Our final chickfactor 30 party in London was an afternoon Hangover Lounge affair at the Betsey Trotwood and had kind of a chill vibe that was welcome after two nights at the packed Lexington! Marlody is a new signing on Rob and Amelia’s Skep Wax label and her moody, intimate songs were quiet and poignant at a time when finally coming together after so long was so needed. Her music was a reminder that we all need to share our stories. The Catenary Wires are of course pop legends: Amelia Fletcher, Rob Pursey, Ian Button and Andy Lewis. They played stellar songs from their latest, Birling Gap, which you should snap up if you haven’t got it, and even thrilled the audience with a Heavenly song, “Cool Guitar Boy,” in advance of their couple of Bush Hall shows next spring, which was so so fun.
London is a place I was lucky to call home for half a decade and I miss it like crazy. chickfactor’s cofounder Pam Berry has lived there since the late ’90s and I love being able to go back and see people at these events in these places that miraculously are still open. I wish we could do it every year! Thanks again to the musicians, bands, venues, Paul Kelly for backline wrangling, the sound people, Hangover Lounge, Tae Won Yu, the folks who put me and others up, the documenters, readers, fans, friends, strangers, and pop lovers who make up this incredible community.
Tonight from the stage, Morgan from the Umbrellas said that her face was hurting from smiling so much and we could all relate! The London CF30 shows were like a big loveliest full of fantastic pop music! The show kicked off tonight with the Bay Area pop group Seablite, making their London debut in the most stylish and melodious way!
Birdie played next and our hearts melted because they are so damn charming and just effortlessly generate classic-sounding pop music that could have come from the 1960s. Their set list is below, but we know how lucky we are to have heard a few Dolly Mixture songs on Friday during Rachel’s set and some on Saturday with Birdie! Unbelievable joy.
The final act tonight was the Bay Area Slumberland band The Umbrellas, who are so young and yet so good at making classic but fresh indie pop in the best possible way. Such energy! Such positivity! If there were any justice in the world, we would take these shows on the road and fill the world with joy and melody! I’m sure these US bands will be back soon, but for now London + California = love.
Just a note: In case you wondered why the shows started so early and they had no real breaks between bands, it’s because the Lexington has another dance party event that starts roughly an hour after our thing ended. We left a time cushion between our show and theirs because our experience at CF25 was a bit difficult to deal with, the Pastels could hardly load out or relax and have a post-show beer before the late-night dance party people rushed the room.
(Personally, I was perched on a bench in the back because I had recently rolled my ankle and couldn’t manage the pain being on my feet all night or I would have been dancing like a dervish right up front as per usual! I was on so much paracetamol that I felt I couldn’t drink much cider, and I was a bit limited in my movements as host! But it was pretty crazy to see three of my former coworkers from SPIN magazine in the house! Daisy and Sarah, shoutouts to you for being so fun. )
Thanks again to all the bands who played and all the fans who came from afar and the Lexington. Special thanks to Gaylord Fields and Rachel Love (to whom I apologize for my grumpiness) for helping me wrangle the right lager and snacks from the local Tesco. The overall vibe this weekend was very much a lovefest, a total all-hands-on-deck, walking around the neighborhood and running into each other funfest with some of the greatest people. MC Gaylord did an amazing job of waxing loudly and lovingly about the bands to get everyone’s attention back to the stage. Many thanks to Paul Kelly and the Betsey Trotwood for wrangling the backline for the whole weekend. Thanks to the Hangover Lounge gents—Tim, John, Ben and Steve—for handling merch and being the generally wonderful humans that they are.
CHICKFACTOR 30 chickfactor fanzine was founded 30 years ago by Pam Berry & Gail O’Hara (in DC/NY) and we are incredibly excited to celebrate with you on October 28 & 29 at the Lexington and October 30 (afternoon) at the Betsey Trotwood. Cannot wait to see everyone and see these wonderful bands play! (Our 30th-anniversary issue is out now too and 5/6 of these bands are in it.) Presented in cahoots with the Hangover Lounge folks.
Fri. October 28: Sacred Paws Artsick Rachel Love Get tickets
Sat. October 29: The Umbrellas Birdie Seablite Get tickets
Sun. October 30: Daytime event (Noon to 4!) Hangover Lounge at the Betsey Trotwood The Catenary Wires & Special Guests Get tickets
Fri. Oct. 29: Doors 7pm, show 7:30
Sacred Paws(from Glasgow!) have a natural inclination not to take things too seriously. You can hear it all the way through a conversation with its two members, guitarist Rachel Aggs and drummer Eilidh Rodgers, punctuated by rolls of giggles and thoughtful pauses, and you can hear it in the light touch they bring to their music, a jangly blend of indie pop full of fizzing world rhythms and bright horns. Shimmering guitar riffs dance between snappy beats and swooning melodies that will have crowds committing to far more than a simple head-bob. “I think we’d get bored if it was too slow,” Eilidh says. “We’d never want to play something live that people couldn’t dance to. It would feel really strange to us. It’s kind of the whole point.” Joining them at this show will be Jack Mellin on guitar and Moema Meade on bass!
Artsick London debut! Artsick is an indiepop band from Oakland/Seaside, California, consisting of Christina Riley (Burnt Palms/Boyracer) on guitar and vocals, Mario Hernandez (Kids On A Crime Spree, Ciao Bella) on drums and Donna McKean (Lunchbox/Hard Left) on bass. They formed in 2018 and released a 7-inch single, followed by their debut album Fingers Crossed, on Slumberland Records.
Rachel Love Rachel was guitarist and singer in the seminal 70/80s band Dolly Mixture who were signed to Paul Weller’s Respond label and championed by The Undertones & John Peel. She was the singer in the band Spelt and has released her first solo album, Picture in Mind, in 2021. Also half of the Light Music Company.
Sat. Oct. 29: Doors 7 p.m., show 7:30
The Umbrellas London debut! “The Umbrellas are one of the most exciting bands to come from the indiepop underground in ages. Bursting out of the SF Bay Area’s fertile indie scene, The Umbrellas come correct with a sound that fits snugly into a long line of classic pop, from The Byrds to Orange Juice, The Pastels, Comet Gain, Veronica Falls and Belle & Sebastian, along with a noticeable garage-pop/Paisley Underground flavor that is a hallmark of San Francisco’s best bands. Their self-titled 2021 debut album dazzled with a dozen perfect pop tunes, charming the indiepop faithful but also winning fans outside the scene, leading to sold-out tours with bands as disparate as Ceremony and Destroy Boys.” (—Mike Schulman) New Releases – ‘Write it in the Sky’ 7″ released via Slumberland, Meritorio, Tear Jerk, and Fastcut records.
Birdie Debsey Wykes (Dolly Mixture, Saint Etienne) and Paul Kelly (East Village, Saint Etienne) decided to form a group together while they were members of SAINT ETIENNE’s backing band in 1994. For two years, Debsey (backing singer) and Paul (guitar) toured Europe, Japan, America and played most of the major European festivals until SAINT ETIENNE took a break and BIRDIE was born. For this show, it will be: Debsey (bass and vocal); Paul (guitar and vocal); Jon (drums); Patrick (guitar or piano) and possibly Sean (piano)!
Seablite London debut! Seablite is a four-piece pop band from San Francisco inspired by 80s/90s indie and shoegaze. In June 2019, Seablite’s LP debut, Grass Stains and Novocaine was released by Emotional Response, garnering domestic and international praise. They’ve since released a 10″ EP, High-Rise Mannequins (2020) and most recently their new single, Breadcrumbs c/w Ink Bleeds (2022). Seablite are back in the studio recording their sophomore LP and looking forward to what the upcoming year will bring.
