Interview – Miles Hunt

In which 17 Seconds hears about why Miles Hunt is The Custodian…

When I catch up with Miles Hunt over the ‘phone at his home in Shropshire, he’s not long returned from London. ‘I have a rule about London,’ he tells me. It transpires that it’s not about bacchanalian excess, but a far more necessary concern for any musician in the second decade of the twenty-first century. ‘Coming back with more money in me pocket than I went away with!’ As someone who feels that trips to the Big Smoke end up with me haemorrhaging money, I can sympathise.

He and his partner, Erica Nockalls, are working towards a new Wonder Stuff album, which will be due out next year. But for now, he’s talking about his new album, The Custodian. Given that some people’s solo albums have so many co-writers and collaborators it makes a mockery of the concept, this is the real deal. It’s just Miles and his acoustic guitar. Though another person’s input that is central to the thirty song project is none other than the legendary Tom Robinson.

Miles describes Tom Robinson as a ‘sweet man,’ who’s been in his life since he was eleven or twelve (his tells me his Dad used to take him to Tom Robinson band gigs in the late seventies). In the late nineties, a conversation between Messrs Robinson and Hunt in New York City led to Tom Robinson asking Miles ‘Who do you think owns your songs now?’ The publishers…or me? suggested Miles. But Tom Robinson’s answer changed his approach. He reminded Miles that his songs now belonged to his audience. With the songs out there in the world, it was Miles’ job to see that the songs he had written were treated and performed with respect.

‘You’re in the very privileged position of performing part of the soundtrack of their lives,’ explains Miles, now. The album was recorded over the course six weeks. ‘It starts with the very first song I ever wrote, which amazingly I can still remember, ‘Speakeasy.’ ‘ It finishes with a brand new song called ‘Custodian’ which looks at the Tom Robinson idea. So few albums have ever ended so…neatly.

The Wonder Stuff were described as being part of the Stourbridge scene, which also included Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. All three bands came from the indie scene but in the late eighties and early nineties made enough of a splash that they made the journey to Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits (I should know, I was reading it. the latter magazine once said he was really nice, and he is!). Pre-stardom, he’d played in a band with members of the Poppies (as they were affectionately known), though he wasn’t actually from Stourbridge himself. ‘Pop Will Eat Itself were incredibly helpful to [The Wonder Stuff],’ he says, generously, citing examples of how the former passed on contacts of places they played beyond the Midlands and encouraging listeners to Janice Long’s show (then on Radio 1) to check out the new singles from the Stuffies.

The second half of the eighties saw the Wonder Stuff sign with Polydor, with whom they released four albums between 1988 and 1993: The Eight Legged Groove Machine; Hup; Never Loved Elvis and Construction For The Modern Idiot. While the first two albums did well, it was ...Elvis which saw the band move up a step or two with top ten hits and stadium gigs in the UK. How did he handle stardom?

‘I wouldn’t say I was handling stardom,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘I had this idea that I should be on-duty and off-duty. As far as audiences are concerned there is no off duty.’ ‘Size Of A Cow’ became a top ten hit, and the band worked on their biggest record yet with producer Mick Glossop. Glossop had been bought in because Polydor wanted a different producer, and because of his work on The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea as well as a variety of punk albums. Around this time, the band also found themselves reaching no.1 in the singles chart, when they backed Vic Rooves on his cover of Tommy Roe’s 1969 single ‘Dizzy.’

‘What I got out of the [‘Dizzy] experience was making two really good friends,’ he says of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. ‘I’d never heard the song!’ Another person he met around the same time was the legendary Kirsty MacColl. He recalls meeting her at the Townhouse Studio one night when they were both drunk. MacColl was working with her husband Steve Lillywhite on the Electric Landlady album.While Hunt exclaimed ‘You’re Kirsty MacColl!’ she replied that yes, she was, and who the fuck was he? But Glossop played her a rough mix of the track ‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’ and within a week MacColl had added her vocal. The single went on to be another top ten hit for the Stuffies.

