio of ‘Oh Sheit it’s X’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘The Turn Down,’ whose obsidian R&B whirlpool is the perfect antidote to two hours of intergalactic trans-instrumental deviation.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – whose slick production bagged Bruner a Grammy – knocked rock and roll off its dusty perch, crowning hip-hop as popular music’s sharpest political tool. Now once again, Thundercat has flipped the script, using his genre-hopping explorations to screw with the basic physics of instrumentation. Yes, there are points where Hamm’s marauding synth sax lines lack a little on the high end, in a way that a live saxophone wouldn’t. But even the JBs would struggle to knock out two hours at this intensity. It’s a small price to pay to see a band dextrously take jazz beyond the capacities of embouchure. Transgression, man.
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!”