We chat with DJ Gaylord Fields about the WFMU Marathon and other stuff

Gaylord in his natural habitat in 2012. Photo: Gail O’Hara

It’s that time of year again, friends! Time to open your wallets and throw some cash at WFMU to keep the best radio station ever fully operating! This coming Saturday, March 13, join Gaylord Fields and Todd Abramson when they host Yo La Tengo, who show up once a year to play your requests on demand (when you make a pledge of course!) We have known the sharply dressed, smart, funny Gaylord since the mid-1990s, when we met and realized we both had the best (kinda similar) taste in music and we were both copy editors! In recent years he’s been a regular MC at many chickfactor events and we love his radio show on WFMU. We caught up with him to see how he’s been handling COVIDtime and got the scoop. Interview by Gail O’Hara

chickfactor: How are you holding up? 
gaylord fields: I’m shocked at how my typical non-Pollyanna brand of optimism has been tested but has withstood the ordeals we’ve been through both with the pandemic and the sociopolitical reckonings of 2020–21, both in the US and throughout the world. If I can survive the worst year I ever lived through, with 2016–19 taking the other four spaces in that ignominious top five, with my head aloft, I can count myself fortunate.

How has your life changed during the COVID time? 
Between the forced-upon-me sedentary lifestyle and my recovery from the major back surgery I had last year to correct a crippling spinal disorder that left me bedridden for two months, I underwent a drastic redistribution of my body mass. So now I have a personal trainer who tortures me via Zoom. My brain is slowly learning to accept exercise as not being futile, but it isn’t doing it quickly enough for my liking.

Also, I learned that if you’re going to be stuck in bed for months at a time, it’s best to do it when there is literally nothing going on to get all FOMO about. 

Have you been vaxxed? 
Yesterday I received my second dose of the Moderna — a.k.a. the Dolly Parton — vaccine. Here on day two, I thought I had escaped any adverse side effects, but an hour ago I was shivering under a duvet, a flannel sheet, and an Irish knit sweater! And now I’m sweating and fanning myself from the heat! I could not be happier.

Photo by Petra Houbova

What music/film/art/books/snacks have gotten you through the pandemic? 
My current “wow” group is Sault, a mysterious Afrocentric British R&B collective that released two of my favorite albums of 2020, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise)

The last film I watched was Coming 2 America, which was pleasant enough for revisiting characters I liked in the original, mostly the secondary ones played by Eddie Murphy under pounds of latex. The last film I thoroughly enjoyed was during a socially distant trip to a Pennsylvania drive-in this past summer to view Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Worth the price of admission alone just to see Joey Ramone invent mumblecore. Fun fact: PJ Soles, who starred as high school student Riff Randell, was older than three of the four Ramones. 

As for art, I allowed myself a rare museum trip to the Whitney, where I marveled at the video of Alexander Calder at play gleefully manipulating his magical Cirque Calder. There’s also a Calder exhibition opening at MoMA at just the time when I’ll be pronounced 100% vaccinated. 

I just started reading Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, because I’m fascinated by an American Black upper class I knew practically nothing about as a product of the Black working class. 

You didn’t ask about TV, but I watch a lot of 1960s and ’70s detective shows, such as Naked City and Cannon, respectively, because there is no story arc or even a B-story to be found. 

Thanks to the fine people at the employee-owned King Arthur Baking Company, I got into baking doughnuts, until my carb loading while doing the opposite of running a marathon made my blood sugar levels rise — hence the dreaded Zoom personal trainer.

Gaylord’s radio show homepage illustration by Greg Harrison

How long have you been at WFMU? How did you get involved? 
I did my first program in August of 1992, so my 29th year will be swiftly approaching. I’m trying to reckon if perhaps 30 years is enough, but I have made no concrete decision about my radio future either way. I got my start early in ’92, when I was discovered by the WFMU music director at the time, David Newgarden, whilst I was DJing a show at Maxwell’s at the request of headliners Yo La Tengo. I guess I was making some oddball musical choices, because several WFMU DJs that night recognized me as one of them, just like in the movie Freaks, but to an arguably more positive and definitely less tar-and-feathery outcome.

How important is the marathon to keeping the station going? 
The two-week-long WFMU Fundraising Marathon is by far the primary source of the station’s operating budget, as we steadfastly maintain our stance of airing no commercials or underwriting, and accepting no money with strings attached. We’ve seen too many other stations compromise their way to irrelevance once they began answering to anything but their own individual tastes and whims. We refuse to put on such a straitjacket. I think that’s a thing worthy of support.

What are your favorite shows on the station right now? And in the past? 
There are way too many favorites for me to list, especially now that we have three Web-only streams as well as the broadcast station proper. Also, I wouldn’t feel comfortable singling out some of those favorite shows and colleagues while slighting others. But to name just one out of many fabulous former programs that I enjoyed in the past, I really miss The Radio Thrift Shop, a country-leaning show hosted by the lovely and talented singer-songwriter and chickfactor 25 performer Laura Cantrell. 

Check here to buy this!

Tell us how long Yo La Tengo has been doing their marathon duties? What are some of the most memorable performances/covers of theirs? 
I had a thought that the band’s first appearance might have been 1997, but I recently checked with Ira Kaplan, who makes the persuasive case that it was 1996. If I take his word as gospel, that marks this year as the 25th anniversary of this wonderful WFMU tradition. For the past few years, former Maxwell’s impresario Todd Abramson, a.k.a. WFMU DJ Todd-o-phonic Todd, has been hosting them, and me, on his three-hour show instead of the band being forced to curtail their appearance during my inadequate for the task two-hour program. This also makes it a bit of a homecoming, as Todd, Ira, Georgia Hubley, and I shared a Hoboken home during the late ’80s and early ’90s. 

In a quarter century, there have been too many renditions to recall, but I swooned mightily a couple of years ago when James lent his golden high tenor to bring forth a gorgeous version of Lois’s “Shy Town.” And they also memorably performed “Outdoor Miner,” by Wire, which is a shade less than three minutes — or less than two if you prefer the LP version — of left-field pop bliss.

You can own this too.

How long have you known them? In what capacity? 
I knew who Georgia and Ira were from seeing Yo La Tengo perform here and there, and from the copy of Ride the Tiger I picked up at Pier Platters, but we didn’t become actual friends until early 1987, when I was invited by Todd to take over the biggest bedroom in the house the three of them lived in, and they are to this day three of my favorite people ever. Much later, I met James McNew when he completed the trio, and what’s not to love about him?

Can you tell us any stories from the early days of Maxwell’s? 
One of the first times I went to Maxwell’s, in the early ’80s, the band A Worrying Thing opened for the group I actually wanted to see, namely the Cyclones. I preferred that first band in their later incarnation when they renamed themselves after an apocryphal tale concerning the 1962 New York Mets and a three-word Spanish phrase. I also once saw rockabilly behemoth Sleepy La Beef go into the kitchen and chug-a-lug a carafe of hot black coffee, then clamber onstage to play his oversized heart out for hours. 

Do you have any favorite memories of their Hanukkah shows? 
Forgive me for making this first memory about my own participation, but one of my happiest moments on a stage ever was sharing the one at Maxwell’s with Lois to perform an unrehearsed comic deconstruction of “Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)” as an encore. Performing with her was a dream I never imagined would become real. Also, I must say that any time the Sun Ra Arkestra, featuring the ageless Marshall Allen, are part of the onstage Hanukkah celebration, as they were last in 2019 at the Bowery Ballroom, it’s a transcendental moment. Next would be seeing the late and great Neil Innes perform Rutles songs, backed by a worshipful Yo La Tengo in the roles of Dirk, Stig, and Barry, again at Maxwell’s.

Do you have any beloved memories from chickfactor shows? 
Every chickfactor show has been a reunion of sorts of lovely people I have not seen in a long time, sometimes in decades. It thrills me that the chickfactor community is not something people age out of, although many of us started off not quite fully formed when we entered this special world. 