The fourth album, Construction For The Modern Idiot was released in 1993. It wasn’t the best period for him. Some of the tracks on the album he views poorly, singly out ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘I Wish Them All Dead.’ Of the latter he describes it as a ‘lazy re-working of ‘A Size Of A Cow.’ By his own admission, at the time he wasn’t in a place where he wanted to write. He’d just married Radio 1 DJ Mary Ann Hobbes and was ‘happier with home life than with band life.’ Looking back he tells me ‘I think we chose all the wrong tracks to put on the album.’ I mention how strong b-sides like ‘I Think I Must’ve Had Something Really Useful To Say’ and ‘Room 512, All The News That’s Fit To Print’ are. They’re both on The Custodian. ‘The suspicion that we’d chosen the wrong tracks [to put on the Construction For The Modern Idiot album] was confirmed.”

The version of ‘On The Ropes’ is possibly the finest performance on the album, and takes what was already an excellent song (and was yet another top ten hit for the band) and takes it some place else. If you were going to only listen to one track on the album, well, you’d be a fool, but it would be a good choice. I ask him how the song came about.

“It came about after listening to ‘Ghosts’ by The Jam,’ he reveals (the song is one of the finest things Paul Weller has ever recorded, and can be found on their final studio album, The Gift).

A friend of a friend asked me to ask him why it often appears second in the set list. He’s very happy to explain.

‘If we’ve opened with ‘Redberry Joy Town [the opening track on their debut album], it’s got lots of space in it. It allows our sound engineer to adjust to the audience being in. I like songs one, two, three to go bang! bang! bang! Instrumentationwise, it’s the same as Redberry Joy Town.’

Reflecting on his role as the custodian, he concludes: ‘These songs have been in people’s lives for so many years. Nowadays you’re like ‘I can hear the audience more than I can hear us!’

 

Gig review – Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

Perth Concert Hall, October 13

It had seemed touch and go whether we would make this gig. So often, desperate as I was to take Mrs. 17 Seconds to her first Richard Thompson gig, it seemed like something was conspiring to stop us. Finally, we took our seats and, as ever, he did not disappoint.

Although billed as Richard Thompson, it was actually the Richard Thompson trio (with  a lot of help from Bobby the roadie on guitar). Whilst Thompson on his own with an acoustic guitar is pretty amazing, tonight was a reminded why one of the characters in the book of High Fidelity offers the view that he is England’s finest electric guitarist.

The reviews for 13 Rivers, his latest album have been very complimentary, and it’s clear that it’s going down as his best album for a decade, and maybe even in the 21st century. Whilst he jokes about playing a couple of new songs before playing the classics that we’ll have driven hundreds of miles for (well, Edinburgh, but y’know, it’s his only Scottish date), the live renditions of tracks from the new record like ‘The Rattle Within,’ ‘Bones Of Gilead’ and the still jaw-dropping ‘The Storm Within’ are delivered with a passion that shows these new entries to the Thompson songbook hold their own with the older entries. Live it’s amazing to watch just how much he can still rock. When people talk about Hendrix and Clapton, they should be paying attention to Thompson on that level.

His humour remains intact, he’s wry about the fact that it’s half a century of performing and he’s a genuinely funny guy. As with any Richard Thompson gig, there’s a whole heap of songs it would be nice if he played, but when the setlist includes the likes of ‘Wall Of Death, ‘ Dry My Tears And Move On,’ and Fairport Convention’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’ it would be silly to moan much. It’s mostly delivered as part of the band, but the solo renditions of ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ are still a masterclass in both songwriting and performance.

When I interviewed him recently, he expressed his wish to spend his 70th birthday in a cave. He’s still got plenty of energy, but if you haven’t seen him live yet, take the opportunity to do so.

And best of all, was the point where Mrs. 17 Seconds looked at me and went: ‘I get it…’

EP review – Grand Champ 1990

Grand Champ 1990 -‘Pressure Points EP’ (self-released)

There was sadness around Edinburgh and further afield when Scott Longmuir called time on The Last Battle a couple of years ago. They’d produced two brilliant albums of folk rock and it seemed a shame that they would be no more.

But a few months ago, news emerged of a track called ‘Sayonara’ which had only Scott Longmuir in common with the Last Battle. Working solo, he’d taken the name Grand Champ 1990 (he was a youth karate champion), and it prefaced this five track EP. The folk tag has been well and truly shed, and instead it has more of an electronica vibe.