Sun. October 30: CF30/Hangover Lounge at the Betsey Trotwood
Formed by Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey (of Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research and so many more!), Catenary Wires also feature Fay Hallam, Andy Lewis and Ian Button. Today will be Amelia and Rob as a duo. Their Birling Gap LP released June 2021 on Skep Wax and Shelflife (USA). Super early show! Noon to 4pm event. The show is technically sold out but we hope to be able to release more tickets.
chickfactor: Why did you want to write this book? Benjamin: I’d discovered the band at the beginning of the nineties (I was born in 1974) as I was a huge fan of British pop music from punk to postpunk. It was a shock for me to discover such an intelligent and melodic band full of cultural references from movies, paintings and books, both sentimental and political, intimate and funny. It was like discovering some band as big and important as the Smiths except almost nobody seemed to know about them. At the time, I started writing books and music reviews for one of the first French indie rock webzines and I made the promise to write something consistent about the TVPs one day. I had written something like 10 novels then, got a few prizes but had always in mind the plan to write about a band. When I discussed doing something for Le Boulon editor round 2015, I started to tell Xavier at a lunch meeting about the dozen wonderful anecdotes I had about Bob Marley, Jimmy Page, David Hasselhoff and Daniel Treacy. We started at 11.00 a.m. and we parted 3 hours later. I realized it was time to write all this down and try to tell Daniel’s story from the beginning to where we were today, so somewhere near the end. And there was already at least 30 books about Morrissey and The Smiths, so why add another? CF
Alison Wonderland Six years after the issue of The Painted Word, the Television Personalities return to the 33rpm format with the album Privilege, released this time on the Fire Records label. The company had been set up five years before by Clive Solomon, a former acquaintance of Daniel and the Television Personalities. At the beginning, Solomon and the Television Personalities’ lead singer hung around the same London venues which heralded the psychedelic renewal. Moreover, he had organised gigs inspired by the 60’s even before McGee and others had thought of it, in a new club destined to become famous, the Groovy Cellar. At the time, Clive Solomon wasn’t directly a member of the gang, but hung around wherever they were. His favourite band, among all those who trawled the scene, was … the Television Personalities, who he had seen a good hundred times on stage and for whom he had tremendous respect. It was thanks to them that he had talked to McGee for the first time, and certainly also thanks to them that he had decided to pursue his career. Producer and occasional musician, Clive Solomon’s name figures, at the time of Whaam!, on Sha La La, the one and only single by the brilliant Jed Dmochowski, as executive producer. Whether that means he invested a few quid in the business, or that he was present during the recording sessions, is a matter of debate.
Be that as it may, in 1989 Clive Solomon is still managing Fire Records from his bedroom and is delighted to produce the Television Personalities’ new album, initially promised to Dreamworld. At the time, Fire has not yet defined its strategy, nor emerged as one of the best-entrenched and interesting independent labels on the market. The model would be simple: produce young artistes, but also welcome older guys with a history, in order to try and take over their catalogue via meticulous re-releases and promotion of their new songs. The label establishes itself by crossing the path of gifted and challenging bands like The Blue Aeroplanes, The Farm, Spacemen 3, the main event of 1989, Pulp (the band before success knocked on its door) Eugenius, Mission of Burma, or even Evan Dando’s band, the Lemonheads. It’s a small world. Fire Records has a reputation for allowing its artistes great creative liberty and giving them long-term support. Some are more critical as regards the personality of Clive Solomon. Luke Haines, for example, doesn’t spare him in the picture he paints in his book Bad Vibes. Solomon is described as a rather spineless guy, shy, bald and sallow, overplaying being nice to avoid conflicts. Haines, under contract to Fire with his band The Servants, quits in order to set up the successful band The Auteurs. If Treacy was to hold a grudge against Fire Records and Solomon, as he would against others later on, the release of Privilege and Fire Records’ support of the band in the following years with two intermediate EP’s and a further album, indicate clearly the attachment of Solomon and his team to the Television Personalities.
The label would moreover on several occasions re-release records by the Television Personalities, first in the early 90’s, then again in 2002 to 2003, and continue to accompany the group up until the issue in 2017 of an album containing rarities, demos and other unpublished works, prior to the release of Closer To God in 1992. It would be a lie to say that the label was well thought of by those closest to the band, but everyone agrees that Fire put a lot of energy into making the most out of the band’s reunified catalogue. Of the two albums released at the time on Fire Records, Privilege and Closer To God, it’s difficult say which is the better. The band’s fans usually place them a notch below their first album, which just goes to show the level of excellence achieved. The songs on the Privilege album, produced by Phil Vinall, one of the best British producers, were carved out and even recorded by the band in the course of three or four years of concerts. These are mostly remarkable songs, some even outstanding, which amply demonstrate the excellent health and the unimpaired genius of their composer. Phil Vinall replaces the insufficiently embellished parts, lightens the band’s sound and gives it a clearly pop colouration never attained up to this point. Apart from the weird My Hedonistic Tendencies, a synthpop track which jars and has aged a little, the album is still as pleasant to listen to, after almost thirty years. Daniel Treacy offers one or two compositions which belong to his former psychedelic and arty inspiration, of which the record’s signature song Salvador Dali’s Garden Party, is the best illustration. But most of the record comprises songs with more personal lyrics, where the inherent sadness is offset by the inventiveness of the tunes and the agility of the guitars. Such is the case of songs like Paradise Is For The Blessed, the sublime opening song, or of the sumptuous A Good And Faithful Servant which follows. The texts are redolent of the singer’s existential doubts, of the depression and solitude waiting in the wings, of the disenchantment (the terrible All My Dreams Are Dead) and of the fear of abandonment. The social and political aspects are always present (on Privilege or Conscience Tells Me No), but generally put aside in favour of sad songs which are among the most accomplished in all the band’s discography. Vinall persuades Treacy to emphasize his voice more, which turns out clearly to be a winning card. Never has the vocalist sung so well as on this album, achieving first-rate performances within his register in pieces like The Engine Driver Song, or the very moving What If It’s Raining? The studio work is fluid. Daniel is relaxed and receptive to suggestions. He knows the pieces by heart and doesn’t mind having to go over them several times. He likes to work quickly, plug in, play without wasting time then move on to something else.
Vinall, who in later years, would be involved for several months with the emergence of Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and Brian Molko (Placebo), is all admiration. He knows that several of these songs are gems, but he also knows that Daniel is aware of his limits and is not infused with the conquering spirit and aggressiveness which produce superstars.
“These are my songs”, he seems to be saying as he deposits them at the feet of the producer. “They’re for you. I’d rather you didn’t return them to me”.
The mixture of rockabilly (Sometimes I Think You Know Me Better Than Myself), of wild or psychedelic pop rock and of lo-fi, give Privilege extraordinary power and richness. A few stylistic waverings may weaken the whole, but in no way lower the quality of the compositions. Privilege is released in February 1990 and has a cool reception, despite the issue in October 1989 of a sound single on the theme of Salvador Dali’s Garden Party. Fire Records does a low-key promotion of the album, accompanied by a British tour of five or six dates as openers for The House Of Love, which achieves little for the band in terms of notoriety. The House Of Love at the time is a band which has a certain success with the re-release of its first single Shine On and the release of their second album. However, the band is in disarray, having barely got over the sensational departure of Terry Bickers and saddled with Guy Chadwick, a leader sinking into a malignant megalomania weaned on alcohol and narcotics. It’s easy to imagine the benefits derived from being yoked together with the Television Personalities.
1990 continues with an endless German tour, but the sales fail to take off, despite an album of the soundest quality. Fire Records and the Television Personalities are not disheartened and release two new singles in the second half of 1991 and the double album Closer To God in 1992. Between these releases, Daniel Treacy, in need of money, signs with the Overground Records label for a series of re-releases of the band’s early singles. John Esplen, the founder of the label, owes his vocation to Daniel Treacy since it was during a conversation at the end of the 80’s that he had seemingly encouraged him to work on re-releasing oldies and afterwards offered him the possibility of reworking his band’s singles. Things would only come into being a few years later. I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives, then Three Wishes are thus revived, just like Smashing Time, Where’s Bill Grundy Now? and Favourite Films. The singles are simply accompanied by new jackets, created most of the time by Alison Withers, Daniel Treacy’s new girlfriend.
