Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Wedding Present - David Gedge Hitches Up Once More

David Gedge doesn't reckon much to New Year's Eve. As the voice, lyricist and driving force behind Leeds-born indie-rock Luddites The Wedding Present for more than a quarter of a century, such a seemingly curmudgeonly sentiment shouldn't come as a surprise. Despite this, the now California domiciled frontman of what are arguably the ultimate John Peel band has took it upon himself to come back to rainy, chilly and possibly snowy Britain for the seasonally named Seeing Out 2011 With The Wedding Present three-date mini-tour.

The first of these shows will take place tonight at The Garage in Glasgow before moving on for a homecoming show in Leeds tomorrow, then finishing up in an undoubtedly lively London on New Year's Eve itself. All of which seems a somewhat contrary cause for celebration.

“I've always been a bit disappointed by New Year,” Gedge mourns. “Even as a kid I never liked it. It's over-produced, it's expensive, and there's too many people around. One year I went to bed at eleven 'O clock because I was so bored.”

Given such unambiguous resistance to the ensuing melee the season brings with it, why then, is Gedge risking life and limb to play in public during one of the rowdiest times of the year?

“Just 'cos I kind of thought it'd be good for me to do something for a change, and doing a concert seemed like a good idea. It's been more difficult to plan than usual, mind, from booking venues to getting support bands. Even fans have been getting in touch and saying they'd love to come, but they've got a party to go to. There's a post Christmas vibe as well. There's been all those days building up to it, when the pubs are full of office parties, then once it's all over, we come along and go, right, come out to a concert.”

The current trio of live shows should also prove a good way of letting off steam for Gedge and co, who've spent the last few months recording their forthcoming Valentina album. In truth, however, as the sole surviving member of the band that burst onto the scene with their 1987 debut, George Best, following a couple of singles, Gedge pretty much is The Wedding Present these days. The dozen or so musicians who've passed through the band's ranks might not come close to Mark E Smith's tenure in charge of the The Fall, but the same northern English work ethic remains in what Gedge has effectively turned into a one-man indie cottage industry.

“We've just been looking at the artwork for the album,” he says. “Then there's the marketing. Just a lot of running round really. We're on our own label these days, so obviously there's a certain amount of admin that needs to be done, dotting the i's and crossing the t's, but it's all part of the job, and I can't complain, really.”

Gedge may sound like an old time factory gaffer when talking about the nuts and bolts of being in a band, yet such pragmatic seizing of the means of production is totally in-keeping with the DIY ethos indie-pop was founded on.

“It's about solving a series of little problems,” he says, “so that part of it does feel like a job. But writing songs, recording and playing live doesn't feel like work. That's more like an obsession.”

Valentina will be the eighth Wedding Present album, and the band's third since Gedge resurrected the name in 2004 after spending the previous six years with his then girlfriend Sally Murrell as Cinerama. Where the last Wedding Present album, 2008's El Rey, was recorded and mixed by American hardcore producer and driving force behind Shellac, Steve Albini, Valentina saw Metallica, Iggy Pop and Johnny Cash producer Andrew Scheps at the controls while the album was recorded in France and California.

“El Rey was actually one of the poppiest records we've done,” Gedge maintains. “This one's more rocky and less poppy, and is probably more of a challenge. There's always a feeling when you've done a record that you want to move away from it, so moving to the poppiness of El Rey made us, not darker, but harder, a bit like early Wedding Present records, really.”

Gedge may have been resident in California since 2004 shortly after mark two of The Wedding Present came together, but despite going global in such a fashion, no move towards big-haired poodle-rock has been forthcoming. Despite the big-name American producers, in fact, swathes of northern English heartbreak are all over Gedge's more recent material much as it has been since he started out. This is akin to Jon Langford of The Mekons, another former Leeds-based band turned American emigres who were already channelling a very English form of Country-punk before the move.

“I was the last original member of The Wedding Present to still live in Leeds, and it means a lot to me to be playing in Leeds again. But I think it's easier today because of technology and the internet to do things in different places. For example, we may have recorded most of the album in France and America, but the bass player recorded backing vocals in Brighton.

“Part of the appeal of being in a band is being able to travel the world. I don't want to just be in one place, and I can write songs anywhere. Lyrically, I suppose I write in a very personal style wherever I am. My songs have always been about relationships and how people speak to each other, while musically, we've always tried not to be influenced by anyone, and I've always been conscious of writing a very distinctive Wedding Present sound.”

Gedge grew up in Manchester before moving to Leeds, and was attracted to music from a precociously early age.

“From about the age of six. I've been writing songs all my life, and even then I knew I wanted to be in a band. I've no idea where that came from, and I can't actually remember deciding that was what I was going to do. It was just always there, hearing the Beatles and Elvis, or watching bands on TV. It wasn't about wanting money, 'cos I'd still be doing this regardless. It sounds pretentious, but it was almost pre-destined.”

By Gedge's own admission, however, “It took longer than I thought. I was in bands at university, and we never took it seriously till I was about twenty-three. There was all this stuff about, oh, what if it goes wrong? We had to decide, do we take it seriously, or do we just make it an obsessive hobby?”

Unlike many other John Peel-playlisted peers, however, The Wedding Present are still here. As with many other long-standing artists of his generation, as well as new material, Gedge has also spent the last few years rediscovering his past via tours playing George Best and its 1989 follow-up, Bizarro, in full. 2012 will see The Wedding Present similarly take out their third album, 1991's Seamonsters, produced, as with El Rey, by Albini.

“It's like looking through an old diary,” Gedge says of the revisitation, “'cos you've changed as a person, but it puts you back into the frame of mind of the person who wrote it. When I was first approached about the possibility of doing George Best, I was dead against it. For me it smacked of nostalgia. But the more I spoke to people about it, the more engaged I got by the idea, and eventually I reached the conclusion that there's nothing wrong with the past. These albums are a part of history and culture, so why not? It's a different band now, obviously, so we're partly reworking it, but still staying true to the original.”

Another look at the past comes via a Wedding Present cover of The Smiths debut single, Hand in Glove, for an American compilation. Gedge is no stranger to other people's material, ever since the B-sides of a series of twelve singles released each month in 1990 saw The Wedding Present feature songs by the likes of The Close Lobsters, The Go-Betweens and even Elton John. Hand in Glove follows on from a similar treatment of The Cure's song, High.

“I've never been a massive fan of The Smiths, to be honest, although I really liked their early stuff. I remember their first John Peel session, because it sounded different from everything else, and Morrissey was clearly an interesting lyricist, so it just jumped out of the radio. But doing a cover of Hand in Glove was a nice thing to do. Sometimes you get these invitations, and they set you on a different path.”

As did too an unlikely sounding 2009 collaboration between Gedge and the BBC Big Band, with the latter party performing new arrangements by Tommy Laurence of Wedding Present and Cinerama songs for a one-off show at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

“It was quite a difficult project to arrange,” Gedge admits, “but doing something like that was one of the reasons I wanted to do Cinerama. I love John Barry and Ennio Morricone soundtracks, but the Wedding Present are too much of a rock and roll band.”

A more recent strand to Gedge's brand of lo-fi entrepreneur-ism is At The Edge of The Sea and At The Edge of The Peaks, two boutique indoor festivals programmed and curated by Gedge in Brighton and Holmfirth in Yorkshire respectively.

“It sounds a bit pathetic,” says Gedge, “but it's one of my highlights of the year. We were in a Little Chef in Yorkshire, and we got talking about all the support bands we'd had an d all the other bands we'd like to see, and it was hard to say no to, really.”

With Valentina scheduled for a March 2012 release coinciding with a date at the Austin, Texas based South By South West festival followed by a full north American tour, Gedge's current incarnation of The Wedding Present shows no sign of letting up just yet.

“It's an obsession,” Gedge says again. It's just something that I'm drawn to do. People say I must enjoy it. Well, I don't hate it, but I don't do it for the money either. The great thing about it is it's so varied, so as soon as I've finished one thing, I'm looking forward to getting on with the next, and starting the cycle again.”

“If you'd asked me in 1985 whether I'd still be doing The Wedding Present twenty-five years later, I would've laughed, because it seems such a long period of time, but now it feels like it's passed so fast. It's like, I remember seeing Tony Curtis on Wogan, and I used to love Tony Curtis in The Persuaders with Roger Moore and those great opening credits with the John Barry theme music. But Tony Curtis was saying how he was around in Hollywood as a young man, and here he is now. The rest of it has gone past in the blink of an eye. I suppose at this stage I feel a bit like that as well.”

David Gedge as the Tony Curtis of indie? Maybe all that California sun has gone to Gedge's head, after all.

The Wedding Present, The Garage, Glasgow, December 29th
Valentina is released in March 2012.
http://www.garageglasgow.co.uk/
http://www.scopitones.co.uk/

The Herald, December 29th 2011

ends

Matthew Zajac - A Scotsman in Sweden

When Matthew Zajac was cast in a new play set to tour Sweden, Finland
and beyond, he had to learn a brand new language. Because the recent
tour of Hohaj, adapted from Swedish writer Elisabeth Rynell's novel by
Ellenor Lindgren, was not only set in an imaginary town in the far
north of Sweden. As produced by the Vasterbottensteatern repertory
theatre based in the town of Skelleftea, Hohaj might have seen Zajac
play an incoming drifter, but the play was nevertheless written and
subsequently needed to be performed in Swedish.

“They can understand what I'm saying,” Zajac jokes. “It was an
interesting challenge, having to learn a new language so quickly, but
fortunately they have seven or eight week rehearsal periods, which I
would say is too long compared to the two to three weeks we have here,
which is two short. But I actually needed those seven or eight weeks.
It's funny, because I don't really think the language itself is that
difficult. There are other languages which are much more difficult
grammatically than Swedish, but pronunciation and the rhythm and the
song of it, all the intonations and all of that, I found that much more
of a challenge than actually understanding the words.

“I was lucky, because I had a coach, and we would spend hours in my
dressing room tearing sentences apart, really getting the stresses
right. There were certain idioms I had to get my head round, where a
word can mean different things in different contexts, and that’s not
always obvious, but I got there. Also, it was very difficult to learn
conversational Swedish on a day to day basis, because everyone speaks
English.”

Hohaj is a tragic love story involving abuse, murder and a
distressingly dark back-story in an isolated community beside a forest.
In the book, Zajac's character was from the Faroe Islands. To
accommodate his Inverness accent, however, the stage version sees him
relocated to Orkney. Given everything Zajac has said about learning
Swedish, this is understandable. How an Edinburgh-based, Highland-born,
Bristol-educated actor who lived half his working life in London came
to be cast in a Swedish play being produced on native soil, however, is
a different matter.

The roots of Zajac's participation in Hohaj date back five years, when
the Highlands and Islands Theatre Network organised an exchange visit
between Dogstar, the company of which Zajac is co-artistic director of,
and two theatres in Vasterbotten. Ten Swedes visited the Highlands,
while Zajac and nine other Highland-based practitioners visited Sweden
to explore possible collaborations.

One of the things that came out of this was a production of an
English-language version of Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken.
Co-produced by Vasterbottensteatern, Sweden's national touring company,
Riksteatern, currently run by Olivier Award winning British actress,
Josette Bushell-Mingo, and the Unity Theatre Liverpool, When We Dead
Awaken saw Zajac cast alongside two other British actors and two Swedes.