As for a personal MC memory, I recall at the Bell House in Brooklyn when I divided the audience as well as the performers into two gangs: One group I dubbed Team Horizontal Stripes, and the other was Team Gingham Checks (my own posse, membership duly marked by the lilac gingham shirt I was sporting). I may have had Lois on my ginghamed side, but we were up against the striped likes of Small Factory’s Phoebe Summersquash. No one was harmed, all were delighted. It was a chickfactor event, after all.

Gaylord with Sukhdev and Tae at Bell House, 2017. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Another was when Sukhdev Sandhu, Tae Won Yu, and I held a meeting of what I cheekily called the “chickfactor men of color” in the Bell House’s automatic photo booth.

Then there was the London chickfactor 25 show at the lovely Lexington in my home away from home, Islington, when Cathy Rogers of Heavenly, Marine Research, and, evidently, Junkyard Wars fame, approached me after one of my typically freewheeling and off-the-cuff announcements and said, “I never have any idea where you’re going with these introductions, and somehow you pull it all together at the end!” I told Cathy that if I’ve learned anything from watching gymnasts, it’s that you can perform any sort of mad gyrations and twists and turns, as long as you stick the landing at the end. 

What were your most treasured purchases from Pier Platters or Other Music? 
Thanks to recommendations by my longtime dear friend Katie Gentile, who was working her way through grad school as a Pier Platters clerk, I own all the early Bus Stop Label 45s, mostly seemingly recorded by different permutations of Ric Menck and Paul Chastain. I also did all of my Sarah shopping there, whenever one of those precious discs would somehow wend its way from Bristol to Hoboken. I also have many, many cherished releases put out by Flying Nun, such as the three Look Blue Go Purple EPs, as Pier Platters — where I was later a clerk myself — had the most comprehensive New Zealand indie collection on the East Coast, and possibly in all of North America. But the most valuable thing I have from Pier Platters is its distinctive handmade swirly open/closed sign, which Bill the store proprietor let me take home on the store’s final day.

I had such good luck in the cheap 45 bins at Other Music that it mentally allowed me to go extravagant on some of the store’s pricier imports, such as the Tom Zé reissues imported from Brazil.

Do you have a current favorite record store? Online one? 
I rarely visited local record stores, even pre-lockdown, as the pickings are slim in New York, and my usual vacation forays into shops have obviously been curtailed. But the last local record store I visited pre-lockdown was the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, outpost of Academy Records. I will correct my lack of local shopping once I’m comfortable to do so again, and look forward to crossing two rivers to get to such Brooklyn shops as Earwax, Rebel Rouser, and Captured Tracks, to name just a few.

Online, I use Discogs to find mostly old and rare 45s, and I still patronize Dusty Groove, especially for my Brazilian musical needs.

Do you listen to any podcasts? 
When I actually went into an office pre-lockdown, I used to walk to the train station listening to John McWhorter’s Lexicon Valley language podcast — love his linguistics work; not as big a fan of his politics, but they never intrude. I guess I could consider him the William Safire of the 21st century in that regard. Nowadays, the only podcast I listen to is called Nothing Is Real, and you can guess by the name that it’s Beatles-related. The two Irish hosts go deep into the Fab Four’s careers, both as a group and solo, yet in a way that isn’t old hat or slobberingly hagiographical.

What is a Melody Dad? 
My late friend Trevor Jenkins, who was a composer of production music in his native London, referred to me as such with regard to my show’s embrace of melodic components, and it is an honor I wear proudly. I was quite chuffed that someone who wrote melodies as a career thought I had a keen ear for picking out and combining indelible ones for interesting effect. I always listen to my air checks post-show, but I have yet to re-listen to the one I programmed in his memory a couple of years ago. It’s still too soon, too raw.

I know your wife is involved in helping animals. Is there a place folks can donate to help her out?
Kathleen is the director of community cat education for the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, which recently partnered with the longtime animal welfare nonprofit Bideawee. So if you would like to support community cats by donating to help fund programs such as Trap-Neuter-Return and shelter-building seminars, here is the place to do it.

It’s a mocktail, kids. Photo by Vicky Sweat 

What are you going to do when we are all vaxxed and are given a green light to be free? 
Because I’m now set up to work remotely, once it’s absolutely safe to do so, I plan to couch surf in L.A. for a few weeks and get caught up with all my friends on that coast. A side trip to my beloved Palm Springs may also be in the offing.

I’d also like to visit the chickfactor editrix now that she lives in the same time zone as I do.

Any other news about you or WFMU? 
WFMU is unparalleled in its diversity of programming, but recently we had a bit of a reckoning about its somewhat less diverse roster of actual programmers. As such, we’ve enacted internal programs to make the station more inviting to BIPOC and other marginalized groups. Within the past year, the on-air staff has become more representative of our community and our nation than ever, but we can’t rest on our laurels, as this is an ongoing struggle.

Also, this past summer I joined the station’s board of directors, and as proud as I am to take on such an important role for a radio station I love and believe in, I never saw myself as boardroom material beforehand. Mind you, WFMU is far from corporate, but this is real grownup stuff nonetheless. I promise to take on this role with the utmost seriousness, whatever that word means relative to WFMU.

Will you MC some shows at chickfactor 30 (gasp!) in 2022? 
Try and stop me, Gail! I have a travel budget burning a hole in my Venmo account! Have quirky MCing style, will travel!

Thank you, Gail, for interviewing me, and I hope to see everyone everywhere during chickfactor 30.

Thank you, Gaylord! 

Tune in to WFMU on Saturday, March 13 at 3 pm EST to hear Gaylord, Todd and Yo La Tengo!

Gaylord prefers crisp plaid shirts and cardigans. Photo by Matt Fiveash

catching up with daily song generator jessica griffin from the would-be-goods

Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods in London, 2001. Taken by Gail O’Hara

chickfactor 13 (2000) published an interview with Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods 21 years ago conducted by Peter Momtchiloff, who ended up joining her band, which also features Deborah Greensmith and Andy Warren. I took a lot of photographs of them while I lived in London (2001 and 2004) that have ended up on their album covers, and the WBGs have played at many chickfactor parties. While some of us haven’t been able to focus or achieve our creative potential during COVIDtime, Jessica has become rather prolific. We checked in with her about how it’s going. Interview by Gail O’Hara

chickfactor: how are you holding up? 
jessica griffin: Fairly well, although my dreams are much more vivid than usual which must mean I’m more stressed out than I think. 

How different is your life under lockdown than it was before?
In some ways, very different. Peter (my partner and fellow Would-be-good) has been staying with me since it all began, and I’ve got into a different routine, cooking twice a day (except at weekends) and writing and recording songs daily.

What has been getting you through this time? Books, food, etc. 
Peter’s company, Zoom chats with friends and songwriting. I’m too restless to read much these days, although when I’m feeling anxious I devour 20th-century detective fiction. We’ve been watching the short Cocktails with a Curator talks from the Frick Collection and old black-and-white British films, e.g. Spring In Park Lane, Cast A Dark Shadow. I’ve always cooked regularly but food seems much more important now. We have a proper lunch every day which is quite old-fashioned (and French!) and I’ve expanded my repertoire quite a bit.
I find cooking very calming.

Jessica performing at the Luminaire; photo courtesy of Jessica

What do you miss most about beforetimes? 
Friends and family. I haven’t seen my (grown-up) daughter for over a year as she lives in another city. She’s very Victorian and doesn’t do FaceTime/Zoom. And I really miss my almost-daily lunches at a wonderful local cookery bookshop/café run by an eccentric Frenchman. 

How has London changed since this happened? For better or worse.
I haven’t been further than a mile from home since March 2020 so I can only talk about my own part of west London. In the first lockdown, with almost no traffic and very few people around, you could smell the grass and flowers in the gardens and parks. 

Seeing so many local shops, restaurants and cafés go out of business is heartbreaking, though. 

Can Brexit be reversed? 
Probably not in our generation. I think it’s a huge mistake.

Let’s talk about your new songs! When did you start writing one song per day? And how many are you up to now?
2 October 2020. I thought it would be good to have a creative project as I was slowly turning into my grandmother. I’ve written 157 songs so far. 

