Live review: Thundercat – Heaven, London



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.


Live Review: Matmos performs the music of Robert Ashley – The Barbican, London

19857matmose1-400x_center_centerMILTON COURT, THE BARBICAN, LONDON | OCTOBER 23, 2016

First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1985, Robert Ashley’s landmark television opera Perfect Lives stumbles through bank robberies, cocktail bars, hotel rooms and starlit plains to create a fragmentary exploration of the Midwestern American experience. Pondering mortality, banality, chintz and selfhood, the seven-act work proffers a peppered snapshot, humorously bound by Ashley’s self-delivered libretti. Through whistled purrs Ashley gives a wry and tangential performance, flitting equally between sassy satire and unassuming tenderness. Halving the original runtime, Matmos’ stage adaptation cuts four of the original seven acts to run at a digestible 90 minutes. Skilfully condensed, the work sacrifices plot for stylistic fidelity, artfully presenting Ashley at his wicked, ruminative best.

“To perform Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives you need to be respectful to a score that is precise about cadence and the tempo of delivery, but is also very open and non-traditional,” says Matmos’ Drew Daniel in the programme notes. Six years before his death in March 2014, Ashley bore witness to Matmos’ version of Act VII of Perfect Lives, ‘The Backyard’, during a performance in New York. Their interpretation was met with his approval, and the duo “ended with a feeling of legitimation; that he thought our interpretation was valid, even though we had broken with some of the basic rules.”

Today’s expanded performance adds two acts – I. ‘The Park’ and IV. ‘The Bar’ – with Matmos’ other half, M.C. Schmidt, starring as narrator. Daniel mans the electronics, whilst a string trio, flautist, two female backing vocalists and a pianist also feature at various other moments. Behind them all a screen shows visuals mixed in real time by Max Eilbacher, which incorporates snippets of John Sanborn’s original material for TV, as well as other vintage footage not used in the original production. The visuals play their part effectively, but it’s Schmidt’s incorrigibly theatrical performance that truly brings the opera to the stage. His finest hour comes during the sleazy boogie-woogie of ‘The Bar’. Regaling incessant Martini-fuelled small-talk with a half-measure of cabaret croon, he captures the rhinestone chintz of the original in a manner that is arguably more convincing than Ashley’s soft prairie lisp.

It’s a touch of flair you sense that Ashley would appreciate. Indeed, before deciding to recite the monologue himself, Ashley had initially bookmarked David Byrne to take on the opera’s sprawling libretti. But Schmidt’s isn’t the only voice that brings Perfect Lives to the stage in such successful fashion. Backing vocals from Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby add a doubting deadpan to ‘The Park’’s Motel Lynch claustrophobia. Though largely confined to textual displays in the original broadcast, the vocalists’ blurted exclamations of “No doubt,” “A fact,” and “Of course” imply a sarcastic inner critique from the corners of the narrator’s psyche that heightens the air of emptiness and alienation. Daniel’s decision to replace the soft toms of the original with an Arthur Russell-tinged tabla drone adds a finger-tapping restlessness to the moment – further proof that this is not merely an adaptation, but a progression of Ashley’s original.

With clarity and imagination, Matmos have neatly repackaged Perfect Lives from a three hour TV broadcast into a 90 minute stage production. Respectfully devout yet courageously original, it’s a sublime reworking.

Live Review: Teeth of the Sea at UNITY – New River Studios, London


New River Studios, London | September 25, 2016

“Upset, angered and terrified” by the influx of racial assaults that have continued to trail June 23rd’s divisive Brexit vote, Teeth of the Sea’s Sam Barton refuses to wallow in helplessness. Determined to counter the political apathy that sparked the whole brouhaha, Barton and his TotS bandmates responded with Unity, a day of live music to raise some cash for anti-hatred organisation Hope Not Hate. Dave Brooks made his way down to Stamford Hill’s New River Studios to check out their headline set.