With Vasterbottensteatern's home town of Skelleftea developing itself
as the country's leading centre of story-telling, Zajac subsequently
toured his acclaimed one-man show, The Tailor of Inverness, to Umea
University as part of the inaugural Skelleftea Storytelling Festival in
2009. It was through connecting with Lindgren and other personnel
connected with Vasterbottensteatern that the idea of Hohaj was born.
The original plan was for it to be a co-production between
Vasterbottensteatern and Dogstar, and to tour both countries. With
Scottish funding not forthcoming, however, those plans were put on ice.

All parties involved in Hohaj were informed of this as Dogstar began
rehearsals for a Scottish tour of another Swedish adaptation. Sweetness
was a stage version of Vasterbotten-based novelist Torgny Lindgren's
epic by Scots writer Kevin MacNeill.

“For a long time we didn't know whether it was going to happen,” says
Zajac, “and in the end I was funded to go out to Sweden and to be able
to live there while we were rehearsing, and we're still hoping to bring
the show to Scotland at some point.”

Of the play itself, Zajac says that “It's quite poetic. There's a lot
of story-telling in it, and I don't think it's typical of Swedish
theatre. For one thing, there isn't that much Swedish drama that's
written specifically about the far north of the country. It's very
sparsely populated. The whole country is. It's the same size of
Britain, but it only has about a million people in it, so there's vast
expanses of nothingness.

“In a way the north of Sweden is viewed in much the same way as the
north of Scotland by the more metropolitan parts of both countries.
There's a certain amount of uncertainty about it. People can admire the
beauty of the Highlands, but they don't necessarily know much about
them.”

This may go some way to explaining what looks set to be an ongoing
artistic relationship which has already forged between Dogstar and
Vasterbottensteatern.

“There's been a bit of a Swedish theme developing over the last few
years,” Zajac observes. “There's obviously a big Scottish connection
between Scandinavia and Scotland anyway, but one of the visions of
[Caithness-born playwright and founder of Grey Coast theatre] George
Gunn, who I worked with a lot in the 1990s, was to very much connect
with Scandinavia and Iceland. Coming from Caithness and being the man
he is, he's bristling with knowledge about the history and the
connections between Norway and Scotland in particular. A lot of people
sympathised with that, and that's why the initial exchange trip
happened, so George's vision is bearing fruit.”

For the immediate future, Zajac will be touring with Dogstar again in
The Captain's Collection, a revival of one of the company's earliest
shows. It won't be too long, however, before he revisits Hohaj once
more. In 2012 the show will tour to Stockholm in Sweden's metropolitan
heart, and later to Finland.

“I don't think they'll think I'm a Swedish actor,” Zajac says of how
audiences might perceive his presence in Hohaj, “and if they do they
only have to look at my name in the programme to know I'm not. But that
doesn't matter. What matters is that they believe in this character,
and that he's not someone who's just learnt the language the week
before.”

http://www.vasterbottensteatern.se/
www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/about-us.html

the Herald, December 27th 2011

ends

Strathclyde Theatre Group - Surviving The Ramshorn

When the University of Strathclyde made swingeing budget cuts earlier
this year, as is too often the case, it was the arts that suffered.
While the university faculty set its sights on becoming a technology
and innovation centre on a par with some American institutions, both
the Collins Gallery and the Ramshorn Theatre have been forced to close
their doors once the plug was unceremoniously pulled. This despite the
fact that both venues arguably had the biggest public profile of any
centres within the university.

As home to Strathclyde Theatre Group for the last twenty years, The
Ramshorn in particular connected with a world way beyond academe. Yet,
while a separate operation to the Ramshorn under the long term care of
artistic director and head of the drama department Susan S Triesman and
equally hands-on administrator Sylvia Jamieson, STG looked to have
reached its own end following the Ramshorn's closure.

With Jamieson and Triesman now retired, rather than shut up shop, STG
decreed at an emergency annual general meeting for things to be run by
an elected board. A forthcoming meeting in January, however, should see
further developments. As has already been made clear, STG have not only
survived the Ramshorn's culling, but are in the thick of reinventing
themselves amidst a swathe of activity that looks set to leave the
semi-professional company busier than ever.

Reinventing themselves as a touring company, STG have recently finished
their first post-Ramshorn production, a sell-out two-week run of Arthur
Miller's The Crucible, which played to seventeen-hundred people at the
Cottier Theatre in Glasgow's West End. As programming of this modern
classic and school syllabus favourite was a canny calling card for a
company both seeking to fund-raise and to increase its profile.

STG too have also made it to the finals of Stagestruck, a TV talent
show for Sky Arts intent on finding the best amateur theatre group in
the UK. This was a competition requiring online entry, for which STG
filmed a scene from Hamlet. Having made it to the final stages, the
company are currently being mentored by leading actress Harriet Walter,
who has been putting the company through their paces before the
programme is broadcast in 2012. Having come this far, hopes are high
for STG's success.

STG have also been involved in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Open
Stages project, whereby the RSC re-discovers their own amateur roots by
taking a look at current work in the none-professional sector. STG's
ambitious response to this is a forthcoming production of Coriolanus,
which hasn't received a home-grown production in Scotland for forty
years.

“It's all happening now,” observes Sara Harrison, the current Vice
Chair of STG, which, without a permanent home, now constitutes itself
as a roving operation with recently acquired charity status. “We
literally had to start from scratch, and it's taken a lot of time and
will from members, including having to put membership fees up, because
prior to the Ramshorn closing, the only money we got came from the
university. So we knew The Crucible wouldn't be a financial risk, and
would probably be something of a cash cow.

“STG has always prided itself on being a semi-professional company.
What we mean by that is that a lot of the members – not all – already
work in the arts, and are passionate about putting on plays. We don't
like using the word amateur, and we've always prided ourselves on
putting on work that is maybe more experimental than that. We've done
Sarah Kane's Blasted, and would rather do that sort of work than just
old plays that are out of copyright, but we do need to raise money as
well. That's been quite a strain on our resources since the Ramshorn
closure, and now we need to regroup.”

Harrison has been a member of STG for four years. Others have been with
the company since the beginning, and can recall it previously being a
touring company after being founded in 1971 as a student-based group.
Originally based in the old Drama Centre on the same street on the edge
of Merchant City as the Ramshorn, STG alumni include Siobhan Redmond,
Lost star Henry Ian Cusick and playwright and creator of River City,
Stephen Greenhorn. All of which makes for a history that Triesman,
still a member of STG's Future Productions Committee, is keen to
preserve.

“It's incredibly hard to lose your home,” she says, “let alone one like
the Ramshorn, in which a very large family who cared about theatre and
music came through. It was a place where people felt they could just
drop in to, and that often resulted in life-changing events. But what's
happened since we lost the Ramshorn is incredible. After all those
years of being in our own building and having me and Sylvia managing
things, people have taken that on board themselves.”

Triesman notes dryly that STG's original home in the old Drama Centre
is now the site of a Tesco Express, but hopes that, rather than be sold
off or redeveloped, the Ramshorn, “can become an arts centre again one
day.”

In the meantime, there is the production of Coriolanus to be getting on
with, not to mention the Stagestruck finals. A new production of
Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is also pending, while further
clout has just been added to the STG cause with the announcement of
Henry Ian Cusick and Harriet Walter as company patrons.

For the time being, at least, STG's relationship with the University of
Strathclyde looks set to continue beyond the Ramshorn debacle in terms
of provision of what would usually be hugely expensive rehearsal and
storage space. The powers that be, however, have intimated that STG
should connect more directly with the university's immediate
constituency in their existing drama club. As ever, Harrison puts a
positive spin on all of this.

“It says so much about how much talent there is in the company,”
Harrison enthuses. “We don't really like to talk about the negative
side of it anymore, because we've been through all that with the big
fight we had on our hands to keep the Ramshorn open. STG and the
Ramshorn have always been separate entities, but now we've made that
physical separation, which in some ways has been a positive thing, in
terms of reaching new audiences in new venues, but it was a struggle to
get there. The Crucible was a huge learning curve in terms of having to
deal with a new venue and everything that throws at you, but now we'd
like to see the closure of the Ramshorn as an opportunity for STG.

“It would have been easy to walk away from STG and call it quits after
the Ramshorn closed, but that's not easy. It's our heart and our love,
and we'd hate it if it had to close. The quality of the work we do is
of such a high standard, and we're like a big family, so we're not
going to let that go, no matter what.”

http://www.strathclydetheatregroup.co.uk/

The Herald, December 27th 2011

ends

2011 Round-Up - The Best Theatre of The Year in Scorland

Many theatre companies are currently in an extended limbo until chief
funders Creative Scotland finally decide their fate after what must
seem like an eternal wait. As 2011 has proven again and again, however,
great art – a word not used much these days – will out despite such an
on-going silence. In a year which has seen a merry-go-round of artistic
directorships at Perth, the Citizens and Traverse theatres,
cross-company collaboration has seemingly been one solution to being
able to put on big work in cash-strapped times.

If one show illustrated all of the above, it was Age of Arousal,
Stellar Quines’s magical-realist whirlwind co-produced by the Royal
Lyceum, Edinburgh right at the start of the year. Muriel Romanes’
reimagining of Quebecois writer Linda Griffiths’ play was a wildly
skew-whiff Victorian costume romp that was by turns sexy, radical,
witty and wise in a magnificent fusion of word and deed that seemed to
posit a brand new theatrical language.

Adventurousness in terms of mixing form and content has been in
abundance this year. Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point company proved
themselves a major international force once again with Saturday Night.
A wordless follow-up of sorts to Interiors and co-produced with Tramway
and a slew of international partners, Saturday Night was similarly seen
through a glass screen. Where Interiors was a melancholy peep-show of
everyday tragedies, however, Saturday Night lurched into more
impressionistically metaphysical waters in a magnificently languid look
at how dreams sometimes turn out.

There were elements of this too in the National Theatre of Scotland’s
breathlessly audacious revival of David Harrower’s contemporary
classic, Knives In Hens. Where before Harrower’s flint-sharp study of
how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing for a woman discovering
herself in a backwoods rural community was seen as dryly brutal
realism, Belgian director Lies Pauwels ripped into it to create a
knicker-flashing, prat-falling cavalcade that more resembled a messy
night out with Bonnie and Clyde than anything, yet still retained the
unfettered erotic essence at the play’s heart.

If Knives in Hens wasn’t for the purists, then neither was Andrew
O’Hagan’s collaboration with director John Tiffany in a dramatisation
of O’Hagan’s still astonishing social memoir, The Missing. Flitting
between Glasgow, Ayrshire, a London where runaways disappear between
the cracks and a Gloucester haunted by the spectre of serial killers
Fred and Rose West, The Missing became a remarkable meditation on the
loss of self as much as others. Such a beauteous and fragile reading
didn’t fit in with the agendas of some sentimental nationalists,
however, which was their loss.

Ideas were in abundance throughout 2011, especially at the Traverse,
which outgoing artistic director Dominic Hill left towards the end of
the year to run the Citizens. In his wake, Stewart Laing’s Untitled
Projects presented The Salon Project, in which audiences all dressed up
in period finery entered a deliciously rarefied environment to
effectively become the show, learning a thing or two as they went.