This frenzy of releases, for a band which is not necessarily often in the public eye, gives a strange impression to observers and blurs the communication connected with the new songs. Difficult to know, if you’re not watching closely, which songs are re-releases and which ones are new, particularly as the band now mixes enthusiastic up-beat songs with almost acoustic numbers where Daniel plays solo in a totally different register. Where does such a band fit in? What are they trying to say? If, at this time, the band still had any hope of achieving recognition other than esteem and acclaim, it disappears into an often brilliant, but for most people, unfathomable mist. The re-releases of the first albums on the Fire label add to the over-production which, while making the band’s music available once again, inspires the feeling that the Television Personalities have, in spite of themselves, become a nostalgic band of the past, bogged down in its own legend. Adding to that the live recording of a concert during the 1984 German tour, released apparently without authorisation from the band, it’s the last straw. It’s a false impression, since Daniel has never been so productive. Songs pour out like water from a tap.
When Closer To God arrives, Fire Records’ usual strategy, which consists in rekindling interest in the band via revivals of its old albums, doesn’t work. The signal is inaudible, as if jammed, and doesn’t manage to provoke any response. The album which contains 19 tracks is nonetheless monumental and worthy of the greatest interest. It’s easy to consider it as the band’s last great album and a magnificent demonstration of their talent.
Phil Vinall, who is producer again, returns to the more rock sound, full of effects and echo of the band’s beginnings, which, in the midst of the shoegaze and grunge wave, gives certain songs a really powerful impact. Closer To God is harsher than Privilege, but never departs from the melodic ambition and quality of the lyrics. The studio work is more extensive than for the previous album, since not everything has been written in advance. The music is meticulous, crafted, and once again, open to experimentation.
But for all that, it’s not “where it’s at” or in tune with what’s “in” at this moment in time. Psychedelia has had its day and British pop is not in much better straits. Because of being ahead of their time, the Television Personalities are caught between two worlds and, for the first time in their career, almost anachronistic.
Stylistic coherence is not always maintained throughout the 19 tracks. Some songs are weaker than others, but without much impact on the density and power of the collection. Closer To God is a double album and a further occasion for Treacy to reveal the scope of his talents. The cover, designed by Alison Withers, is strange and relates to no known universe. It’s not clear whether it does anything for the album which gets off to a cracking start with You Don’t Know How Lucky you Are and Hard Luck Story Number39. In these two songs, Daniel warns the listener (and himself) in prophetic tones, against changes in fortune, drugs and decadence.
“Would you like to see scars? My brand-new needle-marks? he sings like a show-off You’ve got a job, a house, a company car But you’ve still got shit for brains”.
The first piece is particularly violent, mixing biographical lucidity and anger directed against the well-to-do. The song ends with “Open up your mind, it’s an open door”, and like an ultimate copout, bids farewell to the world of escapism and psychedelics. Like the previous one, the album is a sort of patchwork of songs composed in the course of Treacy’s wanderings and inspirations.
Between the releases of Privilege and Closer To God, Jowe Head and Treacy initially plan to produce a more intimate album which would only materialise twenty-five years later under the name of Beautiful Despair, a compilation of demonstration items and a few unpublished songs. Treacy literally forgets about the project, before re-injecting it by snippets into the monumental Closer To God. There’s an obvious impression that the band want to give it everything they’ve got. Everything is sweetness and light. And it shows: Treacy is in love. His bouts of anxiety, awesomely expressed in My Very First Nervous Breakdown or Very Dark Today, are contained and overridden by peals of laughter, great moments of self-mockery (the incredible Goodnight Mr Spaceman, the very T-Rex-like We Will Be Your Gurus) and above all some very fine love songs. The benevolent optimism of I Hope You Have A Nice Day is pleasant to listen to, but it’s the sentimental tracks which hit just the right tone that makes the album great. Even though he expresses a little clumsily his homesickness (Coming Home Soon) or his daft projects (Me And My Big Ideas) Daniel Treacy is no longer alone and drowns his sorrows in a one-to-one relationship which lights up his world. Few songs describe so well the ups and downs of love as This Heart’s Not Made Of Stone, and even less dwell on the loved one’s face with such attention and ability for amazement as You’re Younger Than You Know. This lofty, contemplative and luminous song is perhaps the greatest on the album. It’s a masterpiece of balance and delicacy in which the poetic images skillfully succeed each other, mixing naivety and sincerity as if it were a poem by John Keats.
“You’re looking younger now Younger than the newest star That shines up in the sky Younger than the newest dream Baby dreamt last night”.
It’s hard to tell if the narrator is describing the face of the girl he loves, or if he’s talking rather of the effect of love on his own features. However that may be, You’re Younger Than You Know leaves an impression of plenitude and fulfilment.
Closer To God ends with an autobiographical and existentialist eleven-minute-long title of the same name. Treacy comes back to his complicated relationship with the Catholic religion: his strict upbringing, a mixture of violence (at school and probably at home), of guilt and rejection. We know that his father was not a gentle soul and that life in the Treacy household was not always easy. We’ve already mentioned the nostalgic, but ambiguous relations that the singer had with his childhood. They are expressed here in a song carried by bass player Jowe Head, which is not entirely anti-religious, far from it, but transfers the issues of distress and depression into the realm of existentialism and the relationship with God. Maybe Treacy’s career can be interpreted as an attempt to evince a form of original sin, to defile himself and sink to the bottom in order, like the born again, to rise back to the surface. The song suggests as much, but you can’t be certain whether it’s not all an attempt at theatrics. Closer To God, by its length, its intensity and its ambition, seems to be the spiritual and equally disturbed counterpart of Back To Vietnam. Despite the scope of its dramatic impulse, this final song would rarely be singled out as one of the band’s best achievements.
With the release of two such important albums in less than three years and intermediate singles of this quality, at the end of 1992 the lukewarm reception makes things abundantly obvious: The Television Personalities are very unlikely to avoid their fate. British pop is at its lowest ebb. The American invasion is under way and despite favourable critics and reasonable sales, the band’s revival turns out to be a partial failure for Treacy and Fire Records. That doesn’t stop the trio from finally crossing the Atlantic for two successive American tours in 1992 and 1993, and going on tour in Japan the following year. But nobody is deceived by the band’s progress which has all the trappings of a breakthrough which only exists on paper.
Things are starting to fall apart. Daniel Treacy manages to keep afloat thanks to the efforts of Alison Withers, one of the most important women in his life. Lover, best friend and colleague, Alison displays infinite comprehension. Daniel and Alison met up at the very end of the 80’s. The young woman figures on tambourine in a single released in 1987 by a friend of hers, Jerry Thackray, a.k.a. The Legend! She moves in the same circles as Treacy and meets the singer several times at the heights of his splendour. The two meet up one evening in November 1988 during a concert by the Spacemen 3. Daniel has come with Ed Ball. Alison is there with a girlfriend. Like a teenager, she sends her friend like a scout to ask Daniel if he would like to talk to her. Daniel stammers a yes and away you go.
At the time, Alison works in a library in Kensington, not far from Treacy’s parents’ home which is now perched over a Council depot in a block of flats wonderfully named “Sky Gardens”. Daniel had come back there to live after separating from Emilee and having spent several months of homelessness taking drugs and screwing up his head. Since then, he has sorted himself out a bit, surrounded by his family, even if he is still quite unstable. Alison also lives with her parents near Croxley Green, twenty miles or so from the centre of London.
Alison is young, knowledgeable, pretty too. She is free and lots of boys run after her. Daniel Treacy falls in love. And things continue, things go better than well. He comes to fetch her after work and presents her to his parents. His father greets her with a smile. His mother is more wary. Alison was to get on wonderfully with Daniel’s elder sister Patricia, who she still sees even now. In the evening, his mother makes up two separate beds for Daniel and Alison who wait until everyone is asleep before getting together like two secretive children. On Sundays, Daniel is sometimes invited by Alison’s parents to share in the traditional family roast beef. He’s not quite the ideal son-in-law, but he’s on his best behaviour. He talks amiably and impresses them with his pleasant attitude. He spends hours chatting about this and that with Alison’s mother. He has an evident taste for commonplace, everyday things, as if this normality at his fingertips is what he’s always aspired to. A family, a quiet little life, maybe some kids: among the 1001 lives on which Daniel Treacy fantasises, this one has always hovered around him without ever managing to draw him in.