So the first thing to say is that while ‘Sayonara’ starts off this release, it isn’t the best track on this EP. That might well be the brooding electronica-meets-shoegaze of ‘Look For Me’ although it’s a strong release as a whole. Indeed, that first track may possibly be the weakest track, the others feel rather more polished. Additionally, while it has an electronica vibe, it also evokes eighties (and beyond) giants like New Order and Depeche Mode, the dancier side of indie. Indeed, ‘Photocopies’ has a bass line that evokes Peter Hook and vocally he has never sounded so much like Bernard Sumner.

Sure, he may be finding his feet with this release, but it’s a strong debut. His debut live appearance, meanwhile, suggests that there are more tunes in the bag, and I look forward to both more live and studio exploration with interest.

****

The self-released Pressure Points EP is out now.

 

Album Review – Miles Hunt

Miles Hunt – The Custodian (Good Deeds Records)

Miles Hunt’s new solo album came into being as a result of performing with one of his heroes, Tom Robinson. During the course of a conversation, Robinson put across the viewpoint that all the songs that Hunt has now written belong to his audience; that his job (as with any other songwriter) is to see that the songs are treated and performed with respect. It’s an interesting idea, and one that it’s easy to be sympathetic to.

So The Custodian is a double album of thirty songs written over the past forty years. It begins with the very first song that he wrote, as a thirteen year old ‘Speakeasy’ and concludes, appropriately with a new song, ‘Custodian.’ Comparisons with this collection could be drawn with the three Acoustic Classics albums that Richard Thompson (another songwriter Hunt admires) has released this decade. It’s simply Hunt singing and accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar. In a similar way to the Thompson albums, one of the most impressive things is just how easy to listen to it as an entire album. It is testament to Hunt’s tremendous skill as both a songwriter and performer just how well it all flows together. In lesser hands, this might be an album just to dip in and out of, but not here.

Not surprisingly, much of the material comes from Hunt’s regular job as singer of the Wonder Stuff, although there are also songs from his solo albums, and Vent 414 (the band Hunt formed after the Wonder Stuff split for six years in 1994). Given that the instrumentation of these songs gave them a particular group sound, in less skilful hands this could have felt half-arsed. But, this approach shines a new light on them. Perhaps the shining light in the whole collection is ‘On The Ropes.’ A top 10 hit from 1993, and the first single from the Stuffies’ fourth album, Construction For The Modern Idiot, it still contains the emotion that the original recording (still) has, but this version shows just how well the song is put together. Not for the first time, the inclusion of songs like ‘Room 512, All The News That’s Fit To Print’ show just how good the b-sides often were, too.

Whilst the second disc may contain songs that aren’t as well known, there are still so many gems within. ‘The Custodian’ is an excellent addition to his songwriting catalogue, and as last year’s album with his partner Erica Nockells, We Came Here To Work, he’s still touched with a particular gift. That album is represented here with ‘The Sweetest Of Bitterest Ends.’

This album succeeds on so many levels, but in essence, it is an album that stands on its own terms, and highlights just how brilliant a songwriter Miles Hunt is. Respect is due.

****

The Custodian is released on October 5 on Good Deeds Records

 

Gig Review – Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi

St Luke’s, Glasgow, September 30

It had been a rather frantic dash along the Scottish Central Belt to be in time for this gig. When we arrived the nice people on the door told us there was about nine minutes until our heroine was due on stage. This turned out to be possibly the longest nine minutes ever, but when the warm-up DJ was giving the audience Janelle Monae, the Ohio Players and Kenrick Lamar, then who’s complaining?

Brilliant, if a little incongruous, unless we want to get into a discussion about the roots of r’n’b music. See, as Anna Calvi comes on solo and coaxes southern blues out of the swamps and bayou, it’s clear that her roots and inspirations show her to be so much more than just the vague notion of female-singer songwriters. Her live performance foils turn out to be just two, a drummer cum electronics expert and a multi-instrumentalist. Anna Calvi can pull guitar poses with the best of them, and when she seems to meet my eye (the venue is just small enough that it is possible for the whites of her eyes to be seen), it’s as if she manages to imply a wink without even blinking. Maybe it’s the headliner’s privilege, but she has all so completely in the palm of her hand that when she goes ‘shhh’ it really goes quiet. Never have the washing machines in the bars been so glared at.