There were ideas too in Pass The Spoon, artist David Shrigley’s
collaboration with composer David Fennessy and Magnetic North director
Nicholas Bone. Granted the ideas in this cartoon-like opera involving
giant bananas and suchlike were pricelessly daft, but they still made
for a grand night of toilet humour in excelcis.

Beyond such silliness, some more traditionally-minded and well-built
work was seen on the nation’s bigger stages. These included NTS
revivals of Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep and David Greig’s more
recent sequel to Macbeth, Dunsinane. There was also a long overdue
showing of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the Citz, a
tour of Tom McGrath’s The Hardman, and a fine Twelfth Night at Perth
from incoming artistic director Rachel O’Riordan. Her production
managed to give Shakespeare a melancholic Chekhovian air in her
captivating debut show for the theatre.

Yet somehow, it was the smaller shows that really mattered in2011, with
the the two most significant presented by the NTS. Molly Taylor’s Love
Letters To The Public Transport System was advertised as a
work-in-progress, but this heart-warming paean to the accidental
arbiters of life’s most important day-trips was anything but. The
absolute show of the year, though, was David Greig’s The Strange
Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a bawdily post-modern reinvention of border
balladeering via karaoke nights and Kylie. Written in rhyme complete
with a raucous musical score that lends itself to the pub venues it
played in, Prudencia’s plight is a force of nature worth selling your
soul for.

The Herald, December 26th 2011

ends

Saturday, 24 December 2011

What Presence? - The Rock Photography of Harry Papadopoulos

Street Level, Glasgow, December 17th 2011- February 2th 2012
5 stars
Harry Papadopoulos is the great unsung documenter of post-punk, who,
between 1978 and 1984, captured a crucial era in pop history in all its
geeky glory. Having started out taking snaps for Bobby Bluebell’s
fanzine, The Ten Commandments, and orbiting around Postcard Records’
extended family of jangular mavericks who would go on to define
themselves as The Sound of Young Scotland, Papadopoulos became a staff
photographer on music paper Sounds. Where contemporaries on NME such as
Anton Corbijn and Kevin Cummins have been rightly lionised for their
work, Papadopoulos’ canon has been all but airbrushed from history. The
significance of this major excavation of a huge body of work, then,
cannot be understated.

With more than three hundred images on show, the fertile Scot-pop scene
inevitably dominates. A gangly and giggly Orange Juice era Edwyn
Collins skates on thin ice. Josef K vocalist Paul Haig poses like a
nouvelle vague matinee idol. A tweedy-looking Aztec Camera chew on
pipes like elderly uncles before their time. A demented looking Davy
Henderson of Fire Engines roars into a microphone, his face taut with
urgent, sinewy contortions. A fragrant Claire Grogan perches on a park
bench looking, well, lovely. Co-curator Ken McLuskey’s band The
Bluebells pack into an open-topped sports car.

There’s a wonderfully gawky naturalness to this fabulous archive that
pre-dates celebrity culture during a time when politics and pop were
inseparable. A striking portrait of Gil Scott-Heron is set next to one
of Tom Robinson, Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville and future Erasure
vocalist Andy Bell line up for a gay rights march. Jerry Dammers and
The Specials AKA squeeze into frame at the bottom of a stairwell. The
Clash are captured in full barricade-manning flight. With a series of
events to accompany the show, What Presence! is an unmissable history
lesson from a major artist. Publication of a bumper-size coffee-table
book would be even more essential.

The List, December 2011

ends

Andrew Kerr – So Ensconced

Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh
November 12th 2011-January 22nd 2012
3 stars
Absence makes the heart grow fonder in Andrew Kerr’s first major solo
show in Scotland. Almost seventy new paintings discreetly dominate both
floors, only interrupted by the odd smattering of drawings or
sculptural intervention. Most of the mainly sketchbook-sized works are
urgent Zen abstractions awash with counterpointing colours that swoosh
into vivid life as if racing to catch a moment before it disappears.

Some look like splodged-in blueprints for flags of imaginary
countries. Others are rich with implied veldts and blurred deltas, a
jungle drum soundtrack the only thing missing along with the blank
corners where the works were pinned down while being made. Occasionally
more tangible shapes squint through the heat-haze; an alligator here; a
motor in motion there.

The nails embedded in a small arc of wood give it a sad-eyed cartoonish
feel. The bone-like structure dividing the room turns out to be made of
paper. A wall of exercise-book doodles features pencilled-in dreamers
in black-and-white repose. Kerr’s best dreams, however, come in colours
only the most haunting of sense memories can conjure up.

The List, December 2011

ends

Tracer Trails At Christmas - An End of Term Report For The Best DIY Promoters in Scotland

When the third edition of the Retreat! Festival was awarded a Bank of
Scotland Herald Angel award in 2010, it was vindication for a network
of independent music promoters who had grown out of what we now must
call a post-Fence Collective climate. Chief of these was Tracer Trails,
a solo operation run by one Emily Roff, who for the last half-decade
has effectively changed the live musical landscape in Edinburgh, and,
with like-minded partners in tow, looks set to do something similar in
Glasgow.

This year alone, Tracer Trails has put on twenty-one shows featuring a
total of seventy artists playing in a variety of carefully chosen
venues that have included church halls, working mens clubs and
community centres. Tracer Trails also ran two festivals, the fourth
Retreat! In Edinburgh, and the new Music Is The Music Language weekend
in Glasgow. As if this wasn't enough, Roff initiated the Archive Trails
project, in which Alasdair Roberts, Aileen Campbell and Drew Wright,
aka Wounded Knee, toured new material developed out of a residency at
Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies.

This weekend's Tracer Trails enabled James Yorkston's Christmas
Jamboree show found Roff getting back to her unplugged roots with a
bill that also featured The Pictish Trail and Lisa O'Neill. Tonight's
official Christmas party, however, shows just how adventurous Tracer
Trails has become since the now 24-year old Roff watched the Fence
community bloom at close quarters while a teenager growing up in Fife.

The final Tracer Trails show of what Roff calls a “super busy year”
will be headlined by the ubiquitous Bill Wells' National Jazz Trio of
Scotland, with support by Wells' collaboration with Stefan Schneider of
German electronicists To Rococo Rot as well as a solo set from Belle
and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson.

“I'm really looking forward to it,” says Roff. “I'm a massive fan of
Bill's music, have been for ages, but this is will be the first time
he's played one of my shows, and there'll be cameos from members of
Findo Gask (RIP), Nalle and Teenage Fanclub too.”

Founded in a spirit of community inspired by Beat Happening vocalist
and founder of the International Pop Underground festival Calvin
Johnson, early Tracer Trails bills featured the likes of Alasdair
Roberts, Rob St John, Withered Hand and Eagleowl long before most were
championed elsewhere. This year alone, however, has seen Roff put more
left-field fare, including former This Heat drummer Charles Hayward,
lo-fi Japanese duo Tenniscoats, avant-primitive all-female septet
Muscles of Joy, and, in a double bill with the free saxophone and drum
duo of Mick Flower and Bjork drummer Chris Corsano, Niger-based guitar
band, Group Inerane.

Roff sees the broadening of Tracer Trails' programme as “natural and
inevitable. My tastes have changed a lot since I was eighteen. It's
actually taken a while for the Tracer Trails programme to catch up with
those changes, but I'm very happy with the shows I've been involved
with over the past twelve months. I have more time to dedicate to
promotion these days, and I'm getting better at it, for sure. I'm
learning. I'm pleased that I'm better able to do justice to the artists
I work with, because I think they're wonderful and should be heard far
and wide.”

The last year has seen other changes in the Tracer Trails camp. A shift
of operations from Edinburgh to Glasgow, small amounts of public
funding and more collaborations with other independent promoters have
all contributed to increased activity.

“When I moved to Glasgow I was adamant that I wouldn't be putting on
any more gigs.,” Roff says. “I didn't think Glasgow would have room for
Tracer Trails! I moved here for domestic reasons, but then I met a lot
of people putting things on I would've loved to do in Edinburgh, and
suddenly there was a huge temptation to collaborate and participate
again.”

As for the future, the Tracer Trails' small is beautiful aesthetic
looks set to continue.

“I think things will change quite a bit in 2012,” Roff muses. I like to
switch it up. There could be fewer gigs, but several structured
projects and special events. A couple of festivals, perhaps. I'm also
hoping to work more closely next year with one of my favourite spaces
in Glasgow. I've always enjoyed using lots of different venues for my
shows, but these days somehow I'm itching to programme according to the
needs and limitations of a building. Space,” she says, quoting Sun Ra,
“is the place!”

Tracer Trails Christmas Party featuring The National Jazz Trio of
Scotland, Pianotapes and Stevie Jackson, tonight, Old St Paul's Church,
Edinburgh
www.tracertrails.co.uk

The Herald, December 21st 2011

ends

The Tom McGrath Trust Maverick Awards - A Playwright's Legacy

When playwright Douglas Maxwell first heard his mentor, the late Tom
McGrath use the phrase “writers like us,” it was the first real
acknowledgement of him as a serious artist that McGrath had received.
McGrath, then Associate Literary Director for Scotland and based at
Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre with a brief to nurture younger
playwrights, sealed the deal a cheque for 75GBP. As small an amount as
it was, this money allowed Maxwell a small amount of time and space to
develop his craft while also giving him the sort of personal confidence
his first ever professional fee made possible.

The now hugely successful author of Decky Does A Bronco, If Destroyed
True and Our Bad Magnet related this tale at the launch of the Tom
McGrath Trust Maverick Awards in October of this year. A low-key and
informal breakfast affair, the newly constituted awards ceremony stayed
true the more holistically understated if creatively all-encompassing
creative vision of McGrath. This was made even more evident by the
winners of both the Maverick Award and the accompanying round of Small
Grant Awards.

“We try to make the awards open to as many developing artists as
possible,” says Ella Wildridge, one of the founders of the Trust. “It's
useful at that stage to have a bit of money to work with professional
actors, and to give them help and encouragement at a time when it
probably feels like a hard slog.”

As McGrath's partner for twenty years, Wildridge saw McGrath's
enthusiasm for connecting with developing artists more than most. As a
translator and dramaturg in her own right, Wildridge too recognises the
importance of plugging writers into a wider community. During several
years at the Traverse Theatre, Wildridge initiated the Windows On The
World series of readings of international work, as well as The Monday
Lizard, a monthly event in which new work was presented cabaret-style
in a way now prevalent throughout the theatre community.

The Tom McGrath Trust was launched in March this year by way of an
event in the Traverse Theatre bar in Edinburgh. On the night, friends,
peers and colleagues such as poet Tom Leonard and playwright David
Greig gathered to pay tribute to a man who bridged populism and the
avant-garde, and who made things happen, be it as a writer, musician or
as first artistic director of both the Third Eye Centre and the Glasgow
Theatre Club. These would become the CCA and the Tron Theatre
respectively.

Also on board with the Awards is McGrath’s daughter, Alice, whose
development work at Imaginate children's theatre festival and now the
MacRobert Centre in Stirling has been similarly acclaimed.

“After my dad died, a lot of people talked about how supportive he'd
been to artists, and how important that had been, “ says McGrath, “and
we just wanted to do something in that spirit.”