How has Peter been involved in the process if at all? 
My idea was to treat songwriting like a game or challenge, so I asked Peter to give me a title every evening. I would write and record the song the following day and play him the result. It’s worked for me in the way nothing else has. Sitting around waiting for the muse never got me anywhere. I should say that Peter doesn’t have any preconception of what the song should be about, or how it should sound. He just gives me a title and that’s it. Sometimes I will change the title retrospectively if I think it suits the song better.

Otherwise it’s a solo project — I do all the singing, play all the instruments (apart from bass on a few songs) and recording.  

What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter, a musician and a home-recorder since you started doing this? 
I’ve learned not to be so precious about songwriting and to treat it like a job that I have to get on with every day, whether I feel like it or not. It’s helped me to override my perfectionist tendencies as I have to finish the song by the end of the day and play it to Peter even if I’m not happy with it. And I’ve learned that I can’t trust my own judgement, at least my first impressions. Sometimes I’ll think a song I’ve just written is rubbish but when I listen to it again a few days later I like it. And vice versa. My singing, guitar and keyboard playing were quite rusty at the beginning but they’re improving. And being in charge of the recording process means I can do as many retakes as I want, which has helped me to sort out some things I didn’t like about my singing. 

Jessica and Peter in London, 2001. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Can you give us some details about some of the songs? Titles/subject/etc. 
“Ouija Board Romance” is set in a provincial English town in the 1920s and is about a housemaid being invited to join a séance hosted by her employer, and the unexpected result. “The Magic Hour” is about a suicide pact between a spoiled young man and an older courtesan in a hotel in Khartoum in the siege of 1884. “The Wind Will Change” is about a drifter in 1940s America, written from the perspective of a woman or girl who loves him but knows he’s not going to be around for very long. “Demon Lover” is the story of the ‘damsel with the dulcimer’ in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” who is outraged that she’s been spirited away from her loom in rural Devon and abandoned in the dark cavern of the poet’s imagination. And finally, “Cavanagh, Cody and Byrne” is about a mysterious vaudeville act that might actually be something much bigger.

I don’t know where these ideas and characters come from. I always wanted to be a writer or film director so maybe these are the novels I would have written or the films I’d have made, compressed into song form. I can picture the characters and their settings in detail and I know who would play the couple in “The Magic Hour” – Omar Sharif and Jeanne Moreau. I’ve also written some songs about universal experiences and situations with quite simple lyrics which aren’t like anything I’ve written before. 

And some songs in recognisable styles but from a female perspective, like “In The Mirror” which sounds like an angsty early Who song but is about being a young woman, having to be what other people want you to be and being able to be yourself only when you’re alone.

Do you have any rituals or unusual holidays that you celebrate? 
My daughter said at age six that she thought it was unfair that we had Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but no Daughter’s Day so we instituted it and I send her a hand-made card and a little present every year.

What are you reading? 
I started reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Rachel Cusk’s Transit but am finding I can’t concentrate for long.

What is in your fridge? What is your specialty to make?
The usual stuff, plus Thai green curry paste, tahini, fresh ginger, kefir. We’re eating very healthily—everything cooked from scratch, lots of vegetables, etc., but possibly a little too much of everything. Irish soda bread (Darina Allen’s recipe) is my lockdown speciality. I make it with spelt flour which gives it a kind of soft sweetness like English scones.   

If you were running the country (or the world), what would you do first?
I would absolutely hate to be in a position of power and can’t even imagine it. Being the mother of a small child was challenging enough.

What is your sign? 
Cancer.

What is your spirit animal?
A rather small and motheaten bear. 

When we’re allowed total freedom, what will you do first?
Meet up with my sister and take her for the birthday lunch we had to cancel last year because of lockdown.

Any other future plans? Where and when will you release some tunes? 
I’ve just set up a page on Bandcamp where I’ll release some of my new songs very soon. Beyond that, I hope to finish the Would-be-goods album we were working on before lockdown and to start doing live shows again (if there are any venues left).

Thank you, Jessica

Pete Paphides talks about Broken Greek one year after publication

We’ve been big fans of Pete Paphides since the 1990s when both of us worked for the Time Out media family. One year ago today he published a memoir called Broken Greek — a warm, funny, relatable and charming tale. It captures the thrill of discovery for a young record shopper, the brutality and wonder of childhood, the split identity people from two different cultures often feel, and the euphoria of great pop songs in general. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to burrow back in time to Birmingham 1982, where Pete fumbled his way into adulthood to a mighty mighty soundtrack. We caught up with him again(!) to chat about the book. (You can also follow him on Twitter and listen to his Soho Radio show

chickfactor: so how did it feel to put yourself out there?
pete paphides: it didn’t really feel like that. First of all, I started writing the book without knowing if I would finish it. Secondly, when I finished it, I had no idea if it would find a publisher. And then, when we found a publisher, I didn’t know if anyone would want to buy it. So those are three pretty big provisos! The amount of green lights required for me to get to a position where I’m “putting myself out there” was quite a lot. It was only when the book was finally out and I read the reviews that I realised what I’d done was quite exposing. But by then, it was too late. And because the reviews were nice, that softened the impact. The worst thing would be to reveal something personal about your life and for total strangers to say, “This has no real value”… that would have been a bit embarrassing.

Tell us about the process – how long it took to write, were your editors heavy or light, any sort of details about where you write/how you best go about focusing on writing? 
I started work on Broken Greek at the beginning of 2017. I wanted to write a book that felt as much like a history of music during a particular period as it did a memoir – and the connecting tissue between those two things was the way that music gave me an identity that was different to that of my parents. They were Greek and Greek-Cypriot, but I could never wholly identify as Greek because I was born in England. And pop was the engine of that realisation.

There were no editors, because I didn’t show it to any until it was finished. My friend Bob Stanley was invaluable throughout this time – he read every chapter, and when it started to become clear that this was going to be a lengthy book, he told me to hold my nerve and believe that it needed to be this long. And he was right. We only showed the book to one publisher – Katy Follain at Quercus, who first approached me about 20 years ago, when I was still at Time Out. She asked me if I had any ideas for a book. I told her that I was probably never going to write a book. And she just said, “Well, I hope you don’t mind me calling you up once every couple of years, because I think that one day you might – and when you do, I’d love to see it.” So, after all these years, I thought it was only correct that if I did write a book, Katy should be the first editor who sees it. That said, imagine how embarrassing it would have been if she thought it was awful…

Pete in London, 2012. Photo by Gail O’Hara

The book was mostly written in cafés in North London. I find that the best place to write is in a café, surrounded by the everyday background bustle of people going about their business. At the beginning of the process, I’d drop my youngest daughter off at school in Golders Green (about five miles from our house) and make a short walk to a café called Bar Linda, which is right next to the tube station and coach terminus. It was pretty perfect in there: large windows, plenty of light and clay-coloured tea, poured out of huge stainless-steel teapots for tube train and coach drivers on their lunch breaks. I wrote the section about Sound Affects by The Jam in there; and at Bar Linda, I also wrote the early section where I heard The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love for the first time. Most of the final half of the book though, was written in another cafe The Palace (now renamed The Breakfast Hub) in Crouch End. It’s run by a young Turkish guy called Efe – they were so good to me in there. Ida who works there is Lithuanian. Every morning I’d go straight into the Palace from the YMCA gym across the road and, without even having to ask me, Ida would deposit a frothy coffee on my table. Nescafé on formica in a bustling caff – that’s my happy place. When the first hardbacks were ready, I went straight to the Palace and handed one to Efe and Ida. It’s now sitting on a shelf above the chilled display counter. 

Efe and Ida at the Breakfast Hub in Crouch End

What kind of response did the book get from your family and friends?
Generally, lovely. It seemed to affect my mother quite deeply. I think it made her feel like someone had borne witness to some of the unpleasant things that had happened to her. And that in turn made me realise that, as you get older, it does help you to achieve some measure of closure to have gone through some sort of adversity and feel like someone was watching as was able to help tell your story. Some of the most touching responses have been from musicians whose records I love – some of whom were even featured in the book: Helen O’Hara and Billy Adams from Dexys were both so lovely. Two of my favourite bands, Crowded House and The Trashcan Sinatras, made videos for singles and deliberately placed the book in background shots without telling me. Even when I watched them, I somehow didn’t notice – other fans had to pointed them out to me! I interviewed Elton John for a Record Collectorfeature and he had been reading the book in the days preceding the interview – he said that me in the book reminded him of himself at that age. Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens was lovely about it too. You can imagine how that felt – I was 15 when I bought my first Go-Betweens single (“Bachelor Kisses,” swiftly followed by “Part Company”). I love that band so much.