In the summer of 1989, they move into a three-room flat near Acton Town in West London. It’s an old block, built in the 30’s. They do some refurbishing, such as painting the entrance hall black and white. They have come into some of Alison’s grandmother’s furniture, as she has just died. Daniel begins to relax a bit. His drug habit is reduced to a few doses of speed on days when there’s a concert. One day, Daniel comes across a strange bag forgotten on a tube train. Inside is the equivalent of three thousand dollars and five American passports in exotic names, two pairs of binoculars and a very expensive camera. From what he would relate later, the bag was just there at his side. It’s not theft. The bag was calling for help. Daniel takes it and gets off the tube while it’s coming to a halt. Officials arrive and seem to search the carriages and inspect the platform. Daniel makes off. Opportunity makes a thief. The money soon disappears. It slips between his fingers like a fistful of sand. But there’s still the camera, and it determines Alison’s career. Librarian and photographer from now on. The young woman takes her inspiration from pop art, does photos and collages. She goes to night-school. Like Emilee Watson before her, Alison becomes the graphic artist for the Television Personalities. Daniel encourages her with a sincere fervour. He encourages her to take the plunge and enrol at the School of Photography near Paddington, after leaving her job at the library. Alison lacks confidence, but her work gets better and better.
Alison excels at portraits of her boyfriend, group portraits and background shots. How many sofas, pale walls, pseudo landscapes, held up behind the tour bus, peanuts and aperitif tables? Pullovers, jackets, bonnets, whatever you like. Her approach is both distant and eager to grasp everything that is sensitive in humanity, in a corporal pose or the flash of a look. It’s not an insult to other photographers to say that Alison “Wonderland” Withers is the photographer who has best captured what there was of poetic, beautiful and sometimes sadly dark, in Daniel Treacy’s features. You only need to look at the dozens of photos scattered about on the Net to realise it: she created the mystery just as much as she was to reveal it during the seven or eight years over which they shared everything. For the band’s record sleeves, Daniel often gives the impetus, the initial idea. Alison develops and exploits it. One of their greatest successes is the collage made for the jacket of the single Salvador Dali’s Garden Party, which they compose lying on the floor of their flat while their cat Madonna rolls itself in the photocopies. Daniel never stops praising the “little works of art” produced by his girlfriend, which he would immortalise in the song of the same name.
There had been Emilee Watson and the flat at Poynders Court. From now on it would be Alison and Daniel, caught up in the eternity of these seven years from 1988 to the middle 90’s.
The chronology wavers between the fits of depression, the moments of stability and the air-pockets. It comes in seven-year cycles. Such is the curse. At the ages of 14, 21, 28 and 35. The next one would be devastating, but there’s still some time for happiness and love between the couple. Love is a breath of fresh air. You take refuge in your own little world. Failure is knocking at the door and addiction lurks under the carpet. The flat is a nest, an oasis, small, comfy, held together by the colours, the dreams, the piles of books, drawings and music. The main room is a workshop, based on the inevitable sofa seen on dozens and dozens of photos, on the kitchen table, which doubles as a desk, a workbench for cutting out and preparing the material, a place where they sit and work or just daydream.
Daniel and Alison would keep cats, two most of the time, called Madonna, Andy Warhol or, later on, Orangina. Sometimes their contribution is acknowledged on the record sleeves. Daniel plays the guitar, thinks up songs and writes. He writes texts which gather dust in shoe boxes, poems, dozens of pleasant little notes, short and lively like haikus. He sketches out of happiness. He plays records, reads books. Together, Alison and Daniel watch old British or foreign films, on VHS cassettes bought at the supermarket or second-hand, mainstream programmes or series on TV. They cook with Keith Floyd, the celebrity presenter at the time and gorge themselves on children’s programmes and sitcoms. The Brittas Empire is one of their favourite shows. The series relates the life of an incompetent manager. His ideas are mostly halfbaked and his life is boring. His wife has affairs, or swallows pills to keep her head above water. Gordon Brittas’s deputy suffers from allergies. The receptionist is nuts and keeps her children in the drawers of the reception desk. The series is spectacular and wacky, absurd and slightly cynical. The Brittases are everything which Alison and Daniel will never be. Most of the time, Alison calls Daniel Treacy Mister Brittas. They like the humour of comedian Vic Reeves and his show Big Night Out, which alternates silly sketches and more serious items.
They play board games, frequently matching themselves at Mastermind. Daniel is clever at working out the combinations. He has kept the logical agility of his youth. Black and white key pegs for yellow, green and blue code pegs. There is a complexity and at the same time an inevitability in the trial-and-error approach and in the deduction which makes you think that one day, life will be as simple as the game. You just have to eliminate all the possibilities and have a bit of luck. Mastermind is an allegory of life: you make of it what you can. You reach your goal in one or two guesses, or miss your objective by a move or two. Everything comes down to that: getting there too soon or too late.
Daniel is the sort of guy who never arrives on time. It’s best not to expect him at a rendezvous. Alison and Daniel nevertheless fix thousands of them. She starts by waiting. Then she gets into the habit of guessing when he’ll arrive. She deliberately turns up late. It’s their little unconscious game. It’s obviously much easier to go out together and to leave at the same time so as to be sure of not missing each other.
The two of them go out a lot. There are concerts, of course, usually two or three a week. Alison and Daniel go to the Camden Falcon or the West Hampstead Club, the Laurel Tree or the Boston Arms, pubs and clubs which they frequent. They like to discover new bands and keep in tune with the vibrations of the audience when they first hear an up-and-coming band more talented than the others. Daniel would never lose this curiosity. After the concerts, they often finish the evening, although not systematically, with a few jars down at the pub. Daniel and Alison aren’t keen on parties and are more inclined to spend quiet evenings at a restaurant or in a bar, rather than haunt the night clubs. They have their good addresses: the Stockpot, the Brompton Troubadour, the New Piccadilly or the Honey For The Bears (one of the Television Personalities’ titles) in Acton. Their flat is at 37 East Vale on Second Avenue. They live there for two years before moving to Cambridge Court on Amhurst Road near Finsbury Park in the autumn of 1991. They eat Indian food, good or bad curry, or Mexican dishes in restaurants in Camden or Soho. In London you’re spoiled for choice. Daniel and Alison walk all day long when they are alone together. They like romantic strolls, psycho-geographical walks where you discover the hidden treasures of the town. They linger around in Ravenscroft Park, in cemeteries like Brompton or Old Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx and George Eliot are buried. They follow the banks of the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge and explore the East-End back streets between Whitechapel and Liverpool Street.
Daniel and Alison are real townies. Hand in hand, they scour the record shops, flea-markets and charity sales. They know the markets well, and rarely go out without coming across people they know. They never miss a pop-art exhibition and go to the La Scala cinema. Swinging London belongs to the past, but London still vibrates to the rhythm of pop and culture. Their world is full of friends and relations who work in the sphere of the press, music, art: failed intellectuals, booksellers, former or future members of the band. There’s Jowe Head of course, but also Ed Ball who is never far away. Alison avoids certain Television Personalities’ fans who gravitate around Daniel and share bad habits with him. Over time, Daniel has become used to not being successful, and to his position as an outsider, revered by “those in the know”. He can see the admiration in their eyes and takes a certain pride in it, which more often than not, he drowns in self-depreciation and alcohol. Between 1988 and 1995, Alison and Daniel’s life is more a romantic than a bohemian one. Money is short, but the couple live modestly and feed on culture. When they’re not going out, they eat a TV dinner off a tray. Daniel is now a vegetarian. He likes to joke and make love in the afternoon. He’s a shy man but he explores his lover’s body with the same serious attention as when he plays the guitar. Daniel is an intelligent man. He likes to stay in the background and do things discreetly, which is obviously a far cry from his exposed position as a singer. But his opinions are sound and often biting. He has a lively political awareness. He likes to support his friends, is generous and a brilliant imitator of singers or public figures.