Of course, the beguiling stage present wouldn’t mean a thing if she didn’t have the songs to go with it. As I’ve said before, there’s no question that Hunter, her most recent album, is the finest release of her career so far. The songs are fantastic, and whether it’s the menace of ‘Indies Or Paradise’ or the gentle title track or the urgency of ‘As A Man’, there is so much on offer here for folks.

For the encore she gives us a delightfully understated ‘Suzanne and I’ from her self-titled debut and finally, her take on Suicide’s ‘Ghostrider.’ She originally covered this on her 2014 EP Strange Weather, and in her hands it starts off in the wasteland of 1970s New York no-wave electronics and makes its way southwards to those bayou and swamps of time immemorial. That is how to tackle a cover version, folks.

At St. Luke’s customers are just around the corner from the legendary Barrowlands Ballroom. As Ms. Calvi notches up another hit album, and her best reviews yet, the thought occurs that selling out that venue the next time is completely within the bounds of possibility. She’s doing this all on her own terms, of course.

Here’s hoping that this is one hunter that never gets captured by the game.

Hunter is out now on Domino.

Interview – Richard Thompson

He’s a living legend, he’s in his sixth decade of music-making…and he’s answering 17 Seconds’ questions! Richard Thompson reflects on living in America, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, and songwriting

17 Seconds: Hi Richard! How are you, where are you, and what’s the weather like?

Richard Thompson (RT): I am fine, I’m in New Jersey. The weather is changeable, to say the least.

17 Seconds: You’ve just released 13 Rivers, your new album. It’s the first one you’ve self-produced in a while, and the record burns with an intensity, lyrically and musically [i mean this as a compliment]. What can you tell us about the creative process of writing and recording the album?

RT: I wrote the songs in the space of about 4 months. I find it hard to describe the actual creative process, as it seems to be a semi-conscious thing. We recorded it analogue at Liberace’s old studio in Hollywood, in about 10 days.

17 Seconds:  You’re now based in the States. What prompted your move there, did it change how you made music and what do you miss about the U.K.?

RT: I’ve been based in the States for about 30 years. Basically I work here more than anywhere else, so it makes sense in terms of travel. Culturally I find it fairly neutral.

17 Seconds: In 1991, you released ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952,’ on the album Rumor And Sigh. Is it true you researched the song and how long did it take to write?

RT: When I was a kid, a neighbour had a Vincent Black Shadow, just a gorgeous bike, and I think that stayed with me. Before writing the song, I wanted to know everything about it, so I studied the history, got the workshop manual – then I could write with a bit of authenticity, and of course leave most of the stuff out. It took a couple of days to write, after a few false starts.

17 Seconds: You played on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. What are your memories of the sessions and the man himself?

RTI knew Nick because we had the same management and record label, so I’d see him around and about, but he didn’t say much – neither did I at the time. I always overdubbed on his records, when he wasn’t in the studio.

17 Seconds: 1969 must have been a busy and intense year for you and Fairport Convention. What are your recollections of the year?

RTThe album What We Did On Our Holidays came out in January, but we had finished it a few months earlier. We released Unhalfbricking in May, after a traumatic van crash that liked our drummer [Martin Lamble, who was only nineteen].  We spent the Summer working on changing our repertoire to embrace more British traditional music. We played our new songs at the Festival Hall in September, and released Liege And Lief in November. It was busy…

17 Seconds: What, if anything, does the term ‘folk music’ mean in 2018?

RTTo some, folk means traditional, to others, it just means acoustic – so I avoid using the word. I’m glad that more rootsy music is closer to the mainstream these days. It used to be tucked away in a very separate world, Now people are more aware of Eliza Carthy or Kate Rusby, for instance. 

17 Seconds: Who, if anyone, do you consider your musical contemporaries?

RT: The survivors of Fairport, Steeleye, the Albion Band…and singer-songwriters like Loudon Wainwright and John Prine.

17 Seconds: You celebrate a, um, significant birthday next year. How will you mark it?

RTI shall hide in a cave.

17 Seconds: Finally, what music are you listening to at the moment?

RTWildwood Kin, Offa Rex, The Rails, Lots of dead people.

13 Rivers is out now on Proper. Richard Thompson’s UK tour starts on October 11 (see here for details).