And from strangers? 
Way, way, way beyond my wildest expectations. I get messages via Twitter every day – people from all sorts of backgrounds who saw something of their own childhoods reflected in the book.

And the critics? 
Again, just great. The first review to appear was by the former Labour MP Alan Johnson in The New Statesman. I’ve never met him; I had no idea he’d even been given the book. 

Pete’s parents Chris and Victoria at the Great Western

Was your family upset by it at all? Did they read it in advance? 
I didn’t show them the book in advance because I wanted them to read everything in its correct context. My dad is a complex character and you can’t really sugar-coat that. But if he didn’t also come across as a loving, conscientious father to his kids, then I haven’t done my job properly. That said my parents’ marriage isn’t what you would call – by the modern expectations – a harmonious one. I think we forget the degree to which notions of duty and expedience were once soaked into the definition of marriage. People didn’t expect their marriages to be like the fairytale idea of marriage. That’s why I wanted to mention Fiddler On The Roof in the book – because in some ways, that corresponds more closely to my parents’ notion of what a marriage might be. I think it was a bit of a shock for my dad to see how much I had remembered and to read about how his marriage had seemed to me as a child observing it. I didn’t think my mum and dad were particularly well-suited to each other, and those differences were compounded by their decision to leave behind their support systems, their extended families and run a succession of fish and chip shop in Birmingham for 25 years. I still feel that way, but I have to respect their belief in the sanctity of marriage to the exclusion of almost all other considerations. I don’t quite see it that way. A successful marriage can last for five years if those five years are happy ones. And conversely, if marriage lasts a lifetime, that alone doesn’t make it a success. So, yes, some of the details about their marriage would have been upsetting for him to read, but if I’d chosen not to include them, there would have been a gaping vacuum in the book. He wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, but he was under a lot of pressure, trying to keep a business going in a country that he only stayed in because his kids wanted to be here – and I wouldn’t have swapped him for any of the other Cypriot dads. And I have to say, after the initial surprise, he’s been great about it. We phone each other every couple of days. In fact, the first thing I’ll probably do after this is call him.

What did your daughters think of it? 
They’re too busy creating source material for their own memoirs to read mine!

What is the funniest response about the book that you got? 
I stopped reading the Amazon reviews quite early, but one of the first negative ones suggested that I might be autistic. It was the combination of disdain for the book and concern for my well-being that stuck in my memory.

Tell us a bit about the launch. When was it? Who attended? 
March 6, 2020 – the day of publication, a fortnight before lockdown. One of the most surreal days of my life. The basement of the Heavenly Social in central London. On the ground floor, Cornershop were hosting the launch party for their album England Is A Garden. I arranged for a ‘house’ band of some friends to play a few songs – covers of songs that were mentioned in the book. That came about after my friend Mike Batt (who was the guy behind the Wombles records in the early 70s) offered to play a couple of songs at the launch. Obviously, when Mike Batt offers to play at your launch, you bite his hand off. Then after that, things snowballed. Mike and I are both friends with David Arnold and Eos Counsell. David is, of course, a brilliant soundtrack composer and all-round lovely human; his partner is Eos who is a member of the popular classical quartet Bond, and a brilliant funny human being. Then David said, “I do a pretty good version of E.L.O.’s Livin’ Thing, on which Eos can play violin. Then somewhere along the way, Helen O’Hara from Dexys Midnight Runners, Sean Read (Dexys, The Rockingbirds), Dan Gillespie Sells (The Feeling), Kate St. John (The Dream Academy), Andy Lewis (Paul Weller, Pimlico) and James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders) got involved. What James didn’t tell me was that, for the version of “Back On The Chain Gang,” he asked Chrissie Hynde if she fancied coming along and taking the lead. So suddenly, I’m at my own launch party watching Chrissie Hynde singing my favourite Pretenders song, and one of my favourite songs of all time. Then, a few minutes later, there’s Darren Hayman a.k.a. the world’s biggest Wombles fan, losing his mind because his childhood hero is up there doing “Remember You’re A Womble.” Being an exceptionally lovely man, Mike then offered to appear at the Rough Trade event to perform two songs with Stevie Jackson – who had primarily agreed to come along for the reading. Instead of my reading out extracts from Orange Juice songs, I figured it’d be much more fun to have Stevie actually singing and playing them in person. He also did a magnificent version of “Silver Lady” by David Soul. You know how much I adore Belle & Sebastian, so imagine how it felt to have him agree to do that, and to be up there on stage next to him.

You clearly have met some of the pop titans from your childhood via being a music writer – can you tell us a bit more about who/when/how it went? 
I met The Bee Gees in 1997, when I was still working for Time Out. That was a big deal for me, because these were people who I adored from a distance, watching them on TV when I was still in my pre-teens. They were promoting the release of their album Still Waters, and the three of them were gathered in Barry Gibb’s house, which was a mansion a short drive outside London. I walked into Barry’s house and he was on the phone to someone from The Brit Awards, where The Bee Gees were shortly due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He was berating them for suggesting that they receive their award from Jarvis Cocker. Barry objected on the basis that, during the previous year’s ceremony, Jarvis had “invaded” the stage during Michael Jackson’s performance of “Earth Song” – he’d been unamused by that. Anyway, the interview – once it had gotten underway – went so well that, at the very end, I summoned up the courage to ask the Bee Gees if they might be willing to sing an outgoing answerphone message to the tune of “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” I asked them if they could sing, “If you want to leave a message for Pete/Hold on, hold on/Leave your name and number after the beep/Hold on, hold on.” To my amazement, they did it – two attempts to get it as good as they wanted it to be! When I got home and played it to my then-girlfriend Caitlin, she dropped to the floor in amazement. Twenty-four years later, she still insists that’s the thing that made her decide that we should be married.

The Bruce Forsyth pose at Pete’s 8th bday party

This is clearly the first chunk of your life. Are there various other sequels to come, in a Tracey Thorn sort of way? 
Too early to say. I work pretty slowly – even more so while lockdown is ongoing and there are no cafés to work in…

What are the plans for putting Broken Greek on the screen? 
It’s been optioned for TV by Andrew Eaton (The Crown, 24-Hour Party People) and we’ve found a writer to adapt it, but whether it’ll ultimately happen, who knows? Lots of things get optioned but never made.

What other autobiographies have you loved to bits? 
Julian Cope: Head On/Repossessed; Robert Forster: Grant & I; Chrissie Hynde: Reckless; Katie Puckrik: Shooting From The Lip. Those are the four standouts for me.

Whose autobiography that hasn’t been written yet do you long to read? 
Linda Thompson. 

What music from the book do you still play a ton? 
Loads. When I’m writing, I tend to listen to music that I know inside-out, so any MOR, soul, disco, New Wave and synth-pop megahits from the late 70s will serve that purpose.

What is your favorite Greek music of all time? 
Manos Hadjidakis’s work runs the gamut of soundtracks, pop, popular folk songs and classical. I listen to his music a lot. Nikos Xylouris is someone I mention in the book – he was a Cretan singer who rose to become something of a folk hero in the late ’60s and ’70s up to the time of his death in 1980. My parents reacted to his death the way most people of their age reacted to John Lennon’s death.

What snacks from your childhood are the most comforting in 2021? 
Primula Cheese Spread that comes straight out of a tube – that’s been a dramatic rediscovery for me lately. Also McVities Ginger Cake: thirty seconds in the microwave with a blob of tinned custard added to it. A bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes with hot milk just before bedtime is pretty hard to beat. 