In the strange life-cycle of the Television Personalities, everything isn’t hunky-dory in those years. The songs bear witness to the presence of spectres, of shadows that take possession of the singer and cloud his mind. But the darkness has ebbed, and love keeps it at bay. Alison and Daniel’s flat is like a sanctuary, a bulwark against doubt and evil. The exclusive relationship which he has with the young woman is what keeps him whole, keeps him together, prevents him from sinking and giving in to his self-destructive bent.
If someone loves you, it means that you are loveable, whatever you may think. We are all what others see in us. You don’t need to be a great philosopher to know that. Life is good, but not for long. These eight romantic years would be a storehouse of happy images, of memories and regrets for the years to come.
When I think of royal families, I think of the queens of pop Debsey Wykes, Sarah Cracknell and their partners, Paul and Martin Kelly (from East Village, Heavenly Recordings, Heavenly Films, Birdie). In addition to making excellent music in Birdie and East Village, Paul Kelly has been the ultimate branding wizard (who would probably cringe at the word branding) for Saint Etienne, photographer, graphic designer, pub mate and collaborator on such films as Take Three Girls,Finisterre (with Kieran Evans), What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005), This Is Tomorrow (2007), Lawrence of Belgravia (2011), and How We Used To Live (2013). We interviewed him about music, film, photography, flying, London and all kinds of other stuff. Interview by Gail O’Hara * Images courtesy Paul Kelly
Chickfactor: Let’s talk about Princes Risborough. Is that where you grew up? What was it like? Paul Kelly: Princes Risborough is a very small old fashioned market town that sits midway between High Wycombe and Aylesbury about 40 miles west of London. In the late seventies this was a good place to live if you were into music. Due to its close proximity to London a lot of well known bands would use the local venues as warm up shows or add-ons to national tours. Aylesbury had a venue called Friars which, in the late ’60s and early seventies had hosted groups including the Velvet Underground, MC5, Can, Mott the Hoople and Bowie and in the wake of punk was now putting on The Jam, The Clash and Dexys etc. High Wycombe had The Town Hall, The Nags Head and Bucks College where the Sex Pistols played one of their early shows. From our village just outside Princes Risborough, we could get the bus or train into Wycombe or a lift in my sister’s car to Friars. Between these venues we had at least 4 gigs a week and my sisters could usually blag us into most of them, it was a really exciting time. Punk was a big deal in Wycombe and the big local band were called the Xtraverts. They would play Wycombe Town Hall (about 800 people) on a regular basis and reportedly turned down the chance to sign a major record deal. Although there was a healthy music scene in the area, it never really created any bands that would go on to make it outside the area. By the time we managed to get our band together the musical landscape was very different and High Wycombe had fallen off the map tour wise. I think there had been some trouble at an Adam and the Ants gig at the Town Hall which had led to a ban on live music there and the Nags Head had become more of a blues venue. Anyway, by the mid ’80s we weren’t really interested in hanging around any more, we wanted to be in London. We did a few local gigs there but no one was really interested in us and the place felt out of touch as far as we were concerned. I remember going along to see Pere Ubu in ’78 or ’79 at the Town Hall and there were only about 20 people in the audience, it was a Sunday and there was heavy snow blocking the roads. Even so, I had never seen the hall so empty. Pere Ubu were all over the music papers at the time but High Wycombe clearly wasn’t interested. It was odd like that, strange place.
Was your family musical or creative? How many siblings were/are you? I have four siblings, three sisters and a brother (Martin) and we were all encouraged to draw and be creative, art was important in our family. I think our parents realised early on that none of us were particularly academic. My father had been a fine art student with a dream of becoming a painter, but that would have been the early 1950s and after leaving art school he was called up for National Service where he ended up becoming a pilot flying jet fighters. He loved flying but hated military life and as soon as his air force career ended and he became a civilian again, he kind of rebelled. He began wearing frilly purple shirts with orange corduroy flares and cowboy boots. This was by now the late sixties and I guess he knew he’d missed a massive cultural revolution and wanted to catch up. He painted the walls of our house orange and covered them with giant collages using pictures from Sunday supplements. Much to our embarrassment he also put up a massive landscape poster of a naked hippy chick covered only in psychedelic body paint on the wall above his and our mum’s bed. He did take up portrait painting for a while after leaving the Royal Air Force but couldn’t make a decent living from it and soon returned to flying. We all left school able to draw reasonably well but with terrible exam grades. Two of my sisters went on to art college and the eldest, Celeste, is still a painter today. I was into aeroplanes as a kid and really wanted to become a pilot. I did learn to fly and even went on to get a pilots licence but my interest in guitars and music eventually took precedence.
What was Martin like as a kid/teen? Stories please. Martin is three years younger than me and I suppose he looked up to me when we were children. Our dad was away a lot and being the only boys in a predominantly female household meant that we hung out together quite a lot. We would often play war games and Martin would usually take on the role of the German soldier, this was his choice as he preferred the uniform but also meant that my friends and I could justify his mistreatment. We had some large upturned shipping crates in our back garden and one day, my friend and I decided to turn these into a German tank. Having stacked the smaller crate on top to form a turret we stuffed the bottom one with crunched up balls of newspaper. My friend Mark and I then persuaded Martin to crawl inside telling him that he could be the tank commander facing an attack by the British, whereupon we threw in a match and set the whole thing on fire. Luckily my mother saw the billowing smoke and came out to see what was going on. ¶ On his first day at the middle school which I had already been attending for a couple of years, he came running up to me in the hall to say hello. I was with my friends and trying to remain cool pretended not to know him. Although we were very close at home, I treated him more like a pest when I was with my friends. He always wanted to join in and in retrospect I think I was probably quite cruel to him.
What were you like as teenagers? We were quite small and skinny as teenagers and would often get into fights with other kids. This was probably because we looked like an easy target and so people would take us on, but having had a lot of practice fighting each other, we were quite used to scrapping and I think it took people by surprise when we fought back. High Wycombe could be quite rough on a Saturday night and you really needed your wits about you in those days. There was a strong skinhead presence in the town that has been somewhat glamourised by Gavin Watson in his ’Skins’ photography books. Many of the people we came across however were just racist thugs and I remember Martin being lured out of a pub and getting a severe kicking by about 20 skinheads for no reason at all. I’ve still got a scar on my face after having a beer glass thrown at me by one of their gang. I think that threat of violence and small town mentality is something that helped push us away and towards London. By the ’80s we became more obsessed with all things ’60s and although there was also a strong Mod scene in the town we were more on a psyche mid ’60s tip.
Tell us about the early days of Episode Four/East Village. What kind of band were you wanting to be like? Listening to? In the early 1980s Martin and I used to come into London most weekends to check out the music shops in Denmark Street. We couldn’t afford to buy any guitars but would spend hours studying them. We would also pop along to the secondhand record shops in Hanway Street—again mainly just window shopping. Although we weren’t mods, we must have looked like we were and one of the people who we used to chat to in Hanway Street was Shane McGowan. He had a cockney accent in those days and was always suggesting records he thought we might like. He got us into The Pretty Things, The Action, The (British) Birds and groups like that. So when we started our band, we were mainly playing ‘60s garage and psych covers. We would play obscure songs and pretend they were our own. We had three tracks from The Eyes EP in our set for a while and would tell everyone that we had written them. One day when we were hanging out in Shane’s shop Rock On, he asked if we wanted to come along and watch his new band that night. It meant hanging around all day without any money and so we wandered around until evening before heading along to Gossips in Meard Street to witness what turned out to be one of the first Pogues gigs. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all and I don’t think we thought much of them to be honest. We did however meet Alan McGee that night and I bought a copy of his fanzine CommunicationBlur for 50p. He said “it’s got lots of Rickenbacker guitars in it so you’ll love it!” He also asked us to send a demo of our band as he had a new label that he had started called Creation but unfortunately we never did. Funnily enough—despite it being a fairly empty gig—I’ve later come to know several people who were also there that night including Debsey who was at the time going out with the accordion player from the Pogue Mahone.