With donations coming from individuals and institutions including
Playwrights Studio Scotland, plans are afoot to develop international
links, as well as set up artists residencies in Wildridge's Fife home
she shared with McGrath. In the meantime, the first round of winners
have set the tone.

The four Small Grant Awards allowed writers and theatre makers Sylvia
Dow, James Ley, Leann O'Kasi and Lynsey Murdoch the similar sort of
space to explore and research for future material as McGrath offered
Maxwell. Such was the quality of applications for the Maverick Award
itself that there were two runners-up, plus an additional award for
writer Katy McAuley to develop a website to publish work developed out
of a collaboration between fiction and baking.

Of the runners-up, playwright Catherine Grosvenor aims to develop a
one-person play based on the real life story of an Iranian bear-cub who
was adopted by Polish soldiers in World War Two. This new piece will be
developed in an ongoing laboratory process with artists Gregor Firth
and Jenna Watt. The other runner-up is visual artist Sarah Forrest, who
aims to produce a new piece of creative writing which will form part of
a time-based sculptural installation.

The overall Maverick Award winners, however, are writer Mary
Paulson-Ellis and visual artist Audrey Grant. Their project puts an
existentially challenged dog at the heart of an illustrated storybook
and digital artwork aimed at children. The execution of it will go
beyond cartoon cutseyness, however, to get to their character's
troubled heart.

For the future, a new round of applicants for the Awards will be
looked at in January 2012, while plans are afoot for a second
fundraising event, this time with the emphasis on music. What, though,
one wonders, would the beatific McGrath think of all this?

“I think he'd be a little bit embarrassed,” his daughter says, “but I
think he'd be delighted with the connections being made between
artists. The essence of the projects that excited us all started from a
very playful place, and that's something my Dad maybe had an influence
on, because he was a very playful person. All of the projects seemed to
be pushing the artists in new directions that were about exploration.
That's the main thing we want from the Maverick Award. We want artists
to be able to explore.”

www.tommcgrath-trust.org.uk

The Herald, December 20th 2011

ends

The King and I

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
If Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerrstein's much-loved 1951 musical
were to be pitched as a new work today, chances are it would be knocked
back at every turn. Devising a show about an eastern despot with a
dodgy human rights record and a fondness for American presidents who is
enlightened and educated by a prim English school-teacher, after all,
hardly sounds like the sort of feelgood fare to keep the nation's
post-war pecker up. Slavery, misogyny, bullying, spying and brutality
are all in the mix, and if there's anything happy about the ending,
it's that the King's death is for a more universal good.

Yet even at a Saturday afternoon preview performance of the newly
constituted Music and Lyrics consortium's touring restaging of Paul
Kerryson's original production for The Curve, Leicester, its
eye-poppingly clear just how inspired a yarn this is. The songs and
story are intact, with Ramon Tikaram and Josefina Gabrielle making a
handsome-looking cross-cultural couple, and a ten-piece orchestra in
full view at the back of Sara Perks' vivid set. Yet there seems
something very modern at play here, even as Kerryson and co look to
traditional theatrical forms in a near boutique fashion.

Shadow puppetry and gymnastic interludes frame each scene, adding to an
already sumptuous spectacle, while the singing during the second act
play within a play somewhat bizarrely and almost certainly
unintentionally recalls the vocals of Glasgow-based visual artist Sue
Tompkins in post-punk outfit Life Without Buildings a decade back. This
is a show that's full of heart and soul, which, as charming as it is,
also takes itself seriously enough to give those blinded by power their
come-uppance.

The Herald, December 19th 2011

ends

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Martin Boyce - Turner Prize Winner 2011

Unlike his work, Martin Boyce doesn't appear to have any angles. Two
days before scooping the 2011 Turner Prize for 'A Library of Leaves',
his 2010 show at the Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, the
Hamilton-born, Glasgow School of Art trained maker of desolate and
often decimated imaginary futurescapes sounds quietly relaxed about the
forthcoming bunfight.

“Everything's done and dusted, really,” a chirpy-sounding Boyce says of
'Do Words Have Voices', an impressionistic imagining of a park in
autumn that forms his contribution to the Turner show at the Baltic,
Newcastle. “I'm just polishing my shoes and pressing my socks.”

The last two years has seen Boyce's cache rise with a series of
elaborately wide-open constructions clearly drawn from the same
parallel universe as both these exhibitions. Boyce represented Scotland
at the 2009 Venice Bienale with 'No Reflections', presented by Dundee
Contemporary Arts. This year's Modern Institute show, the deliciously
titled 'night terrace – lantern chains – forgotten seas – sky', evoked
hinted-at sense memories with a conscious sense of mood and place. In
all, what Boyce has described as “a collapse of architecture and
nature” takes place in woozily-epic environments cast adrift in a
topsy-turvy world.

Boyce is the third Turner winner on the trot to have either trained or
be based in Glasgow. As his acceptance speech made clear while praising
his alma mater, however, it was his GSA peer group, who included 1996
Turner winner Douglas Gordon and 2007 shortlistee Nathan Coley, that
counted.

“I remember at the time thinking everyone around me was amazing,” Boyce
says, “and they are. Some people were definitely out there knowing what
to do, then there were people like me, watching and learning how to do
things.”

If anything, Boyce says, the ongoing Turner hoo-hah over the last few
months has only distracted him from working on Screams and Lighthouses,
a forthcoming collaboration with film-maker David Mackenzie and Glasgow
Improvisors Orchestra saxophonist Raymond MacDonald. Enabled by a
Creative Scotland Vital Spark award and set to be performed at Tramway,
Screams and Lighthouses will see each artist explore one another's
practice.

“We've been on this long adventure,” Boyce explains. “The whole thing's
about improvisation, with no real aim in mind. So while David won't be
making a film, there will be filmic elements, but the whole thing's
partly to find somewhere we can all be in the same place.”

As for the effect of the Turner, Boyce is typically understated.

“The nicest thing about it is being able to tell your mum and the
people you talk to when you drop the kids off at school. They know what
the Turner is. But I think the reality is that you go back to what you
were doing before. You maybe get more invitations to go on panels or
whatever, or get asked to say what your top ten movies are [sure
enough, a top ten of Boyce's favourite songs has already appeared on
art publishers Phaidon Press' website], but for me personally, I'm
really not sure what difference it makes.”

The List, December 2011

ends

What Presence! - The Sound of Young Scotland Rediscovered in Harry Papadopoulos' Post-Punk Photography

Imagine Orange Juice era Edwyn Collins skating on thin ice in a
pictorial homage to Sir Henry Raeburn's painting, The Skating
Minister. Or a pre chart success Associates singer Billy Mackenzie
tying up his shoe-lace like a cherubic choir-boy and wearing what looks
like a school jumper. How about future Creation Records maestro Alan
McGee sporting a full head of hair with his first band The Laughing
Apple? A tweed-clad Aztec Camera looking like landed gentry fashion
models as they suck ostentatiously on pipes?

All these images and more can be seen in What Presence! a long overdue exhibition of photographs
by Harry Papadopoulos that opens at Glasgow’s Street Level gallery this
weekend. As can too a pixie-like Claire Grogan of Altered Images,
Subway Sect’s Vic Godard in full-on crooner mode, Stephen Pastel
inventing C 86, Fay Fife getting gobby in The Rezillos, Scars,
Strawberry Switchblade, Nick Cave in The Birthday Party, Boomtown Rat
Bob Geldof in a Santa suit and Suggs in a second-hand car lot?

Drawn from a vast archive of pictures taken between 1978 and 1984 when
Papadopoulos was one of the main photographers on UK music paper
Sounds, the three hundred and thirty-five originals on show capture
that fertile era now known as post-punk, when bands were forever
pushing boundaries with ideas over experience, as the classified ads of
the period declaimed like a year zero manifesto/call to arms.

Named after a mid-period Orange Juice song, What Presence! was first
mooted by Ken McLuskey of The Bluebells, and now working alongside
Douglas Macintyre of Creeping Bent Records running the course at Stow
College in Glasgow which released Belle and Sebastian's debut album,
Tigermilk, on the course's own Electric Honey label. McLuskey knew
Papadopoulos from their time hanging round the place that became known
as The Postcard Flat, actually the home of would-be Warhol Alan Horne
in West Princes Street, Glasgow. At the dawn of a scene that would
mythologise itself as The Sound of Young Scotland and invent indie-pop
as we know it, Papadopolous worked on Bobby Bluebell's Glasgow fanzine,
The Ten Commandments, and there was talk of doing a record with Horne's
deliciously arch Postcard label.

Papadopolous would take pictures of The Clash at Glasgow Apollo, then
sell black and white 10 x 8 prints outside for the princely sum of
fifty pence. Even after decamping to London, Papadopoulos would end up
taking pictures of Josef K, Fire Engines and others from Scotland’s
emergent wave of jangular acts weaned on New York No Wave and
championed by Sounds writer Dave McCullough, that paper’s taste-making
equivalent of Paul Morley.

The Bluebells and others on the way up beyond the border would
frequently crash at Papadopoulos' Kensal Rise pad if invited to the
Smoke for a John Peel session or a gig. There are wonderful shots of
Josef K frontman Paul Haig looking like a film star, and of the band
playing the Covent garden-based Rock Garden, an important hang-out for
the day's indie scene.

The Bluebells are there too, crammed into an open-topped speed machine
in a car showroom.

“My nose is slightly bent now,” McLuskey says while peering at an
image of his younger self. “But I look at that picture and I see
someone with a straight nose.”

The unforced, all-lads-together gang mentality that exudes from the
image was indicative of Harry's laid-back style.

“He'd never get you to pose,” McLuskey remembers. “You'd just wander
round and about, then he'd spot something and you'd try stuff out. For
the Fire Engines shots, he got them to go in Davy Henderson's mum's
back garden.”

The end result looked like a scene that literally didn't stand still.

When The Bluebells scored a couple of chart hits with Young At Heart
and Cath, The Bluebells moved into London hotel-land, and McLuskey and
Papadopoulos lost touch for the next twenty years.

Only when McLuskey hired Papadopoulos' electrician brother Jimmy to
rewire his flat in Glasgow's west end did he ask after the
photographer, who, like Sounds and the other music press inkies, had
long disappeared from view. It turned out Papadopoulos had moved away
from photography and become an editor at Marvel Comics, where he
somewhat incongruously worked on The Care Bears magazine and Scooby Doo
comics before moving into web design.

More recently, Papadopoulos suffered an aneurysm in 2002. McLuskey
visited his old Glasgow scene chum, and found a goldmine of neglected
negatives that formed the basis of What Presence!

McLuskey spent the next two years digitising the images, eventually
approaching Street Level director Malcolm Dickson. With Street Level a
gallery that concentrates on the social relevance of the photographic
image as much as the artistic, and Dickson a serious music head who
also happened to possess every issue of Sounds dating back to 1976, it
was a perfect match.

For Dickson, “As well as some of the very personal resonances Harry's
work brought back, it kind of clicks with some of our concerns with
Street Level in terms of recovering aspects of the cultural past and
re-presenting things that otherwise might be forgotten. It also throws
up a lot of questions about the photographic image and the archive.
It's one thing to say we're going to archive all of Harry's images, but
where do they go? Who looks after them? What digital form do they
migrate to down to the line when the current one becomes obsolete?
Also, by doing this we've been alerted to other people who were
operating in the same period, but who've been eclipsed by the
mediocrity of the present.”