Do you know what’s become of the characters from your book apart from your family and rockstars? 
One of my teachers has been in touch – my German teacher. For legal reasons, I had to change most of the names in the book. His real name was Mr Thomas, but I didn’t try too hard to change his name. I just removed the ‘a’ and called him Mr Thoms because he was tall and had a moustache, just like Peter Thoms, the keyboard player and trombonist from Landscape, who had a hit in 1981 with a song called “Einstein A-Go-Go.” When Mr Thomas got in touch after reading the book, he thought it might have been a typo. One name I didn’t change was that of Ged, the older girl who lived next door because we’re still in touch—she’s a librarian these days—so she was able to give her approval. In fact, one of the nicest things about the response to the book has been the affection that people feel for Ged—she’s like the surrogate older sister that everyone would like to have had. When we hosted one of Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties for a Broken Greek–themed playlist, I got to introduce everyone to Ged. I can’t tell you how surreal it felt to have Tim Burgess from The Charlatans tweeting Ged because he knew her from the book.

Here is a little promo film we made for the book. We didn’t have an advertising budget, so I got my friend Johnny Daukes to record a version of Brotherhood Of Man’s 1976 hit Save Your Kisses For Me (the winning song in the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest and mentioned extensively in the book) in the style of Subterranean’s Homesick Blues. Johnny is a genius. Not only did he record the song, but he made the video. 

What films/TV/music/whatnot have gotten you thru the past year? Or the past four or five for that matter? 
Caitlin and I hadn’t watched The Sopranos prior to December 2020. We can now concur with the popular view that it’s the all-time greatest televised work of fiction. We also binge-watch any programmes hosted by Cornish TV chef Rick Stein. We’re strangely comforted by what an awkwardly on-camera presence he has. He also doesn’t know how to end and on-screen conversation. The forced smile at the end of the exchange is almost unbearable. And yet also, as a participant in that moment of awfulness, I feel like I’ve been propelled to the essence of something of great existential significance. So much of life feels like that moment fleetingly captured in Rick’s pained grimace. Obviously, Seinfeld and Cheers FOREVER. We’re also big fans of Best Home Cook. Claudia Winkleman can do no wrong in my book. The fact that, ultimately, none of this really matters is the complicit unsayable bond between her and the viewer. Finally, can I also mention Queer Eye, which is the one show that will never fail to envelope our family in feelings of warmth and well-being? We encounter way too much wanton cruelty in our everyday lives, and so it’s more important than ever – to misquote The Chills – look for the good in others so that they can see the good in you. If we were all a bit more like Jonathan, Karamo, Antoni, Bobby and Tan, the world would be a much healthier place.

Can Brexit be reversed? 
I think so. But not the damage to the lives of all the small businesspeople who were duped into believing the lies on which it was predicated. This country – or, more specifically, the level of political discourse – needs to grow up a little.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do once we’re all allowed total freedom? 
My local YMCA gym – in particular, the perfumed hair and body wash that comes out of the pump-action dispenser in the shower. Working in cafés. Record shops. All of these things, in any order.

Do you have any future plans/books/etc.? 
I co-run a small reissue label called Needle Mythology. We’ve put out records by Stephen Duffy, Ian Broudie, Tanita Tikaram, Bernard Butler & Catherine Anne Davies and Robert Forster. They sound as brilliant as they look, and we’re putting out some more this year, by Whipping Boy, Neil & Tim Finn and Butcher Boy. We’re also about to put out our first brand-new album, The Obvious I, by Ed Dowie. I don’t know if there’ll be a sequel to Broken Greek. I’m proceeding slowly, much as I did with the first one. And if it turns out to be a book, then great. If not, well I’ve still written one more than I ever thought I would.

Thanks for chatting with us, Pete!! 
Thank you. It’s a continuing honour to have the chickfactor stamp of approval. 

Read these two excerpts from Pete’s book here and here.

agony uncle stephin merritt is here to dole out romantic advice for your plague year holiday

AS AN ERSTWHILE ASTROLOGER I AM EMINENTLY QUALIFIED TO GIVE ADVICE. THE BAD NEWS IS, MERCURY IS IN RETROGRADE FOR VALENTINE’S DAY. THE GOOD NEWS? THERE ISN’T ANY. 

Selfie courtesy of Stephin Merritt

We met during COVID, talked/texted for a few months and finally decided to just meet in person last September. She’s great, my age (mid-40s), goth (like me, although I might be more of a mod), smart, funny, likes good music, all the things. But she’s cripplingly insecure, in a way that I don’t know how to deal with? I’m divorced, was married 10 years. She’s the first person I’ve dated since getting divorced in 2018. I’m not a “rebound” kinda guy, I like real relationships. But due to her own bad experiences with past relationships, she has so many trust issues, even though it should be obvious that I don’t have a wandering eye and am totally into her. What can I do? How do I make her see that I’m not like her exes? — TVPs Fan
SM: WOMEN CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT TRUST MEN. GET USED TO IT. ALSO, IF YOU DON’T KNOW IF YOU’RE A GOTH OR A MOD, YOU SHOULD BE SEEING A COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPIST. 

I met someone online during COVID and we’ve never met in person. Should I propose? — Lockdown Princess
SM: NO! PEOPLE ONLINE AREN’T REAL. GO TO A BAR, LIKE AN ADULT. MOST HAVE OUTDOOR SEATING. WEAR A UNION SUIT. 

I have a Valentine’s Day date but the forecast is going to be 28º and cloudy so a bit chilly to eat outdoors. Should I invite them back to mine? Should I risk being exposed to someone else’s droplets and bodily fluids so we can have sex indoors? — Sweetheart of the Rodeo 
SM: WEAR A UNION SUIT. 
DO NOT MAKE A PLAN FOR AFTER DINNER, IT’S PRESUMPTUOUS AND GAUCHE.

My BF is addicted to Facebook. Even when we’re in bed he’s gazing into some left-wing FBK group and making snarky comments. Is there any hope for us? — Device addict’s BF 
SM: ONLY HAVE SEX OUT OF BED, ALWAYS, AND THEN YOU WON’T CARE WHAT HE DOES IN BED. 

Is perfume passé? —Unscented 
SM: YES, IT’S HORRIBLE. ANYONE WEARING PERFUME IN AN ELEVATOR SHOULD BE ASKED TO LEAVE AT THE NEXT FLOOR. 

We are stuck in our house with three children this Valentine’s Day. Do you have any advice on how we can find romance in spite of them? How can we keep them away from us so we can be intimate? — Spouse House
SM: HAVE SEX OUTSIDE, LIKE ADULTS. PARKS ARE GOOD, CARS ARE GREAT. PUBLIC BATHROOMS ARE GOOD FOR A QUICKIE. GARAGES ARE AWESOME. 

I want to make my beloved a meal full of aphrodisiacs. What should I make? (We’re vegan) —Hungry for Love 
SM: CHOCOLATE, CHOCOLATE, AND MORE CHOCOLATE. 

I’m a lifelong commitment-phobe who seems to attract other commitment-phobes. How can I stop the madness? —Pattern Breaker 
SM: YOU MAY NEED TO DECLINE TO DISCUSS YOUR RELATIONSHIP HISTORY, SAYING YOU’RE NOT PROUD OF IT BUT YOU HAVE CHANGED YOUR PRIORITIES. 

I have a crush on someone whose musical taste could be improved. How can I “help” them improve it? Should I make a mixtape? What should I put on it? —Ear Candy 
SM: MIXTAPES ARE GREAT, BUT MAKE SURE YOUR CRUSH KNOWS THAT THE LYRICS ARE NOT MEANT TO BE LITERAL MESSAGES. (OTHERWISE IT WOULD TAKE FIVE YEARS TO MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES.) ALSO, BE OPEN TO LEARNING WHY THEY LIKE WHAT THEY LIKE…WITHIN REASON!
I ONCE DECLINED TO DATE AN OTHERWISE WONDERFUL GUY BECAUSE HE WAS INTO JAMIROQUAI, AND I DO NOT REGRET THAT DECISION. 

I’ve basically been living in slankets and shackets for a year. What should I wear on V-day? —Athleisure Annie 

SM: NOTHING! 

The Magnetic Fields’ latest release, Quickies, is out now. 

Selfie courtesy of Stephin Merritt

Vern Rumsey remembered

Photograph by Pat Castaldo

By Pat Castaldo

When I got the text, like so many of my friends, I didn’t actually believe it.