What was the total lifespan of the band? Where were you playing shows? Who with? Any John Peel or other interest? We began as Episode Four in 1983 and after a few personnel changes became East Village by 1986 or ’87 eventually splitting up in 1991. Apart from a handful of local gigs in High Wycombe, our early shows as Episode Four were at places like the Clarendon in Hammersmith. We were on the fringes of the garage scene at first along with groups like the Milkshakes and Prisoners playing with mod bands like Small World. It was only when we met Jeff Barrett and signed to Head Records which then became Sub Aqua that we really started to become a part of that mid ’80s indie scene. We had already been playing with bands like McCarthy and the Wolfhounds and would follow bands like Primal Scream and Orange Juice before that but Jeff was really at the heart of that scene and opened a lot of doors for us. He had been tour manager for the Jesus and Mary Chain and worked at Creation. He had also become the promoter of Subterania which was a key venue in west London along with The Black Horse in Camden and then The Falcon where we played a lot. We toured a fair bit with McCarthy and the House of Love and picked up a bit of a following of our own. When Jeff started Heavenly in 1990 we found ourselves on the hippest label in London with Saint Etienne, Flowered Up and the Manic Street Preachers. Although we were beginning to sell records and play bigger shows, those bands were NME cover stars and were actually getting on TV and had records in the charts so it felt like we were falling behind. Our last gig was at the New Cross Venue in south London, It was probably our biggest headline to date, and from the outside things were looking up but it felt like we were losing ground to everyone else and when we walked off stage, we just looked at each other and said ‘fuck this, let’s quit’. It was a bit of a relief to be honest. We were doing the Big Star, Byrds type thing at a time everyone was tripping out to Screamadelica and so we felt very out of step. Things might have been okay if we’d kept going as things swung back to that West Coast influence with groups like Teenage Fanclub becoming popular a couple of years later.
East Village was very un-’80s. Was that intentional? At the time, I felt the ’80s was the worst decade I could have possibly grown up in. That’s obviously not true as we weren’t at war or living through a thirties style depression but it really seemed like everything good had already happened. We had been so obsessed with the sixties and punk had been and gone so everything felt flat. We just didn’t want anything to do with what was going on in the charts and lived in our own little bubble. We would reject anything mainstream or popular which looking back was stupid. When the Stone Roses came along they embraced success and being in the spotlight which is what gave them that great sense of confidence. It made the indie scene feel introspective and defeatist. I find the ‘80s fascinating looking back, I wish I had just embraced being young a lot more than I did. When the ’90s came along things instantly seemed to pick up, we were open to different types of music including dance music and all our friends started having hit records, it just felt so exciting.
You ended up meeting Bob when he saw you play. In what capacity did you play music with Saint Etienne? Is that when you met Debsey? It was at one of our gigs with McCarthy at Portlands in central London that we met Bob. I think he had gone along to review the gig for Melody Maker or something and only caught us by chance. He came over after we had played and asked if we would like to do a flexi single for his fanzine. We arranged to meet him a few days later and have been friends ever since. A few years later we were on a tube train together heading back from a night out when he said, ‘Do you want to hear this song Pete and I have just recorded?’ Although he had an electric guitar in his flat, I had never seen him pick it up and had no idea he had any interest in making music, so it was a complete surprise. I listened on his walkman to ‘Kiss and Make Up’ and couldn’t believe how good it was. We had been plugging away with our band for years and then he and Pete had struck gold at their first attempt! I can’t remember if ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart’ was on the same tape but I’m pretty sure I heard ‘Kiss and Make Up’ first. The early Saint Etienne gigs were basically PAs where they would play about four songs to tape with a different singer for each song. They were quite awkward and I think they must have realised that they needed to settle on one singer. East Village played a couple of gigs with Saint Etienne when they had Stephanie singing. We all travelled together in a mini bus to Paris for a Heavenly Records showcase in 1991 and someone stuck on a tape of ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, I hadn’t heard the song before and I said ‘Wow, Steph, that’s amazing!’ she explained sheepishly that it wasn’t her singing and that was the first time I became aware of Sarah. I felt very sorry for Steph as it was clear her days in the band were numbered but I think getting Sarah in was key to the band’s success. When we arrived in Paris, the first thing we all did was drop off our bags at the hotel and hit the town. I remember knocking on the door of the Manics room on the way out and when I walked in they were all lying in their bunks reading Rimbaud and Nietzsche. They had never been abroad before, but I imagine they felt it would be far too crass to go out and get smashed, they were really sweet guys and we got on well but they had a manifesto to uphold. I think James would have secretly liked to have come along with us though. ¶ By the time I was drafted into the live Saint Etienne set up in 1992 Sarah was already established as the lead singer and the band had two albums out. They were looking to expand the live band and as East Village had by then split up, they asked Spencer (East Village drummer) and me to join. Debsey joined the live set up in December ’92 just in time for a Christmas gig in Victoria. Bob and Pete had been fans of Dolly Mixture and tracked her down to record a single for their own label IceRink. The single was to be a cover of the Candlewick Green song ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ but having recorded it with Debsey they realised it could be a hit and re-recorded it as a duet with Sarah and so it came out as a Saint Etienne single instead – and that’s how I first met Debsey, at a Saint Etienne rehearsal in Leighton Place, Kentish Town. When the band stopped touring at the end of 1994 we got together formed our own band Birdie.
Speaking of Debsey, what’s it like being married to one of the best singers on Earth? We haven’t actually got married yet although we’ve been together for nearly thirty years and our kids have grown up, one has even left home. We keep meaning to get around to it though and I’ll definitely let you know when we do so that you can book your flight.
Also: Will the Dolly Mixture film ever be available widely for all to see? I know I say this every year but I really want to get it out early next year. The hold-up has been obtaining clearances for BBC footage as well as for some of the photographs. We just don’t have any kind of budget so it’s been really slow progress but I’m going to make it happen for sure. We are also planning a photo scrapbook and several record re-issues so there should be quite a lot going on over the next few months.
Tell us a bit about how you got rolling into being the house videographer, photographer, filmmaker and designer for Saint Etienne? (Have I got that right?) By 1993 Saint Etienne had done a couple of big budget promo videos in the US and Japan with large film crews—teams of runners and makeup artists etc, and just wanted to get back to doing something simple again. I was having a drink with Bob one evening and he said, ‘Hey Paul, you’ve got a Super 8 camera, will you make a video for us?” The song they had lined up as the next single was ‘Avenue’ and so of course I jumped at it. I’d helped out making a couple of the East Village videos which we had shot on Super 8 and so I knew a bit about making promos but it was through Sarah that I met an editor called Mikey Tomkins who she suggested I ask to help me out. We ended up doing a few more videos together although every time the budget was half decent, Creation would get in a professional, I always did the cheap ones! Mikey actually went on to work quite a lot with Stereolab and was quite into the UK riot grrrl scene. ¶ Bob and I used to joke that you could probably make a feature length film with the amount of money being ploughed into some videos at that time and eventually that’s exactly what we did. We all met at Pete’s flat in Islington one day and watched Patrick Kieller’s film ‘London’. Bob said ‘Look, we’ve got a new album coming out and the label want three videos, why don’t we just take the money from all three and make a film with the album as the soundtrack’ That was how Finisterre came about. ¶ When East Village split up I had begun to get back into photography and would do the odd session for bands that I knew. I always had a camera with me in those days and most of the photo shoots I did with Saint Etienne would be impromptu. Once we were midway through a European tour in 1994 and Martin (who was by then managing the band) called one morning from England saying we need some new pictures can you do a quick session with the band while you’re in Switzerland? It was an early start after having played a gig the night before and we all had awful hangovers. I shot a few pictures and then got on the bus to the next show. I sent the film reel back to the UK and didn’t think any more about it until about a month later one of the images turned up on a US single sleeve, Sarah looked great but Bob and Pete looked a bit knackered. That was often how my sessions would come about, very last minute and no makeup budget. ¶ After I finished playing with Saint Etienne, I started a small design and photography business called Phantom with Steve Rowland who had been one of the merchandise guys on the Etienne tours. I had already done a fair bit of paste up design and artwork but he taught me how to use Apple Mac computers and so I began doing a bit of graphic design alongside the film and photography work. I learnt how to edit by watching Mikey.