In the run up to What Presence!, Dickson and McLuskey are enjoying
playing detective.

“Even up till a couple of weeks ago it was a case of guessing the band
with some of the images,” says McCluskey. “There are certain places you
recognise from the décor, like Glasgow Polytechnic or the inside of
Nightmoves [a club on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow where many bands
played during the early 1980s], but there are other things you don't
know at all.

One of the most inadvertently entertaining shots in What Presence! is
of a rarely-hailed addition to the Sound of Young Scotland, The
Dreamboys. Looking ungainly in a tank top, the band’s lead singer Peter
Capaldi shows no sign that he'll go on to foul-mouthed glory playing
Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Nor does drummer Craig Ferguson
betray signs of a future career as comedian Bing Hitler before becoming
a top talk show host in America.

Some of the politics of the era also creep through in Papadopolous'
work, most notably in a shot of “the gay triumvirate” of Tom Robinson,
Jimmy Somerville and future Erasure star Andy Bell on a gay rights
march.

“At that time nobody had a job, so you had to find another outlet,”
McLuskey remembers, “so everyone formed bands or took pictures or did
something. Then Thatcher came in and the miner's Strike happened, and
that was the beginning of the whole post-industrial culture. you had to
make it up, and I think you have to make it up again now. This time
mirrors that time. It resonates, and young bands now, they don't give a
fuck. They've decided being in a band is what they're going to do. They
might not have any money, but they dress great and they all have their
own record labels and put on their own gigs.”

With the negatives of some images lost, the only record of shots of the
likes of a post Pere Ubu David Thomas playing Heaven or ex Fall
guitarist Martin Bramah's scallydelic outfit The Blue Orchids are those
on the photocopied pages of Dickson's collection of Sounds. Some rare
shots of Felt will also be in What Presence!, and that band's former
frontman has already visited Street Level for an advance preview while
in Glasgow for a screening of Paul Kelly's film homage, Lawrence of
Belgravia.

With the era What Presence! captures lionised by a new generation of
Glasgow bands from Belle and Sebastian to The Low Miffs and Wake The
President, Papadopolous' archive might prove crucial for retro style
tips as much as anything.

Papadopolous himself has given an approving nod to What Presence!
without expressing any desire to draw attention to himself.

“Harry was always a quiet guy,” says McLuskey. “He'd always stay in the
back-ground, and after a while you got used to him taking pictures
while you were having a cup of tea or something. What's special about
Harry's work is that it isn't contrived. It's just natural.”


What Presence! runs at Street Level, Trongate / King Street, Glasgow,
December 16th-February 25th 2012.

A series of events will take place at Street Level as part of What
Presence! These include appearances by guest DJ Stephen Pastel, music
by former Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross with Low Miffs singer Leo
Condie, and ex Fire Engines vocalist and current driving force of The
Sexual Objects, Davy Henderson in conversation.

Full details can be found at the Street Level website at
www.streetlevelphotoworks.org.

The Quietus, December 2011
ends

The King and I - A New Consortium

Ramon Tikaram is in a bit of a daze. The actor who first came to
prominence in 1990s generation-defining TV drama This Life has been
doing the polka all week as part of his preparation for the title role
in a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, the King and
I, and, at the end of the day in an Edinburgh sports hall all cosied up
in beanie and big jumper, is worn out.

This is all a long way from Albert Square, where Tikaram was recently
filming his latest stint as Amira Shah in BBC soap, East Enders. Then
there was a recent jaunt to Morocco to play a Taliban commander in a
new film about kidnapped Channel Four reporter Sean Langan. It's been
eight years since Tikaram did a musical, when he appeared in Bollywood
Dreams. Where that show was effectively a large-scale ensemble piece,
The King and I is a virtual two-hander between Tikaram and his co-star,
regular West End leading lady Josefina Gabrielle

But Tikaram isn't the only one involved in The King and I who's been
thrown into the deep end. John Stalker is the producer if The King and
I, which will open this week at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre prior to
a major UK tour that runs right through until summer 2012. Up until
recently Stalker was Chief executive of the Festival Theatre and its
sister theatre the Kings. Since departing earlier this year, however to
form Music and Lyrics Limited, the organisation behind this production
of The King and I, Stalker has been discovering the joys of being a
one-man band.

For the last twenty-seven years in charge of major theatres in
Edinburgh, Liverpool and Birmingham, Stalker has had a secretary to
look after his organisations' everyday administration. When he made his
first approaches to many of the theatres who've since gone into
partnership with Music and Lyrics to help bring The King and I to the
stage, however, he was licking his own stamps, and only belatedly
discovered the new postal charges for different-sized envelopes.

The afternoon we meet, Stalker is also about to double up as impromptu
company photographer in order to ensure that the cast of local children
who appear in the production are kept in the frame. While this isn't a
task one could readily imagine west end giants Andrew Lloyd-Webber and
Cameron Mackintosh getting their hands dirty with, without the bricks
and mortar upkeep of two very demanding buildings to worry about,
Stalker is clearly relishing his new-found freedom.

“It's been a passion and a dream of mine,” he says of his new venture.
“The notion of taking large-scale musicals on tour is a very costly and
a very risky business. On the top shelf you've got Danton, Oliver, Les
Miserable and others that can clearly pay their way and which I assume
are a very profitable enterprise. But there are other venues that would
love to get a big, large-scale, number one Broadway-style musical on
their stages, but their just aren't that many around that are touring.
A number of theatre managers, and I used to be one of them, used to sit
in a room moaning about this, so I said, well, let's get together, and
if that's what we want, let's make it happen.”

Stalker had already done something similar with Dance Consortium, and
when he saw Paul Kerryson's production of The King and I for
Leicester's Curve Theatre in 2010, Music and Lyrics was born. The model
is effectively another consortium, whereby each venue shares the show's
production costs. The result of such co-operation means that the
subsequent box office returns are – if all goes well – far greater for
each partner than for a stand-alone production.

Casting Tikaram in a role still associated with Yul Brynner's iconic
turn in the 1956 film version following his appearance on Broadway in
the original production is inspired. Tikaram not only has the dashing
good looks required for the role. He also possesses a gravitas and a
sense of authority that has seen him previously cast as Judas Iscariot
in Jesus Christ Superstar. Tikaram also played the title role in
Gaddafi, English National Opera's collaboration with Asian Dub
Foundation. His take on the King, however, looks set to be as refreshed
as the production.

“I just do what's in the page,” says Tikaram. “I'm obviously aware of
Yul Brynner's template, but I'm also aware of what we're doing
differently. I'm trying to bring as bit more tenderness to him, because
there are moments in the play where Anna's threatening to leave, and he
can be incredibly tempermental, and some of his behaviour is absolutist
and totalitarian, but there's a vulnerability there as well. People
have a lot of pre-conceptions about The King and I. They think they
know it, but quite often they don't, and we can use that that to our
advantage.”

It's not difficult to join the dots along Stalker's road to founding
his own production company. It was something he'd been slowly working
towards within the bounds of the Kings and Festival Theatres for
several years, when in-house productions of The Corstorphine Road
Nativity, The Secret Garden and Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle's play, The
Hardman, were seen in seasons previously the exclusive domain of
visiting companies. Given that history, why didn't Stalker stay at the
Kings and Festival Theatres to produce The King and I?

“It's too big a job,” he states flatly, “and the challenges of running
a building are such that you need to concentrate on that. The unique
thing about the Festival Theatre is that in any other town you wouldn't
have built it. With the Playhouse up the road in a town slightly bigger
than greater Ipswich, you've got far too many tickets on sale during
the forty-nine weeks that aren't the Edinburgh Festival, and you need
to concentrate on selling those tickets full-time. By the same token,
given the three million pound that's being spent on The King and I, I
owe it to my shareholders to concentrate on that full-time, and I'm not
missing leaking roofs, leaking taps and all the paraphernalia of
running a building.

Things for Music and Lyrics look promising. Box office for The King and
I thus far is “sensational” according to Stalker, with next May's dates
at Birmingham already two thirds sold out. Arts Council England has
provided funding for an audience development programme – something
unprecedented for an otherwise commercial musical – and there are none
of the pressures the subsidised sector in Scotland is up against in
terms of cross-border touring.

“If you're not dependent on subsidy you can do what the hell you like,”
Stalker enthuses. “We have a very poor track record of commercial
theatre producing in Scotland, and we want to change that.
The ambition we've got is to create one or two musicals a year. The
importance of a musical at the centre of a theatre programme can't be
understated. It has a higher yield than drama, and that can help venues
invest in a piece of new writing or something else in their programme.
What Music asnd Lyrics is about is putting great art made on a large
scale in front of bigger audiences more often.”

The King and I, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, December 14th-January 7th
2012
http://www.fctt.org.uk

The Herald, December 12th 2011

ends

The Tree of Knowledge

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
Enlightenment comes in many forms in Jo Clifford's parable-like
fantasia, in which David Hume and Adam Smith wake up in the
twenty-first century, where the results of their philosophies are in
freefall. Their world in Ben Harrison's wide-open production is
designer Ali Maclaurin's brutalist breezeblock rotunda on which
blueprints for assorted tomorrows are projected, artless and without
centre. Their guide is a working-class woman from Fife called Eve, who,
arguably like all of us, began life with a false sense of optimism for
a future that never quite became the brave new world it was supposed
to. As Smith painfully discovers when he embraces new social freedoms
with the zeal of a convert, in a corupted free market economy, even sex
is flogged off on the cheap, cold and loveless as it goes.

Gerry Mulgrew's Hume and Neil McKinven's Smith first come to life on
comfy chairs, as if beamed down to some celestial salon in Edinburgh
New Town. Joanna Tope's Eve appears like a guru in a 1960s style chair
suspended from the sky by an umbilical cord that connects her to the
universe. Seemingly in purgatory, no-one is afraid to acknowledge the
audience, who sit in judgement of a series of exchanges that move from
accepted truisms to wise confessionals about the power that comes
simply from people opening up to one another.

Arriving somewhat presciently during what looks dangerously like
capitalism's last gasp, Clifford's meditation starts off with an
irrepressable waggishness grabbed hold of by a pop-eyed McKinven. By
the end, however, it's become a slow-burning totem of universal hope in
a messed-up world.

The Herald, December 12th 2011

ends

Saturday, 10 December 2011

National Jazz Trio of Scotland - Bill Wells Gets Busy

The National Jazz Trio of Scotland has never really been a trio. Nor
has Bill Wells’ cheekily-monickered combo ever played jazz in the
conventional sense. With a first album of original material, the
waggishly christened Standards Volume Two, imminent, Wells and his
reconvened NJT play DIY promoters Tracer Trails Christmas shindig to
showcase a more vocal-based direction care of Golden Grrrls singer
Lorna Gilfeather and Findo Gask/Francois and the Atlas Mountains
vocalist Gerard Black.

“It started off as one thing and became something else,” Wells says of
the NJT’s metamorphosis. “There’s never any definite idea of what we’re
doing, and it becomes what it becomes.”

With his high-profile collaboration with Aidan Moffat ongoing, the
Tracer Trails bill will also feature Pianotapes, Wells’ collaboration
with Stefan Schneider of German electronicists To Rococco Rot, and
Belle & Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson, who Wells may also end up
playing with.