I was instantly back in my apartment above Drees, hearing him call up, “Pat! Pat!” to the open window, holding a 12-pack of whatever was on sale at Safeway. “I’ll come down and open the door, just a minute.”

“Oh, you brought us beer,” I say to him, smiling, as I push open the heavy glass door open and let him in.

He looks at me, sheepishly and fully Vern-ly, with that smile he had where his jaw would clench a little and his cheek lift, “oh, um, this is just for me.”

Vern meant so much to so many people, and as I think now about never seeing him again, I realize completely how much me meant to me.

I am crying, playing the Long Hind Legs self-titled, thinking about how easy he was to just sit next to for hours. How good of a dude he was. How we could keep pace drinking cheap beers and working on album covers, talking about the everything and the nothing of our lives.

I think about seeing him play music a million times.

I think about visiting him out on the farm, pulling up in the dart after following his directions and wondering “where the hell am I?”

I think about my own thoughts about him over the years, “wait, why isn’t Unwound the biggest band in America right now?” and “man, Vern smells like cigarettes right now, I’m gonna crack a window,” and even, “I would kill for another Long Hind Legs album. So, so under appreciated.”

I think about the life he lived and all the people who’s lives he touched. I feel for the ones who loved him more and closer than I was ever able to.

Vern wasn’t without faults, he’d be the first to admit it, but that was the Olympia in him — that is that bit of Olympia in all of us who were there.

We were an incredible cast of misfits and outcasts, living under the constant grey clouds of the ’90s. Living with a constant drizzle and dampness of the same three square blocks that circled from the Reef, to the Capitol Theater, to our walk-up apartments or punk-named houses.

The magic of Olympia was never the place — it was the people we knew then. It didn’t matter if you were friends or enemies or eventually both; all of us where an alchemy for each other, something that permanently touched and changed each and every one of us; that turned us from teenagers to adults, with a lot of stops and starts in-between.

I can feel it in me, the Olympia, even twelve years after I moved away.

Part of that Olympia is Vern.

We lost a part of Olympia today. Vern took it with him.

Vern Rumsey was best known for being the bassist in the Tumwater, Washington post-hardcore (we still called it grunge back then) band Unwound. He passed away August 2020. Proud to call him a friend, I helped do several album covers of bands he was in. He will be missed.

This was originally published on Pat’s Medium page.

Remembering Sam Jayne

Sam Jayne (right) with Sonia Manalili. This was taken backstage at Webster Hall, October 2019, when Love As Laughter was opening for Built To Spill. Photograph by Tae Won Yu.

By Lois Maffeo

What I normally remember about touring: great crowds (Detroit dance party! Edgar & Rogilio at Rice University! Fireside Bowl every time!) and the disaster nights with hosts who had 14 cats and creepy collectibles. But one night on tour burns brightest to me for being so exhilarating and fun. Lois and Lync were touring together, and the first leg was pretty grim: $11 at the door in Missoula and maybe those 14 cats in North Dakota. And, even when we got to Minneapolis, the club (NOT the Fireside Bowl!) said Lync couldn’t play because Sam Jayne wasn’t 21 yet.

So Sam and James and Dave sat outside, looking in the picture window to watch Lois & The Hang Ups and then after the show we were all invited to Julie Butterfield’s house for a party. (She had lots of epic parties in Minneapolis and Olympia. I hope she writes her memoir some day.)

Anyhow, it was a fun party and it went on late and nobody left. At some point, several revelers noticed that they had run out of cigarettes and I volunteered to march down to the all-night convenience store, collecting three dollars from each of the smokers-in-need. The real reason I wanted to check out this little market was something I had noticed on the drive to Julie’s—there was a lit sign that advertised Fresh Cotton Candy. I was about to start out when Sam Jayne offered to walk there with me. Sam Jayne was not just a gallant buddy, I’m pretty sure he wanted in on the cotton candy too.

And the convenience market was open and they fired up the cylindrical cotton candy machine and we bought four packs of cigs and three cotton candies that looked like sparkling pink turbans atop long paper cones. We paid up and Sam asked for the change in quarters. I thought he might need them for parking meter change.

And did I mention that this convenience market was located next to a self-service car wash? The kind that has the long jet hoses in holsters in each of four concrete stalls? That was where those quarters were headed. Sam flashed his notorious, snaggle-toothed grin and ran for the nearest jet wand. I knew that I was in for a soaking, so I took up a position in the next stall and I fished a quarter out of my pocket. We ran the hoses out to their ends and sprayed water at each other and cackled and tried to avoid getting hit with water and mostly failed. Then we walked back to Julie’s, utterly drenched, with soggy packages of cigarettes and three wet paper cones. The cotton candy had disintegrated in the first blast of spray.

The party had mostly evaporated by the time we walked back and the smokers had given up on us and gone home, sparing us the contrition of delivering damaged goods. The last guest was about to leave, lacing up his roller skates for the roll home.

It’s a golden memory. I think about it regularly and when I heard Sam Jayne was gone, I knew he would always be with me.  Going for cotton candy.

Thinking about David Cloud Berman on what should have been his 54th birthday

Photograph from our event in Portland a year ago by Zach Selley

One year ago on January 4, 2020, chickfactor put together a show at bunk bar in Portland, Oregon, called Bike Chain Rain where friends and fans could remember David Cloud Berman on what would have been his 53rd birthday. today (January 4, 2021) he would have been 54, and he probably would be pretty horrified at the state of things. here are some photographs and videos of our event at bunk last year. We also gave all the proceeds (save for a few expenses) in support of Moms Demand Action and Write Around Portland. On the TV during the show the Titans stunned the Patriots.

The audience at Bike Chain Rain, January 4, 2020, photograph by Zach Selley

LINEUP Douglas Wolk (MC)

Mo Daviau read “The Charm of 5:30”

• Gail chickfactor read a letter Connie Lovatt sent to her mom about David  

Kjerstin Johnson read the Loew’s monologue

Jon Raymond read “A Letter From Isaac Asimov to his Wife Janet, Written on his Deathbed?” 

Lance Bangs read “Hieroglyphics, Notebook # 5”

Sophia Shalmiyev and Kevin Sampsell read “Self-Portrait at 28”

Chelsey Johnson read “Cassette County”

• Portland guitarist Marisa Anderson played her own instrumental song

• Portland band A Certain Smile played “Wild Kindness”

Franklin Bruno played “The Frontier Index”

Oed Ronne (the Ocean Blue) performed “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” with Nancy Novotny and HK Kahng

Rebecca Gates and William Tyler gently slaying the crowd: photograph by Gail O’Hara

William Tyler performed “Tennessee” 

Clay Cole performed “We Might Be Looking for the Same Thing” and
“Only One for Me” with Rebecca Gates
WATCH HERE

Rebecca Gates performed “Snow Is Falling on Manhattan” (WATCH) with William Tyler; and “Albemarle Station” (WATCH)

Silver Jews and Pavement members Stephen and Bob played six songs; photograph by Zach Selley

Stephen Malkmus & Bob Nastanovich performed…
“Secret Knowledge of Back Roads”
“Buckingham Rabbit”
“Advice to the Graduate”
“Random Rules”
“Welcome To The House of the Bats”
“Trains Across the Sea”
WATCH THE FULL SET HERE

Thanks to Craig Giffen (https://12xu.com) for the audio/video

Photograph of Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich by Zach Selley

rewind 2020

Philippe Auclair (Louis Philippe) reflects on the year

This truly has been the strangest of years for me, a year which started in uncertainty and ended with my adopted country’s final act of severance of its links with the European Union, something which has been a source of deep, in fact life-changing sorrow for me and so many of the people I call my friends here in London and elsewhere in England. I daren’t say more on the subject. 

A photograph taken by Al of the Clientele in Benicassim, 2007. Isn’t our Ken handsome!

But then, sorrow and grief have been all-present throughout these twelve awful months. I said goodbye to far too many people who were dear to me. My beautiful friend Ken Brake finally succumbed to the cancer which had plagued him for several years, long before his time. I still find it very difficult to use the past time to talk about the musical accomplice of nearly three decades, the man with whom I shared more jokes and cups of Darjeeling tea than I did with anyone else during this time. 