It’s almost a year since Teeth of the Sea released their galloping fourth installment Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. Plating together a snarling combo of sinister Kraut disco, blaring post-industrial electronics, and itchy-fingered Morricone brass, HDBT had all the makings of a Coil-penned Tekken soundtrack. But there’s no disputing that there’s more to this four-piece than mere button-bashing.

Mike Bourne’s theremin conjurings kick off proceedings, quickly floating en arrière scène to underpin Jimmy Martin’s squalled distortion. Barton interjects with lustily garbled trumpet, before the intrusive clang of HDBT’s splintered opener ‘All My Venom’ slams into recognition. Barton switches to a lusty South American battle call, defiantly navigating Martin’s stray twangs as drummer and vocalist Mat Colegate prepares to enter the fray. Unleashing a pummelling drum sequence and spitting out demonic glottal rattles, Colegate rallies an architectural crescendo that pairs a 28 Days Later paranoia with pure amphetamine fury.

As ‘All My Venom’ builds to a climax, it becomes clear that something’s wrong. Sound levels go awry, beats are missed and hands wave frantically to the sound desk. A busted band-facing PA is promptly replaced, and Bourne and Colegate take to the toms to usher in ‘Animal Manservant’’s retching clop. As Barton riffs on hard disco voluntaries, Bourne’s Tangerine Dream synths bleed into violent modular glitches. A charged, confrontational ferocity builds; the preceding technical shortcomings a catalyst for greater fury, sinew, and violence.


Photo by Rickard Daun

Fortune didn’t favour Teeth of the Sea today. But when presented with unwarranted adversity, they came out snarling and harnessed the room. As Unity has acknowledged, society as a whole is facing far greater hurdles than a busted PA. Ever the iconoclasts, Teeth of the Sea remain ahead of the curve.

To help Hope Not Hate continue to provide a positive antidote to the politics of hate, please donate here. 

Festival Appearance: Slow Down Molasses @ Incubate


It’s a huge privilege to announce that on Sunday 11th September I’ll be making an appearance at one of Europe’s most forward-thinking and adventurous arts festivals, Incubate. I’ll be hosting a panel discussion with members of Canadian post-punk group – and artists-in-residence – Slow Down Molasses, to discuss the unique challenges of touring north America as a Canadian band, their four-day residency at the festival, and their new album 100% Sunshine.

Catch us on stage at 12:30pm in The Incubate Cafe!Incubate clip

Live Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Coronet Theatre, London


Coronet Theatre, London | August 18, 2016

In a fashion befitting post-rock’s leading name, Godspeed You! Black Emperor make to the Coronet Theatre stage in their own good time. The 2,500-strong crowd have filled the venue to capacity, and on one of the hottest nights of the year even the lofty art deco ceiling offers little respite. With Godspeed some 20 minutes late, the crowd’s attention is drawn to the sound desk, where a sweltering camera crew meticulously loads film reels onto four blazing projectors. An ebbing drone begins. Underneath the illuminated screen, the Quebecois eight-piece slip through the shadows to slink on-stage one-by-one. A cello groans; a double bass growls; a fishbowl rolls across the projectionist’s glaring beam. Over the next ten minutes a great oaken drone builds. Distorted and all-consuming, it engulfs three solipsistic guitars before the drums signal the start of a crashing apocalyptic clamour. Sweaty brows make way for goosebumps. Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven: Godspeed have arrived.

The band squeeze just eight expansive tracks into their two hour set, including their 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress in its entirety. First up is ‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!”, whose monolithic eastern swing sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir blasted through tar. Its weighty riff sparks mesmeric movement through the heavy air; onlookers sway transfixed as Super-8 roadtrip visuals cruise ever onwards. Powerfully minimalist, the footage, like the music is all about the journey.

Godspeed’s visual-audio interplay is no finer than in ‘Dead Metheny’, from their 1997 debut F# A# ∞. As its off-beat guitar loop begins, the hand-operated film reel flickers into life. Bruised strings throb as monochrome box cars pump through frozen industrial towns. A glockenspiel rings, freight trains accelerate, drums clatter as Morricone trumpets sound, harking the arrival of grainy scrub prairie, solitary onlookers and black outhouses. It’s bleak, charged, expansive and inconclusive, the unforgiving crescendo rumbling ever louder as their freight wagons pass on.