What are some experiences you had touring / working with them? Inside dirt? They’ve been a band now for 30+ years: What is their secret of longevity? Touring with Saint Etienne was absolutely fantastic, it was great fun and quite hedonistic. I think people who encountered us were often quite shocked. I feel sorry for anyone who had to share a flight with us back then. At its peak the touring party consisted of about 16 people and we would all be smoking and drinking and causing all sorts of mayhem, it was more like a rock band on tour and probably didn’t fit people’s pre-conceived image of Saint Etienne. I think things reached a tipping point towards the end of 1994 which is probably why the band took a break and sacked most of the backing band and crew. We were playing Hultsfred Festival in Sweden and all of the acts were being transported by shuttle bus from the hotel to the festival site. There were several bands sharing the bus on the outward journey to the festival site, including Keith Flint and the Prodigy who specifically requested not to be put in the same bus with us on the way back. On the return trip Spencer and a couple of the crew decided to climb up through a skylight at the back of the bus, crawl along the roof and back down through the front skylight. This was while the bus was travelling at about 60mph along a motorway at night. News of their antics spread and it became a talking point back at the hotel. Oasis who were also on the bill, appropriated the story which made the national newspapers back in the UK complete with an artists impression of Liam bus surfing. Everyone generally got on really well and Pete was absolutely hilarious. During gigs he would often give up any attempt to play his keyboard about three songs in and start dancing around the stage. For a while we had a life-size cardboard cutout of Jamiroquai that would be placed at the side of the stage. We were convinced he’d stolen our Melodica from the practice rooms we shared back in London. Pete would generally end up dancing around with this thing until the last night of the tour when he just started kicking it to pieces. Soon afterwards we saw a picture of Björk (who had also shared the same rehearsal rooms) in the NME playing what looked very much like our missing Melodica! I think the fact that Saint Etienne have never had massive success has allowed them to make exactly the kind of records they want to make. This means they are always fresh and not afraid to experiment. If they had had really big hits at the start it could have been a very different story. They came along just ahead of the Britpop thing and were able to sit outside of that whole scene which means they’re not stuck with that label either.
The films you’ve made together with them reflect a deep love of London and they show a desire to endlessly document the city as well. What year did you move to London and how has it changed since then, for better and worse? I guess we were drawn together in part by having a similar aesthetic which had come out of growing up watching the same films and television programmes as each other. We shared a lot of reference points and would spend hours discussing things from our childhood and how it would be great to recreate aspects of the things we love. We also watched a lot of films and old recordings of TV shows on the tour bus and so we got to discover things together. ¶ I had first moved to London in 1980 with my eldest sister. We shared a flat together in Wood Green and signed on the dole. I think she was trying to get into Camberwell art college or something as we spent a lot of time down there in the Student Union bar. She was friends with the actor Tim Roth who was just starting out on his career. No one had any money but we seemed to be there a lot. The first time I went to the Job Centre in London, I was asked what my interests were and when I said art and music they said, ‘Ah, we have a job available as trainee record sleeve designer.’ I went for the interview and got a job with a company called Hills-Archer as a trainee graphic designer working on record sleeves, this was in the days when there was really high unemployment in England and jobs like this were impossible to find, it was such a stroke of luck. We eventually had to move out of the flat and I stupidly gave up the job and went back on the dole. I moved back to London again in 1984 with my girlfriend at the time, she was at North London Polytechnic and we lived in a variety of horrible little studio flats. London seemed really expensive back then but at least you could get somewhere to live even if it was a squat, I don’t know how anyone could afford to move here now without rich parents. I think London was far more accessible then, it was a thing young people could do, even if they were on the dole as most bands or anyone looking for some kind of alternative life usually were.
If you were in charge of your country’s political power right now, what would you do immediately? House prices in this country are ridiculous, which in turn creates unaffordable rents. I think it’s the single biggest issue as it effects every other aspect of life in the UK. ¶ I would impose rent caps, heavily tax second homes and introduce basic universal income. I would also make MPs personally accountable and liable for their actions and lies. ¶ The Royal Family should be abolished and their estate—about 1.5% of land in Britain given back to the country. The only argument anyone seems to put forward to justify their existence is based around tourism! I’m sure far more people come to Britain because of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols.
I was lucky to live in London during what seemed like a golden age of Paul Kelly and Saint Etienne events—fun stuff at the Barbican and your residency at the South Bank. Is there a sense now that the city will return to in-person events post-pandemic? Are we post-pandemic? We aren’t in this country. I imagine the pandemic has only just reached some places and so its effect will probably go on for years. Things do seem to be returning to some kind of normality here in London at least, people are desperate to go out again and see eachother. ¶ I do think the nineties and early 2000s felt very optimistic in the UK, especially in London. It definitely changed after the financial crash in 2008 and I remember going for a drink with a friend just before Christmas in 2011 and we were reflecting on what felt like a really depressing year. We didn’t realise then the horror that lay ahead with Brexit, Trump and Covid. Years of Tory austerity and division has left this country paranoid and vulnerable. It’s really sad to say but I think you did see a real golden period while you were here and that has pretty well disappeared. I really hope it does pick up but while we have such a powerful right wing press and people are being brainwashed and keep voting Conservative I can’t see things changing very soon.
You mentioned in an interview in 2014 that you no longer were able to photograph London with fresh eyes: Do you still take your camera out these days? Or is it more just occasional smartphone camera use? Was just thinking about this earlier today. I find it really difficult to photograph anything these days. Everyone is documenting every aspect of their lives these days. It’s difficult to trust anything you see. ¶ Yes, I don’t really know why that is. Maybe it’s just the volume of images being created now. We are bombarded with film and photography these days and it’s difficult to be enthused or believe what you are looking at sometimes. I used to shoot every day but now I rarely ever take a picture. Like most people these days I tend to use my phone. I do film stuff for work but not really for myself anymore which is a shame as I used to get so much out of it. I hope it’s not just because I’m getting older. I do love scanning old negatives and finding stuff that way but it’s not really creating anything new. My son has just started at a sixth form film school and I think young people have a very different relationship with photography. They have grown up with CGI and photoshop and I don’t think they worry too much about authenticity and maybe that’s good thing. Often, when I visit another city or somewhere I haven’t been before I get that sense of awe and I’m sure it is easier to be inspired by somewhere you are not familiar with. I do still love London and I don’t think you can ever really see enough of the place.
What are some of your favorite books and films and songs about London? Well, I have to include our mutual friends Travis Elborough and Sukhdev Sandhu here who have both written some wonderful books about London that have shaped the way I view the city myself. ¶ One book which is not strictly about London but urban life is Soft City written in 1974 by Jonathan Raban. It still feels incredibly relevant and reminds you that the experience of living in a city is a universal experience. Travis told me once that he re reads it every time he starts a new book. Nairn’s London is essential along with Soho Night & Day by Frank Norman and Jeffrey Bernard. ¶ Musically the Beatles represent London more than anyone else to me. I know a lot of people will disagree but all of their records are recorded here and most of the record sleeves are shot in London. ¶ Rubber Soul sounds like London to me. Also the Kinks of course.
What is missing from London now that you feel it used to have? Most of the pubs seem to have been turned into wine bars or restaurants. ¶ It feels like the very people we would go into pubs to avoid in the 1980s now run them.
What are your favorite parks, pubs, public spaces? Favorite place to get takeaway? I’m practically a vegan now and I’m not really bothered about eating out or restaurants to be honest, although Debsey and I do occasionally go along to Indian Veg on Chapel Market which is still hanging on here in Islington (mainly because it’s cheap but the food is good). Our local pub is the Betsey Trotwood which is run by our great friend Raz. We actually played there as Birdie on a Track and Field night before Raz became the landlord and Patrick who now plays in Birdie is the bar manager. It’s a wonderful pub and something of a cultural hotspot for London as a whole. When Debsey and I were first together we spent a lot of time hanging around the South Bank, including the BFI, National Theatre and especially the Royal Festival Hall, not always for concerts but just to hang out in the foyer. It used to be quite empty during the day and had a wonderful gentle atmosphere, it’s much busier these days as the South Bank has opened up with the Tate Modern etc and we don’t get down there so much anymore. Those large free empty public spaces can be very special though.