Wells’ prolific back-catalogue has long straddled indie and jazz worlds
to form a deliciously unclassifiable body of work. A new album,
Lemondale, was recorded in Japan with the cream of the country’s
underground alongside similarly versatile American émigré Jim O’Rourke.
Live, a Celtic Connections show with Bridget St John and Lol Coxhill is
pending.

“I always wish I’d done more,” says Wells, “mainly because I started
late, but for me it feels like I’m still catching up. But if you’ve got
all these ideas, then you’re going to be releasing more records than
most people.”

Wells & Moffat, The Arches, Glasgow, December 20th; National Jazz Trio
of Scotland / Pianotapes / Stevie Jackson, Old St Paul's Church,
Edinburgh, December 21st

The List, December 2011


ends

Beholder

Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh
November 19th 2011-February 18th 2012
4 stars
“Beauty,” according to that man David Hume, whose tercentenary year is
almost up, “is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the
mind which contemplates them.”

So it goes in this bumper grab-bag of some fifty-odd works, each
subjectively selected by a far-reaching network of artists, curators,
movers, shakers and other organisers who populate Scotland’s fecund
visual landscape. Their brief, as with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, is to do
it beautifully. The result is a gloriously disparate jumbled-up
wonderland of art for art’s sake that’s a joy to wander through.

Classicism and conceptualism rub up against each other, as do the
institutions with the DIY pop-up spaces in an all too rare fit of
democratic inclusivity in the best sense of both words. Beholder also
speaks volumes about taste. So what’s an ugly-bugly portrait in the
corner to some will have others in raptures. Yoko Ono and L.S. Lowry
prove as surprising as each other, abeit in radically different ways.
And just take a peek at Bruce McLean’s puddle-like floor-mirror,
Narcissus. Wow! Now that really is something pretty beautiful.

The List, December 2011

ends

Startle Reaction – Torsten Lauschmann

Dundee Contemporary Arts, October 22nd 2011-January 8th 2012
4 stars
You don’t immediately notice the quieter, more domestic pieces in
Torsten Lauschmann’s biggest box of tricks to date. The subverted
digital clock above the DCA box office and the wired-up chandelier that
hangs in Gallery One, where two of Lauschmann’s films are looped,
aren’t as flashy as the rest of what’s on show. They don’t seek to
dazzle and disorientate; they don’t beep or buzz, flash or fade, whirr
or whizz like much else on show in Lauschmann’s gently immersive
time-sequenced theme-park he hood-winks us into believing in. Yet, for
all their functional discretion, these two pieces nevertheless shed
light on the big, tangled-up mess of interconnectivity that Startle
Reaction is all about.

This is clear too in his films. Misshapen Pearl is an impressionistic
meditation on the place where natural light morphs into neon. Artifice
as well as interconnectivity exists in Skipping Over Damaged Areas,
which edits seemingly incongruous big-screen title sequences to make up
a phony narrative given trailer-like credence by a big-talking
voiceover.

Elsewhere, lost jockeys in flight become computer-jammed still lives; a
mansion resembling Rebecca’s Manderlay becomes a piece of cut-out shape
shadow-play; and a player-piano bashes out little modernist cacophonies
while snow falls into the light like some sub-Beckettian floor-show.
Beckett is there too in the show’s most oddly poignant piece, in which
a projector seemingly gazes out of the gallery window, its computerised
voice yearning to be among the street-lights and the CCTV cameras in
the concrete jungle where night turns to day and back again.

Personified and sentimentalised like the ‘injured’ robot in Douglas
Trumball’s eco-hippy sci-fi fable, Silent Running, there’s a sense of
eternal disappointment to the projector’s monologue. This is
surveillance-culture Happy Days. The projector’s head may not be buried
in the sand, but, bolted immobile, it’s still forced to watch the world
pass by, the sun forever out of reach.

The List, December 2011

ends

Lili Reynaud-Dewar - Blacking Up With Jean Genet

It’s somehow fitting that Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s artist talk and
screening of radical author Jean Genet’s explicit 1950 film, Un Chant
d’Amour, was postponed last Wednesday night due to the public service
workers strike that caused Tramway to be closed. It’s fitting too that
another film, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, containing hitherto
unseen footage of the radical Black Panthers movement’s leading lights,
is on a limited release in Scottish cinemas the same week that
Reynaud-Dewar’s new performance piece does appear at Tramway for one
night only alongside the delayed talk and screening.

The political thinking behind Jean Genet’s Walls, Speaking of Revolt,
Media and Beauty, after all, is a vital signifier of both its content
and influences. This has been the case with much of Reynaud-Dewar’s
work since the Paris-based former lawyer and dancer graduated from
Glasgow School of Art’s influential Environmental Art course.

“I find Genet's political commitments admirable,” Reynaud-Dewar says
of the self-styled literary outlaw and author of fantastical
auto-biographical fictions such as The Thief’s Journal as well as plays
including The Blacks, “but not devoid of certain ambiguities and
misunderstandings, which I think are what make a political commitment a
‘personal’ quest for understanding oneself in the world, and not just
obeying a certain set of rigid commandments. I also find it
interesting that Genet transgresses the boundary of ‘community’ by
committing to the causes of the Black Panthers, Palestine and North
African immigrants [in a recently de-colonised France], articulating a
common discourse and a thread between those different ‘issues’.”

In performance, the result of Reynaud-Dewar’s line of inquiry will
animate a group of previously sculpture seen earlier this year at
Northampton Contemporary and built as an “anti-monument to Genet's
political writings and aesthetics via recordings of some of his crucial
texts. With assorted Genet-related objects placed around the
performance space, a video of Reynaud-Dewar interviewing poet and
radical commentator Pierre Giquel will be translated in performance by
long-term collaborator, burlesque dancer Mary Knox, described by
Reynaud-Dewar as an “iconic figure of Glasgow's night scene.”

“I am not performing for this piece,” Reynaud-Dewar says, “but
directing to me is not giving indications to my performers as to how to
do or say things, since I choose them because I like the way they
already do or say things. Directing is producing a situation of both
pleasure and intensity that allows the unleashing of precious material.
I guess the sculptures and props are already quite ‘directive’ anyway.”

This ties in with Reynaud-Dewar’s study of German playwright and
director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Anti-Theatre, a company in which
regular hierarchies were destabilised by Fassbinder among his regular
‘family’ of collaborators in a consciously political set of
interventions.

“You could be playing the leading role one day, and the next be the
prop assistant,” according to Reynaud-Dewar, “not only as a way to be
both productive and independent in the context of capitalism, but also
to remain on its margins. Interestingly, although he is destroying the
hierarchy of theatre, Fassbinder remains the director. I have also been
influenced by his way of working consistently with friends, creating
particular and intense moments in order to produce work.”

With Fassbinder too tackling issues of race and colonialism in films
such as Fear Eats The Soul, it’s significant, perhaps, that both Genet
and Fassbinder were homosexual men and conscious outsiders whose
oppositionist stances affected all their work.

“Genet used his ‘marginality’, as thief, prisoner or orphan, to create
a sort of complex common thread between different political causes,”
Reynaud-Dewar explains. “I use those figures to articulate an
understanding of my own identity as a woman, as an artist, etc. For me
it is a way to unfix my own life, and these references to
homosexuality, black politics and feminism have served my understanding
of my position in the world.”

Genet himself was a master of the subversive gesture, as demonstrated
in what turned out to be his final TV interview in 1985, a year before
his death. Genet disarmed the interviewer, English playwright Nigel
Williams, to such an extent that the tables (and camera) were turned on
Williams, with Genet becoming interrogator. Reynaud-Dewar recognises
Genet’s on-film stance as a key to how he functioned.

“I find it quite exemplary of Genet's radical life and work,” she
says, “his reversal of hierarchical order, and his refusal to occupy
any kind of ‘stable position’, or enjoy any ‘stable’ recognition as a
writer. Indeed he managed to make this figure of the writer somehow
disappear and be subverted by the activist by not writing any fiction
for more than twenty years and nearly secretly working on the
posthumous Prisoner of Love. This scene is reminiscent of a similar
subversion of roles orchestrated by Jean-Luc Godard in a television
interview given in the aftermath of 1968.”

Reynaud-Dewar hasn’t seen Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 yet, but given
that one of the Black Panther leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, exiled himself
in Algeria (the same location, incidentally, where acid guru Timothy
Leary was decamped to after being sprung from jail by white
revolutionary group, The Weather Underground) the connections with her
work are paramount.

Beyond Genet, issues of colonialism and race are implicit in much post
World war Two French literature. Marguerite Duras, another writer who
fictionalised her own life, tackled her own feelings head-on, as
Reynaud-Dewar acknowledges.

“I am interested in how Duras used her own life and autobiography to
question colonialism,” she says, “but also to understand herself as a
product of this particular form of oppression; ie, she never denies her
own fears and her own subconscious racism. In one book, for instance, she describes how, after her detoxication cures (she was an alcoholic) she has hallucinations about Asian people
wanting to harm her. Instead of denying it, she uses the subconscious as a tool to challenge racism and colonialism.”

Duras is of interest too in relation to Reynaud-Dewar in terms of how
her work was multi-faceted, with screenplays morphing into novels or
plays, a la India Song.

Running alongside the Tramway events is Some objects blackened and a
body too, a series of new video works at Mary Mary, the independent
gallery which represents the artist. In these works, a blacked-up
Reynaud-Dewar looks to the choreography of Josephine Baker and her
relationship with Le Corbusier, who is himself said to have blacked-up
and sported Baker-like feathers in order to seduce her.

With previous works drawing on such black totems as Rastafarianism and
radical jazz composer Sun Ra (who purported to hail from Saturn),
Reynaud-Dewar clearly isn’t afraid of tackling a racially sensitive
taboo already explored in part, incidentally, by live artist Linder
thirteen-hour performance, The Darktown Cakewalk, at Glasgow
International Festival of Visual Art in 2010. Reynaud-Dewar’s 2009 Mary
Mary show, The Power Structures, Rituals & Sexuality of the European
Shorthand Typists, also featured blacked-up performers.

“The colours of the piece in Tramway are directly inspired by a quote
by Genet referring to his collaboration with the Black Panthers,”
Reynaud-Dewar says, referring to a 1975 interview in which Genet nailed
his own colours to the mast by asking ‘Am I a Black whose colour is
white or pink, but a Black?’ ”By describing the skin colour in such an
abrupt and direct way, Genet transgresses the notion of race and
articulates the political meaning of it, and even the question of class
that circulates around these questions.”

“I use blacking up (onto objects, onto performers) as a way to subvert
the rigidity of identity and to question the ‘neutrality’ of whiteness,
as I would question the ‘neutrality’ of the masculine if I cross
dressed as a man, maybe. In the case of the Mary Mary videos, they are
black and white, so it is not really certain my body is blackened. It
could be blue or purple.”