We made so much music together in his immaculate studio in Primrose Hill—just the two of us, or with Alasdair, Lupe and The Clientele, or Louise Le May, or Mari Persen, or Jonathan Coe, or, especially, our beloved friend Stuart Moxham. A small consolation is that Ken lived long enough to see the release of the album the three of us recorded over a period of years, The Devil Laughs, which, at times, I’d feared would never see the light of day—or not soon enough. Thank goodness—and thanks to John Henderson of tinyGLOBAL—The Devil Laughs was released in June, immediately earning the kind of critical acclaim that Ken so richly deserved to be associated with. Small mercies. Very small mercies. 

So The Devil Laughs has to be on top of this list. Sadness tinged with hope and joy—that was 2020 to me, as to so many others. The joy came from music, first and foremost. Without it… 

But there was joy too. 

In music, to start with. It was a time of discovery and re-discovery. 

The discovery of Igor Levit, for example, thanks to his astonishing interpretation—all eleven hours of it—of Erik Satie’s Vexations, which was streamed live on YouTube and was one of the most transcendent musical performances I’ve ever witnessed. A single page of music, which must be played 840 times in succession, was transformed into a genuine voyage of exploration, tender, angry, hypnotic, magical. 

Christophe Chassol, a composer and instrumentist who inhabits a universe in which classical music, minimalism, retro-futurism and sunshine pop coexist in (beautiful) harmony, gave us his Message of Xmas (on Bertrand Burgalat’s label Tricatel), a musical UFO of the kind I wish visited our sorry planet more often. 

I know absolutely nothing about another Frenchman, another Christophe too, called MOTTRON, whom I came across thanks to the recommendation of Chris Evans, the presenter of “The Curve Ball,” a show which plays the kind of music you won’t hear anywhere else, but which, in a better world, should be our lives’ sonic landscape. It is totally original. It also completely disappeared under the radar, and I get the feeling Mottron himself doesn’t mind it that much. Give it a chance. It’s on Bandcamp. “Indecent,” the third track on his debut album, Giants, is breathtaking. 

I had no idea that Petter Herbertsson of Testbild! had another parallel project, Sternpost, or that he’d released Statues Asleep on the Kalligramofon label. This is Petter at his most cinematic and melodic best, with vocal textures which are unmistakably his and his alone. He has a way with harmony which is also entirely personal—now how many musicians can you say that of? 

The song I listened to more often than any other in 2020 was Lô Borges’s composition “O Trem Azul,” as sung by Milton Nascimento on their Clube de Esquina double album, a record that will soon be fifty years old, and is yet unsurpassed. It is the song that the Pale Fountains, Everything But the Girl, Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, every Sarah band (and myself) have been trying to “find” throughout, the absolute matrix of perfect pop. Paddy did. It’s only taken me something like twenty years to realise this. 

I’ve still got four spots to fill. I’ll put the lid back on the record player, then, and go to the bookshelves, where four Japanese authors are waiting for me, all of whom I discovered in this shit year. All of them are women. One of the many wonderful things about late 20th-century and 21st-century Japanese literature (and manga) is that so much of it is— recognisibly—the work of women. I wish so much more in this fucked-up world were the work of women. There’s Natsuo Kiriko, whose brutal Out shook me to the core (Grotesque and The Goddess Chronicle popped in the post this morning). Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings is another genuine shocker. There’s Yoko Tawada’s dreamlike, strangely tender, dystopic novel The Lost Children of Tokyo. And, more than anything else, there is Yoko Ogawa, whose The Professor and the Housekeeper I would place alongside Tanizaki’s Makioka Sisters and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy at the top of my literary pantheon. Its last chapter (and so much beforehand) moved me to tears. 

This is the pain that does us good, as Léo Ferré put it. How we needed it in 2020.

rewind 2020: top whatever lists from artists, writers and musicians (round two)

Screen shot taken by chickfactor

James McNew (Yo La Tengo, Dump)

What’s That? 2020

Noise in refrigerator: evaporator fan

Noise in kitchen: steam-angle radiator valve

Noise in hallway: can now identify every person in building by sound of their footsteps

Noise in car: alternator/ serpentine belt

Noise in toilet: fill valve 

Noise from outside #4: fireworks (all summer, every night)

Noise from outside #3: maskless rich drunk asshole neighbors partying and blasting music in their well-appointed backyards at 2am (May–September)

Noise from outside #2: sirens (March–June: ambulances; June–December: cops)

Noise from outside #1: one minute of applause/noisemaking at 7pm daily, in appreciation of essential workers; said appreciation ended promptly June 1. More than one person within earshot has (= shouldn’t have) a trombone.

Photograph by Katrina Mitchell

Stephen McRobbie (Pastels, Geographic, Monorail)

1. One of the best best things about 2020 for me was starting to see Glasgow in a slightly different way, one in which the river is the essential part. In May I started cycling to work on a daily basis along the Clyde, rediscovering landmarks that I had loved and forgotten and new ones too. It was a time of dramatic change and sometimes cycling slowly home or stopping off to examine something was the best way to find some perspective on what was going on and to feel hopeful that in the end there would be a way through. 

2. Music was incredible in 2020. Not us so much us, in fact we didn’t play together at all. At the start of the year I thought I had three strong ideas for new songs. At the end of the year I had what I still felt were three strong ideas for new songs. So it was more a year of archive things. It was really nice to finally release two songs from a 1997 John Peel Session – “Advice To The Graduate” and “Ship To Shore” on a 7”. “Advice To The Graduate” is of course a David Berman song – thought about him often. 

3. Music was incredible in 2020. Really fell for the Cindy album, Free Advice. It just had real confidence about playing softly and being there but not fighting for your attention or anything. And it opened up a scene of other groups via a mix cd… Present Electric, Reds, Pinks & Purples, Hectorine. It felt new but also existed in the spaces between Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo, Movietone and various Flying Nun groups. There are always spaces, you can always make something new.

4. So many other great records came out. Amazingly Plone came back with Puzzlewood for Ghost Box, and by now more or less working from home, I’d lots of time to write about it for Monorail. It was a really fabulous return, so unexpected, I was often smiling their tunes as I cycled along.

5. The Jarv Is record was amazing too – he somehow managed to make it of the times but above or at least to the side of them too. I interviewed him on the day it came out. He said that when he was researching stories for This Day In History on his Sunday Service he realised that most news stories at any time are bad news and this had given him a bit of perspective on things. His group just now is dynamite. 

6. As if that wasn’t enough he ran his Domestic Disco on Saturday nights for a large part of the year. These were magical (Jarvis is a great dj) and ok, maybe a little drunken at certain points. Along with Tim Burgess’s Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties and various BBC6 shows especially Gideon Coe, something similar to going out to shows was always there. We always felt we were part of a great community.

7. Great songs belatedly dropped out of the seeming nowhere. That Dump single, “Feelings 1 & 2” is so special. I got a preview of a new Johnny record (all Joe Meek songs) performed with a super lightness of touch and sheer pop joy by Norman Blake and Euros Childs. People are going to love this record.

8. I was working on various archival projects I thought I could close out but didn’t – Strawberry Switchblade, Pastels, a Glasgow music comp. I did manage to make a fanzine called Yesterday Was Another Day, Glasgow 1979-82 to coincide with the reissue of The Bluebells Sisters album. It was a collaboration with the group and my friend, Musho Fernandez, who is a great graphic designer. Felt a real sense of pride about how it turned out.

9. The more I think about it the more I realise that music more or less got me through 2020. It seemed deeper than ever with so much music – Jon Brooks, Robert Lippok, Andrew Wasylyk, Tenniscoats, Bridget St John, Stereolab, Broadcast, Movietone, Brian Eno. In the kitchen Katrina and I listened to lots of mix cds, probably the most played being one that Gerard made for the Monorail Film Club night we used to have at the Glasgow Film Theatre.

10. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series was important and righteous. It was beautifully made too. Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” from the Lovers Rock episode became an absolute obsession. There are so many Janet Kay Top Of The Pops appearances on Youtube (a couple even with the great Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced it). Still not enough, song of the year, music of the year. Fight on.