For a band whose catalogue is largely instrumental Godspeed have never been afraid to voice their political views through their music. Until footage of the Eric Garner protests shows during set closer ‘BBF3′, the band’s set tonight largely shies away from such societal criticisms. Instead, Godspeed proffer an audio-visual trip of psychoacoustic exploration, melding blistering cacophony with derelict abandonment to unsettling yet hypnotic effect. It’s a masterful performance: captivating, intoxicating, and frankly unmissable. 

Live Review: MONEY – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Battersea Arts Centre, London | August 3, 2016

MONEY-wpcf_400x400Long exiled to the Mancunian night, Jamie Lee – lead singer of lit-pop darlings MONEY – returns to his native South London in high spirits. A poet as well as a musician, he prefaces tonight’s performance with a trademark novel skit, tonight referencing the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald and former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Pulling out a crumpled edition from his anorak pocket, Lee rifles through its yellowed pages, struggling to find his marker. Muttering “This is just so me: winging it all the way to the end,” he opens proceedings on a performance that dextrously ties humour, fury, self-awareness and self-parody.

MONEY’s set tonight draws largely from their second album Suicide Songs, released earlier this year on Bella Union. Foregoing the expansive choral indie of 2013’s The Shadow of Heaven, Suicide Songs offered up 43 minutes of much-matured songwriting: each squalid, saintly, savant verse offered with a beatified ale-slurred dexterity. Channelling his finest Shane MacGowan on ‘I’ll Be The Night’, Lee mumbles “No one owes you any favours” with world-weary abandon, before stepping away from the mic to blurt “They only owe you wine.”Later on he recoils from a particularly strong bout of reverb, dashing a look of incredulity to the audience with pure charlatan charm. MONEY’s transition from barstool balladeers to the grand stage is all the more successful for these pub-wrought moments.

Elsewhere MONEY’s performance nods to their savant influences, whilst maintaining a commanding hold over the Battersea Arts Centre’s sold-out crowd. On ‘Hopeless World’ Lee throws in a few giddy Dylan whoops, whilst ‘Letter To Yesterday’ descends into gutsy echoes of “Oh there’s blo-od;” a rousing reminder of the conviction and fervour U2 held before ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Beautiful Day’ and Match of the Day and all that garbage.

Lee’s continuing vocal improvement is particularly clear during breakthrough single ‘Bluebell Fields’. It’s a bizarre rendition – vocally ambitious, his virtuoso risks overreaching so as to clash with his bandmates’ woozy indie patter. It’s an anachronism that marks MONEY’s progress since 2013, though future performances would benefit from toning it down a little, if only to keep the fans happy.

Fusing Britpop strings, lofty background chants and drums that could have come off a Brian Jonestown Massacre record, ‘I’m Not Here’ is unmistakeably the set highlight. Underpinned by Lee’s dogged acoustic strum, the band and accompanying string section build into a jubilant and stirring crescendo, soaring triumphantly until Lee finally pulls the plug. The audience are left with little more than dogged strums and prolonged cries of anguished self-abandonment. For such a melancholic ending, it’s stunningly cathartic.

Increasingly a vessel for Lee’s poetic performance, MONEY’s set ends without bandmates Charlie Cocksedge and Billy Byron. Accompanied by cello and viola, Lee strums a meandering encore of pastoral sketches, that are in all honesty a little too unrehearsed. Still, given the progress he’s made as a vocalist and songwriter over the past few years, he’s probably earned the right to wing it a little every now and then.

MONEY play End of the Road Festival on 4th September. For full details and further dates check here.

Interview: MONEY

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.”


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.”

Money (1)

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.”


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!”

‘Suicide Songs’ is out now on Bella Union. MONEY play End of the Road Festival on 4th September. For full details and further dates head here.