Jean Genet's Walls, Speaking of Revolt, Media and Beauty, Tramway,
Glasgow, Saturday December 10th, featuring an artist’s talk and
screening of Un Chant d’Amour ; Some objects blackened and a body too,
Mary Mary, Glasgow, until January 14th 2012

www.tramway.org
www.marymarygallery.co.uk

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Herald, December 8th 2011

ends

Fordell Research Unit – The Illusion of Movement (At War With False Noise/Braw Music)

3 stars
Following the textured nuances of his Pjorn 72 label’s Songs For Dying
compilation, Edinburgh noise auteur Fraser Burnett joins forces with
Muscletusk’s Grant Smith for a relentless exercise in metal machine
minimalism.
On what sounds like four variations on a theme, each piece is drilled
through with the same building site/goth night churn that wouldn’t
sound out of place in Silence of the Lambs. Such rawness channels the
bass backing track of The Gift, Lou Reed’s grisly short story for The
Velvet Underground’s hardcore White Light/White Heat album. Put through
a blender and spewed into a megaphone, it barely muffles the sound of
suffocation.

The List, December 2011

ends

The Tree of Knowledge - Jo Clifford's Free Exchange

Adam Smith is having it large. In an out of the way warehouse in Leith,
the noted economist and mid-wife of capitalism as we know it has
dropped his bunged-up mummy's boy facade and is all hoodied-up
following a trawl through what looks to have been the brightest,
brashest and most full-on gay bars in town. What's more, Smith is
loved-up on a chemically enhanced high, and is opening up to his
esteemed colleague, philosopher and man of letters David Hume, like
he's never done before. Where the two once got by on dry discourse, in
the modern world, at least, an altogether different form of intercourse
looks more likely.

Or so it goes in rehearsals for The Tree of Knowledge, Jo Clifford's
audacious new play which pits these two men of ideas in a present-day
limbo. Here they're led like a pair of Scrooges by a twenty-first
century everywoman through a hi-tech, free-market wonderland they might
just have helped think into being.

As actors Neil McKinven as Smith and Gerry Mulgrew playing Hume spit
out one-liners in an increasingly rapid-fire repartee, one can't help
but feel one is eavesdropping in on a kind of Enlightenment era
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the ultimate high-concept double-act
whose world is about to be turned upside down.

There's a moment in the midst of all this when both of these finest
minds of their generation realise that the Scottish Enlightenment they
spearheaded back in the eighteenth century has somehow borne fruit. The
sense of vindication as Hume and Smith realise that someone actually –
gasp - read their books, is a treat. It's also a very telling moment of
how Clifford's plays take the biggest of ideas, and not only injects
them with a heartfelt humanity, but draws deeply on her most personal
of experiences.

“On the face of it, these three characters have nothing to do with me,”
Clifford reflects, “but the more I look at it, the more I recognise
aspects of myself. There's this pre-occupation there with dying, which
I've had ever since my wife died six years ago. Having lived through
all that, as well as nearly dying myself, that's in there. There's
definitely a thing there about people seeing my plays as well. There's
a whole lot of my experience in there as a closet trans-sexual for all
those years, and discovering that actually I can live openly.

“So there's an immense sense of liberation in my life that goes into
that experience of Smith, who is liberated from Calvinism, which is
just a pleasure to see. A friend of mine told me she'd had a dream in
which I was naked on the Traverse stage, and in a way, that's what I'm
always doing, leaving myself completely exposed.”

Observations of gay dating site Grinder are also in the mix of The Tree
of Knowledge, as is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Clifford
dropped acid to as a student in 1960s St Andrews. All of Clifford's
plays have dealt with this sense of exploration, where very intimate
issues inform more wide-reaching global concerns, and vice versa. This
has been evident from Clifford's first play for the Traverse, Losing
Venice, in 1985, right up to her meditation on death in Every One, at
Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre in 2010.

From the off, Clifford's writing style was a playfully
non-naturalistic form of epic magical-realism. While all had
historical, invariably European settings, they nevertheless felt deeply
contemporary. Looking back on them as a body of work, it's telling too
that many - Lucy's Play, Playing With Fire and Celestina spring to mind
- feature strong women at their metaphysical core. So it is with The
Tree of Knowledge.

“A dear friend of mine had been brought up in Glenrothes, and had
worked in a computer factory when the town was known as Silicon Glen at
the dawn of the computer revolution that completely changed all our
lives. I began to see connections, and I knew at this point that there
was going to be a scene with Hume and Smith working in the factory.”
This woman became Eve.

“There are so many parallels between the intellectual revolutions that
Hume and Smith were involved in, and the intellectual, social and
political revolutions that we're involved in now, which I think centre
around the computer. When I wrote my first play back in 1985, there
weren't computers. I used a typewriter, and it's almost impossible now
to think back to what it was like.”

Clifford brings out her smart-phone.

“Look at what we can do now,” she marvels. “We can Google anything we
want to. Just think about the change that represents, especially when
you think of the difficulties Hume had to get access to a library.”
Written while Clifford was Creative Fellow at the Institute for
Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, The
Tree of Knowledge arrives onstage at the end of a year marking the
ter-centenary of Hume's birth. Commissioned to celebrate this
anniversary, it was unlikely Clifford was ever going to write a
straightforward biography.

“I started to read Hume's philosophy, which I couldn't make head nor
tale of. Then I started reading his auto-biography, and discovered what
a fascinating man he was. Then I became really fascinated by Smith, who
was a far subtler thinker than the Adam Smith Institute think. Both men
realised that what is fundamentally important for us as human beings is
a capacity for empathy, and that's also the beginning of drama. The
contrast between Glenrothes new town and Edinburgh new town is just
delicious, and what that tells us about how we view humanity compared
to how Hume and Smith viewed humanity is extraordinary, and that throws
everything into perspective.”

The Tree of Knowledge will be the first play Clifford has had produced
at the Traverse since 1993. Given Clifford's history with the
theatre,this is a remarkable gap, and demonstrates how little
Clifford's generation of writers were looked after when a new wave
breezed in. not that Clifford stopped writing. Pitlochry, the Lyceum,
Edinburgh International Festival and international outlets have all
allowed her to expand her imagination. The Tree of Knowledge, however,
suggests Clifford has come home with something very important to say.

“I think there's a lot of anger in the play,” she says. “The economic
situation we're in just now is desperate, and free-market economics are
no longer adequate. Somehow governments have got to intervene here. I
think there's a sadness, really, about how in the west we have so many
opportunities for happiness and self-fulfilment, which we generally
fail. There's a huge amount of depression in society, and the we are
conspiculously making an unhappy society, but I hope that, despite all
the grief and all the anger and distress, there is, I hope, a very
positive sense in the play that we can resolve things, and that a new
society is being born.

This is one of the most crucial periods in human history, in which an
old system is no longer adequate to the demands being made on it, and a
new form of social, economic, political and artistic culture, we're in
the birth pangs of that. That can be a very frightening and dangerous
thing, but in spite of that, I think it's also a very profound and
hopeful time.”

The Tree of Knowledge, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 8-24
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, December 6th 2011

ends

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Lawrence of Belgravia - A Star Is Born

There's a scene in Paul Kelly's new documentary film, Lawrence of
Belgravia, in which his subject is seen riding the London Underground.
Although the viewer never sees this mysterious character in plain
sight, we're given tantalising glimpses of him in odd-angled profiles,
mirror-shaded and baseball-capped, like some off-the-leash stall-holder
from Camden Market. Or a rock star.

While this is being played out, a Birmingham-accented voice-over
earnestly relates how desperate he is to be famous, and about how, once
he’s living the dream, he'd never use the Underground again, but would
be prefer to be driven around in a limousine.

Visually, the scene is a tease, vaguely reminiscent of some celebrity
game-show in which a panel are asked to identify one of their peers
before they burst through a sliding door to rapturous canned applause.
The voice-over, on the other hand, sounds more like the cravings of
some Big Brother wannabe milking their fifteen minutes of prime- time
for all they're worth.

As it is, both the face and voice belong to Lawrence, a man as singular
as his name, who, for the last thirty years as the driving force behind
Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart, has created some of the greatest pop
music you've never heard.

This weekend's screening of Lawrence of Belgravia as part of Stephen
and Katrina Pastel's Monorail Film Club will feature a Q and A with
Kelly and Lawrence led by Belle and Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch. As
a long-time fan of Felt, Murdoch was referencing Lawrence's work as far
back as 1996 on I Don't Love Anyone, which appeared on Belle & Sebastian's debut album, Tigermilk. As Murdoch rages politely at the world, he meets a man who tells him that 'the world is as soft as lace', providing Murdoch with salvation and a sunnier disposition on the song's final verse. The World Is As Soft As Lace, of course, was the title of Felt's 1984 single. And the man? Well, only Murdoch knows.

More recently, Lawrence's influence has trickled down even further. If
you listen really closely to Girls Aloud's exquisitely hook-heavy 2005
pop smash, Biology, for instance, the essence of Felt, at least, is there in a
song that actually sounds like the entire history of pop compressed
into three minutes. Just check out the breathy ‘It’s The Way That We
Walk/It’s The Way That We Talk’ refrain, purred in teasing last-gasp
counterpoint to the more stridently insistent chorus by the best
manufactured girl or boy band since The Sex Pistols.

Not that Biology, co-constructed by Xenomania's Brian Higgins, who
co-produced and co-wrote Saint Etienne's Finisterre album, arguably the
starting point for Lawrence of Belgravia, appeared as one of Lawrence's
favourites when he co-anchored a recent edition of Jarvis Cocker's BBC
6Music show, The Sunday Service. But no matter. With an instrumental
tribute by hot American band Girls just released on uber-limited
heart-shaped vinyl and simply called Lawrence, the man christened
Lawrence Hayward might just have found his time, anyway.

“It's amazing,” says Lawrence, who's just arrived back at his
cooker-free, kettle-free, internet-free twelfth-floor flat – “in the
borough of Islington” - with a cup of kiosk-bought tea and a panoramic
view of St Paul’s and the Post Office Tower outside his window. “Even
though I thought people would be naming their bands after me years ago,
after the first record. But I'm a very patient person, and now it's
happened it feels wonderful. I'm not being blasé, because to have
people be inspired by you, just as I was inspired by Lou Reed and Tom
Verlaine, it means a lot, but I expected all this to happen in 1985.”

Lawrence announced Felt to the world in 1979 with Index, a no-fi
minimalist dirge which, despite, and possibly because of its wilful
opacity, was made single of the week in music paper, Sounds. While
then, Index, performed by Lawrence as a one-man band on his own
Shanghai label, sounded startlingly unprecedented, today it’s easy to
file such a precocious and uncompromising debut alongside the early
work of New York No-Wavers Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham.

By the time debut mini-album, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, was
released a year later, Felt had become a proper band that combined
intricate guitar patterns and primal drums with Lawrence's whispered
drawls and ornate, other-worldly poetry. The combined result sounded
like a suburban English Velvet Underground channelling Ennio
Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks and fronted by a man courting
his own mystique long before Morrissey or Madonna reduced their names
to legendary stand-alone status.

While the likes of Lloyd Cole watered down Lawrence’s template for a
healthy chart career, Felt spent the next decade in the shadows, which
not even a spell on Alan McGee's pre Brit-pop Creation Records could
change. With peers such as The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream
now bona-fide pop stars, and with Bobby Gillespie's troupe of alt.rock
magpies even being joined by Felt keyboardist Martin Duffy, Lawrence
switched tack, forming Denim as a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy
glam-rock bubblegum critique of the new rock orthodoxy.