Janice Headley (KEXP, Meow Mix, Copacetic zine, chickfactor)

Like many of us, I’m sure, I needed a mental break from the horrors of 2020, and books have always served as a trusty escape hatch. So, here’s a random sampling of ten that I happened to read last year. Just to be clear, this isn’t a list of “Best Books of 2020” or even my personal “Top Ten.” As you’ll see below, several of them didn’t even come out this year, and one of them I didn’t even really like! Just ten random books. Here ya go.

• When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (2020, Harper Collins)
Described in the press release as “Rear Window meets Get Out” — and I legit thought “this is so Hitchcock-ian” while reading it — When No One is Watching is the gripping tale of a fictional Brooklyn neighborhood on the brink of gentrification… but there seems to be something even more insidious at play. I found this book breathtaking, and I consumed it in less than two days. And during a year of relentless (and disheartening) racial unrest, this book was even more powerful and unsettling. 

• Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (2020, Grove Press)
I loved Murata’s 2016 novel Convenience Store Woman, so I was excited to get my hands on her latest. That said, WHOA, this was nothing like that charming tale of a small store clerk; Earthlings has abuse, violence, incest, cannibalism, and more, all crammed into less than 300 pages. This was another one of those books that was just exhilaratingly engrossing, and the ending was such a smart surprise. I can’t say I “recommend it,” per se, but I’ll just say, it sure as heck was a page-turner.

• Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby (2020, Vintage)
Discovering comedic essayist Samantha Irby was one of the very few bright spots of 2020. I somehow stumbled across her 2017 collection titled We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and felt an instant kinship. I then went on to inhale everything she’s ever written. Like me, she recently moved from a big city (for her, Chicago; for me, Seattle) to sleepy Southwest Michigan. And, like me, she loves Sassy magazine, receiving mail, and being indoors. I feel like she and I need to be friends, but I am also slightly afraid of her.

• Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (2020, Gallery Books)
I bought Brosh’s 2016 book Hyperbole and a Half at the airport ages ago — I mean, just the fact that I wrote “airport” tells you it wasn’t in 2020 — and proceeded to annoy my fellow passengers because it was literally laugh-out-loud funny. But shortly after the book’s release, she mysteriously disappeared. There were Reddit threads of readers wondering if she was okay. The concern slowly died down as fans seemed to assume and accept that she had chosen the unpublished life after all. But, in 2020, she returned with her first new book in seven years! I’ll admit, I didn’t “LOL” as much as I did with her first one, but maybe that’s ‘cause 2020 just wasn’t a real “LOL” type year. But I liked it a lot. 

• My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (2016, Quirk Books)
This year’s season of the podcast Conviction sent me down a “Satanic Panic” wormhole. I wanted to read, listen, and learn everything I could about this weird ‘80s phenomenon, even culminating in an article for my day job (gratuitous self link here). I scrolled past this book on the library app while doing research, and the funny VHS-style book cover inspired me to check it out. It’s a fictional story of two best friends, one of whom seems to have been possessed by an evil spirit. It’s somehow both funny and creepy. Hendrix has also written a story about a haunted IKEA titled Horrorstör that I have definitely added to my “must read” list. 

• The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (2019, Hachette)
I’ve been a fan of West’s since back in the days when she wrote for Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger. It’s been rad to see her writing get such national attention, and she even has a TV show on Hulu titled Shrill. (The aforementioned Irby is a staff writer.) The Witches Are Coming is a much-appreciated attack of “Tr*mp’s America” (sorry, I can’t even type it without throwing up in my mouth a little). She somehow released a new book toward the end of 2020 titled Shit, Actually that I’m currently reading. 

• A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost (2020, Crown Publishing Group)
I don’t know why I like Saturday Night Live. It’s not even that funny most of the time. But, it’s something that’s been in my life since I was a kid. I still remember my best friend and I sharing Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts on the playground during recessor going to see Wayne’s World at the dollar theatre. So, I’ve read a lot of cast member memoirs, and this one was pretty entertaining. (I still enjoy Tina Fey’s Bossypants the most.)

• Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness (2019, HarperCollins)
The release of season 5 of Netflix’s Queer Eye was an all-too brief spark of sunshine during the dark summer of quarantine. I checked out Ness’s auto-bio audiobook to fill the void and found myself appreciating the grooming expert even more. He shares how he overcame childhood sexual abuse and drug addiction — stuff he can’t really address during the hour-long episodes, which are mostly focused on the nominees. (Do they still call them “heroes”? I can’t remember if that’s a throwback to the original series.) 

• Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. by Jeff Tweedy (2018, Dutton)
This book came out a couple of years ago, but, as I’m not really a fan of Wilco, I never bothered with it. But then, in April, a podcast I listen to (Rivals: Music’s Greatest Feuds) did an episode detailing the conflict between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar during their Uncle Tupelo days, and I was so intrigued I wanted to learn more. What I learned is, Tweedy is a very funny writer. (Either that, or he has a good ghostwriter/editor.)

• Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz (2020, St. Martin’s Press)
I’ll be honest, this isn’t a very good book. Frantz isn’t the most engaging writer, and many of the chapters just blur into each other. (“We played a concert and got an encore. We ate fish for dinner. Some random lady was good-looking.”) But the David Byrne barbs are both relentless and hilarious, and you can tell from his writing how much he still really loves Tina, which is so sweet after 40+ years of marriage. 

Rob Pursey (Catenary Wires, European Sun, Heavenly, Tender Trap)

I’ve been running an online poetry-reading event during 2020.  Basically, I choose a collection, everyone gathers on a zoom call, and then we take it in turns to read out loud.   Sometime the poetry is canonical and old, sometimes it’s contemporary (and on most of those occasions the real-life poet has joined us on the zoom call).  It works better than I can have expected.  Hearing 30 people’s voices, taking it in turns to read, is very moving and a good antidote to loneliness and isolation. 
So my top ten readings were

PARADISE REGAINED by John Milton.  An old, blind man finds himself on the losing side of the English Civil War and tries to come to terms with the restoration of the hated monarchy by re-telling the story of Christ in the wilderness.

DIVISION STREET by Helen Mort.  Legacies of the Miners’ Strike, passionately re-imagined by someone too young to have been there.

SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE by William Blake.  Apocalyptic poems for children.

RECKLESS PAPER BIRDS by John McCullough.   The excitement and fear of living in London when you are young and gay.

BRIGGFLATTS by Basil Bunting.  On a par with ‘The Wasteland’, but less celebrated because rooted in the landscape and dialect of the North-East.

ISN’T FOREVER by Amy Key.  Funny, fragile, sometimes self-lacerating poems by a really great new writer.

SONNETS by William Shakespeare.  He couldn’t put his plays on because of a pandemic, so wrote lots of these instead.  Lucky us.

HAPPINESS by Jack Underwood.  Beautiful, funny, very self-aware poems on straight male identity and anxieties.

VENUS AND ADONIS by William Shakespeare.  Him again.  A little epic, where his medieval roots are audible.

SMOOTHIE by Claudine Toutoungi.  Another really great new poet; spiky, witty, dramatic and energetic.  

Gail chickfactor

Music That Got Me Through the Year 

Minnie Riperton, Come to My Garden

A Girl Called Eddy, Been Around

DestroyerHave We Met (the live show I saw in February was *amazing* except the annoying girl screaming gross borderline harassment the whole time)

Bill Callahan, Gold Record

Joe Pernice, Richard and Manilow covers record, but mostly his live sets on Instagram

Shopping, live — the last show I saw in early March before the world went pear-shaped

Brazilian music (especially Jobim and Veloso)

Tweedy Show

Various Artists, Strum and Thrum

Bridget St John, Vashti Bunyan, Sandy Denny, Rodriguez

The Clientele, Oh everything. Musical anti-anxiety remedy and life-affirming soul boost. More please! 

Yo La Tengo’s very sad but very necessary Hanukkah show. Please music gods, don’t make them go through that again. Shoutout to Amy Rigby (my friend Shawn called her “a female Jonathan Richman, but funnier”) and Ira’s sweet mom, slaying us. 

All the best to everyone in 2021. Keep fighting evil.