With two former members of The Glitter Band and a ton of 1970s pop
cultural references from The Osmonds to the IRA’s 1974 Birmingham pub
bombings in tow, Lawrence ploughed a similar lyrical furrow to Jarvis
Cocker and Luke Haines, all inner-city sarcasm and Spangle-flavoured
kisses that pre-dated Jonathan Coe’s similarly-set novel, The Rotter’s
Club, by a decade. Denim played with Pulp and Saint Etienne,
pop-literate fellow travellers in a post-modern parallel universe.

But not everyone got Denim. As the trad- lad-rock of Oasis took indie
and Creation into the triumphalist Blairite mainstream, Denim reached a
dead-end when a scheduled single, the innocuously zippy sounding Summer
Smash, was withdrawn. A piece of package-tour fantasy wish fulfilment
clearly drawn from Wombles composer Mike Batt’s theme to Saturday night
TV variety show Summertime City, Summer Smash could have been the
people’s pop crossover Denim were looking for. The untimely death of
Princess Diana, alas, deemed such a title as bad taste, and that was
that.

Lawrence's follow-up, Go-Kart Mozart, took Denim's novelty rock
aesthetic even further, and, on the band's two albums in 1999 and 2005,
sounded somewhere between the Sex Pistols and Black Lace.

It was around this time that Kelly approached Lawrence, who he'd known
via the 1990s Creation/Heavenly Records scene when he'd played guitar
in a band called East Village. Kelly later played in Saint Etienne's
live band, and made Finisterre, an impressionistic filmic tour through
London to accompany the band's 2002 album of the same name. The film
featured voice-overs by some of the city's residents, including Vashti
Bunyan, Vic Godard and Lawrence.

By the time Kelly started shooting Lawrence of Belgravia eight years
ago, his subject was about to be made homeless. The drug problems that
ensued as Lawrence embarked on recording the third Go-Kart Mozart album
(as with the film, it's just finished) would have made for a pretty
colourful warts n’ all portrait. But that wasn't the film Kelly wanted
to make.

“I wanted to celebrate Lawrence and everything he's about,” he says.
“So I just followed him around while he was trying to make the album,
and sometimes he'd disappear for six months and the whole process would
become quite fractured as he drifted around. At the start of the film
he's quite low, but I wanted the film to be seen through his eyes.

“If you make a film like this, you want to make something real. It's a
document. The life Lawrence leads now, other than making records, it
wouldn't exist. So what the film is doing is saying that this actually
happened. But I didn't want to make a film that looks back. I wanted to
make one that looks forward, because Lawrence only looks backwards so
he can look forward.”

Such life-through-a-lens attention has been something of a life-saver
for Lawrence.

”It actually made my life feel legitimate,” he says. “Sometimes films
about musicians can be really boring. They do gigs, then nothing
happens after that that matters very much. But what this captured was a
big part of my life, and that helped. When you're a kid at school and
you save a goal or something, or you're interviewing yourself in the
bath imagining you're on Top Of The Pops and are really famous, you
think, god, this could be a film, and now, all these childhood dreams
are actually happening.”

Stuart Murdoch first encountered Felt after hitch-hiking to London to
see Creation Records Doing It For The Kids festival in 1988.

“At that time Primal Scream were coming through, and there was this
strange feeling that Felt were a bit of an also-ran,” Murdoch
remembers. “It wasn't until they broke up that I became obsessed by
Felt and became totally immersed in them. I listened to them every day
for a couple of hours. Felt were my solace.

“Lawrence had such an interesting way with words, and the two main
instrumentalists, Maurice Deebank on guitar in the first period, and
Martin Duffy on keyboards in the second, produced such intricate
melodies. Each of these could stand alone, but together they sounded
greater than the sum of their parts. Part of that maybe had something
to do with Lawrence's idiosyncrasies.”

Murdoch met Lawrence when Belle and Sebastian played their first ever
London gig supporting Tindersticks. Murdoch marched over to where
Lawrence was standing in the audience with Jarvis Cocker.

“Jarvis was a big pop star, and I could see his face as I got closer,
panicking slightly, but it was Lawrence I wanted to talk to.”

The pair corresponded for a while, “back when people still wrote
letters,” and Go-Kart Mozart supported Belle and Sebastian.

Murdoch's instinctive bee-line for Lawrence over Cocker tells a story
in itself that perhaps vindicates Lawrence's self-belief, however
bruised it may be. As Paul Kelly observes, “It wasn't as if Felt were a
secret band. In my world they were a huge group. But I suppose when
people like Bobby Gillespie became real pop stars, Lawrence kind of got
left behind.”

Given Creation's decade of high-profile silliness and celebrity during
the Brit-Pop years when Oasis became pop aristocracy, being left behind
may have been something of a blessing. Yet even after his recent
hardships Lawrence retains a determinedly unabashed air of ambition
integrity and optimism.

“If you do a job, you want to do it to the best of your ability,” he
says, “and in the pop world you gauge things by how popular you are.
The whole thing with me was to take the underground overground, and
that's what Creation was all about as well, which was why Felt went
with them. But not everyone's like that. For instance, Felt's first
ever gig was with The Fall, and on the night I went up to Mark E Smith
and asked if there was anyone famous in the audience. He just laughed
at me, because he was never like that.”

But where did the stars in Lawrence's eyes first fall from?

“The first thing I fell in love with was T-Rex, and they were massive.
It's easy to make a record and sell a few thousand copies, but I don't
see the point. You have to aim for the top. I want to be the toppermost
of the poppermost.”

Despite such chirpy, irony-free assertions, it's clear that Lawrence
possesses an obsessively-acquired working knowledge of pop machinery as
well as its accompanying mythology. This can be heard most explicitly
on songs such as Denim's I Hate The Eighties and Go-Kart Mozart's
Listening To Marmalade.

Yet Lawrence has too what Kelly suggests might be “a built-in
self-destructive streak. The thing about Lawrence is, he genuinely
wants to be in the charts, but he doesn't compromise, so while he's his
own worst enemy, it's also something he should be applauded for.”

Even before Summer Smash, two other examples of Lawrence’s accidental
courting of disaster stand out. The first came with the release of
Felt's 1985 Ignite The Seven Cannons album. With producer Robin Guthrie
of the Cocteau Twins fleshing out the Felt sound into something more
epic, the addition of Cocteaus vocalist Liz Fraser on the hauntingly
commercial Primitive Painters single should have seen Felt cross over
into the mainstream. As it was, the band moved to Creation Records and
released Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death, a twenty-eight
minute album of short instrumentals.

“When Primitive Painters came out, we were on a label [Cherry Red] that
wouldn't promote it,” defends Lawrence. “We gave them a hit single
which was number one in the indie charts, and which we'd have done
anything to promote, but we were given nothing. We'd have done
everything a pop band could. Before Primitive Painters came out, we
tried to move to [major label ‘indie’ offshoot] Blanco Y Negro, but the
major label didn't want us, so we were stuck in an indie ghetto. Then
Alan McGee did something similar with his Elevation label, which was
set up for Felt, Primal Scream and The Weather Prophets, but the same
guy who signed up Blanco Y Negro was in charge, and he said he didn't
want Felt. I went to New York and watched the whole scene I left behind
explode.”

Denim's 1991 slot on Jools Holland's Later programme should have
similarly had Lawrence ‘tearing up the album charts’ as he would have
it on Go-Kart Mozart’s second album. Given the nature of Holland's
catch-all cultural relativist take on rock's rich tapestry, however,
having a mirror-shaded Lawrence mouthing off in a song called Middle of
the Road about how he hated funk, soul, early Dylan and Aretha Franklin
among others probably wasn't going to do him any favours. Even if the
music did sound like a Stars on 45-style take on The Velvet
Underground's Sister Ray by way of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.

“You finally get the chance to do TV, and you do it so wrong,” Lawrence
mourns today. “We had to audition for all these shows, and we really
wanted to be on The Word, 'cos that was the coolest programme on at the
time, but they didn't want us, and Later did. We had a lot of ideas
that were a protest at that whole idea, and when everyone waves during
the opening credits, we wanted to be miserable, but they wouldn't let
us, so we didn't know what to do.”

Twenty years later, and especially given the context, the deadpan
result remains as subversively out of whack as it did then, and remains
part of Lawrence's conscious attempt to create a back-story beyond the
music. Felt's apparent plan of releasing an album a year for a decade
was announced only after they split up. Rumours of Lawrence's
reclusiveness and obsessive cleanliness to the extent of him not
allowing visitors to use his toilet abound. All this pales, however,
compared to the real life tragedies glimpsed in Lawrence of Belgravia.

“The pop world is one of illusion and artifice,” Lawrence observes,
part pop theoretician, part star-struck circus side-show, part would-be
Svengali. “But it's no good just being Gary Kemp. You've got to say
something interesting as well. That's not to say what's in the film is
fake, because all of it's true, but you have to manage that back-story
as well.”

Given how much his cult status cache looks set to rise on the back of
the film, if he really wants to be famous, couldn't Lawrence follow in
the shoes of peers such as My Bloody Valentine or Primal Scream's
re-enactment of their defining Screamadelica album? If he reformed
Felt, after all, he might be able to afford a cooker, or a kettle at
the very least.

“I really hate it,” Lawrence says of the craze for reformations. “It's
really regressive. I want to look forward, not back. Fans don't know
what they want, but they'll want what I give them. That should work,
but it doesn't, and all these groups reforming, it attracts a negative
kind of attention. Just because the fans want to hear old songs doesn't
mean they're going to buy the new record. But if you're not producing
new stuff, that represents a sickness in the music industry, and that
just shows how I'm not interested in all that. I wouldn't be able to
walk onstage and sing Primitive Painters. I want to sing something new.

“An artist's duty is to keep producing new stuff. A painter doesn't go
back to his first painting and repeats it. It's only the pop world that
regurgitates itself. It's run out of ideas, and didn't have any in the
first place.

“It's like with Lou Reed. When Berlin came out, people hated it, but
now he's taken it round the world. It's taken twenty-five years for
people to understand it. I probably wouldn't like the record he's just
done with Metallica, but I applaud him for doing it. The cover's shit
for a start, but I applaud him for doing it, because he's trying to do
something new.”

Even with Go-Kart Mozart's forthcoming On The Hot Dog Streets album and
the accompanying Mozart Mini-Mart EP at long last due to be released in
early 2012, Lawrence too is conscious that a change might be coming.

“It's been quite hard doing Go-Kart Mozart, because people want Felt,
but if it doesn't take off then I'll put it on ice, and do a new album
of singer/songwriter material. They're beautiful songs, really dark.
There's a book of poems I want to put out as well. I wrote them when I
had to sell my guitar when I was homeless, but I kept on writing. It'll
take about ten years for people to like Go-Kart Mozart. Maybe longer.
It takes a lot longer for people to understand things these days.”

As Murdoch points out, “I think quality will out in the long run. I'm
glad Lawrence hasn't done a Van Gogh, and that he's survived to tell
the tale, and I really hope it cheers him up.”

The Monorail Film Club screens Lawrence of Belgravia at Glasgow Film
Theatre, Sunday December 4th, 6.30pm, followed by a Q and A with
Lawrence and Paul Kelly and hosted by Stuart Murdoch.

A shorter version of this appeared in The Herald, November 28th 2011

ends