Nerd alert: What camera(s) do you have and what films do you prefer? Who are some photographers you most admire? For film work it’s pretty well all digital now and I have a Sony A7s. Unless I’m working on a decent budget I’ll just use that. I haven’t upgraded that camera for ages and I’m not really sure what people are using these days. If I’m taking still pictures for a job, people tend to expect a really fast turnaround and there is no budget for film and processing these days so I just use an old Canon 5D, very basic but does the job. However, I still have a Nikon FE2 and a Pentax K1000 which is my favourite as it’s so easy to use and small. I still shoot Super 8 and have a couple of Braun Nizo cameras, but that’s as expensive as shooting on 16mm these days so I might try going back to that. One of my favourite photographers of all time is Fred Herzog. I love his beautiful colour street photography taken in Canada in the ’50s and ‘60s, amazing! I used to shoot a lot on Ektachrome colour slide film because I thought that had a similar look. Didn’t they stop making Ektachrome for a while, or did they change it somehow?
How did you get started in filmmaking? Seems like you’ve been involved with it from all angles (director, cinematographer, editor, producer, camera operator). Which parts of the process interest you the most? My dad was a keen photographer. He also shot a lot of 8mm movie film which fascinated me. I think my mum must have sensed my interest because she bought me a Kodak Super 8 camera when I was about 10 or something. As well as filming aeroplanes all the time I used to make action films with Martin as the stunt man, I still have a few and they are quite funny. I would edit in camera which meant everything had to be captured in the first take. There was a Children’s TV show in the UK called ‘Screen Test’ and they had a feature on film editing which inspired me to get a splicer and start chopping up my films. My middle sister Frances and I clubbed together to buy a Pentax 35mm camera in about 1979 and that was a revolution. I’m not sure why but we decided to buy black and white Ilford film and suddenly everything looked really professional. It’s funny she would shoot half of the film taking pictures of horses and other animals and I would shoot the other half, talking pictures of derelict cars and aeroplanes. I eventually bought my sister’s share in the camera for about £20 and became more serious about it. I was in a band by this time though and it wasn’t until we split up that I began to get work taking pictures and eventually making videos. I really wish I’d taken it along to gigs more. At the time I just wanted to enjoy the shows and the camera got in the way, also the film was really expensive.
How involved are you with Heavenly Films? Heavenly Films is basically my brother Martin, Travis Elborough and me. One project we are currently trying to finish is a film about Soho which we’ve been working on together for a couple of years but have had to take a break from during Covid. We also ran a monthly film club at Regent Street Cinema opposite BBC Broadcasting House which was great fun and very successful. We would always invite a guest speaker to talk with Travis after the screening and we had some great guests including the legendary masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki and Peter Blake among many others. That also took a break due to Covid but we should have it up and running again before too long.
You also made a film about Lawrence (from Felt): I remember attending a screening at the Curzon and he was supposed to turn up but he didn’t. Tell us about making that film: was it difficult to pin him down to get things shot? Please tell us some funny stories about Lawrence. Is he still making music? Are you friends? I think that was the only scheduled Q&A screening Lawrence didn’t turn up for. I later found out that he had seen the cinema programme in advance and thought that the price of a ticket for the screening and Q&A was £18.30 (about $23). He thought that was extortionate and didn’t want to face any of his fans who might be there as he felt they’d been ripped off by the cinema. The 18.30 in the programme actually referred to the time of the event though which was 6.30pm. I was annoyed at the time as I had to do the Q&A alone in front of a room who had almost all come along to hear Lawrence speak, but when I found out the reason I just thought it was really funny, classic Lawrence. I was actually with Lawrence yesterday, the British Film Institute have just released a Blu Ray edition of the film and we were doing some press together. He has quite a few projects on at the moment and is on great form. I get the feeling he only really tends to get in touch with me if he wants something or needs help but maybe we are all a bit like that really and he’s always good fun to hang out with.
What kind of impact has parenthood had on your creative process? What are the kids like? Do they like your music? Are they musical or photography buffs? Debsey and I had our first child just around the time we started making records as Birdie. It was quite a struggle juggling the band with childcare, especially for Debsey. I think Sadie our daughter saw the guitar as competition and would inevitably start crying as soon as either of us picked it up. Debs would have to hide away in another room to write on the piano whenever Sadie was asleep. It was really rare for us to be able to sit together and play as we had done when we first started. When recording we would take it in turns wheeling Sadie around in the pushchair through the streets of Walthamstow while the other person would work. She is now 25 and I don’t think she has ever actually listened willingly to one of our songs. I think she is quite embarrassed about our own musical endeavours. Occasionally however Debsey will pop up on a rerun of Top Of The Pops singing “Happy Talk” or “Wot” with Captain Sensible which she finds quite amusing. Our son Donovan has just started film school and is gradually accepting a few more of our music and film choices.
What song is stuck in your head? ‘If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’
I read somewhere you are a trained pilot and carpenter. Why? Bloody hell, how did you know that? The carpentry thing came about while I was on the dole. The Tories who were in power at the time came up with a scheme to hide the unemployment figures by pretending that everyone was actually in training. In order to continue receiving benefit you had to take on an apprenticeship. There were about five options, mainly building related and I chose carpentry. I had to juggle playing gigs and rehearsing at night with learning how to make a cut roof and staircase but I did end up with a City and Guilds certificate in carpentry and a free toolbox full of tools so it wasn’t all bad. The flying thing was something I had always loved since I was very small. I guess I wanted to be like my dad and so I started flying when I was 14 and went solo on my 17th birthday, I loved aeroplanes and flying but I couldn’t relate to that culture. There were a lot of people I really liked but the only career option was to join the military or become an airline pilot, neither of which appealed. I had discovered electric guitars and punk at around the same time and the pull was too great. As I get older I do feel drawn back to aeroplanes and I spend much of my spare time visiting old airfields and aircraft museums.
Have you thought about reforming East Village for a few shows? Did you get new fans with the Slumberland reissue? Are you still in touch with the other guys (apart from Martin of course)? Believe me, no one needs to witness an East Village reunion. I must admit I have played with Martin and Spencer fairly recently and it was great fun. It was as though we had never stopped, all very natural and instinctive. Having said that I can’t imagine doing live shows with East Village in front of an audience again. Maybe if there were no mobile phones and it could just exist in the moment I could enjoy it, but the idea that someone might document the event and post it on YouTube would be horrific. John now lives in China and I only see him once every couple of years. I’m not on Facebook but I think Martin and Spence speak with him a fair bit.
Will Birdie play at chickfactor 30? Yes
What films are in the works now? If you had all the time and money in the world, what dream projects would you make? Apart from the Soho film that I mentioned earlier, Martin and I have been working along with Stephen Pastel and Sam Knee of ‘A Scene In Between’ on an archive only project covering the UK ’80s independent music scene. Using archive only it’s a montage of Super 8 home movies, photographs and home video with audio interviews from bands, fanzine writers and journalists etc. who all grew up in that time starting with the Glasgow music scene in the late ’70s and ending up in 1989. ¶ When I was a kid, I had an old magazine with someone building a wooden kayak on the cover, I used to look at that picture for hours. I really like the idea of building a wooden boat in a beautiful old workshop. I’m not really interested in boats but I like the idea of building one.
Any other future plans? A photo book perhaps? Haha that’s what YOU should do, you have an amazing photo archive. ¶ I am thinking of putting together a book of my dad’s paintings and cartoons, just a small run to give to the family and maybe sell a few. They are so beautiful and should be seen by a wider audience. There’s also the Dolly Mixture photography book of course. Thanks, Paul!
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.
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.
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).
• THE PASTELS — The pop geniuses Stephen McRobbie, Katrina Mitchell & Co. came down from Glasgow to play at CF20 in London. We are thrilled to have them back.
• LOIS — Lois Maffeo is indie royalty from Olympia, Washington, where she has made many great albums for K Records.
• KICKING GIANT — Tae Won Yu & Rachel Carns formed this powerful union in New York via Olympia, WA, in 1989. This is their first-ever show in the UK. A double LP reissue of their early work, This Being the Ballad of Kicking Giant, Halo: NYC/Olympia 1989–1993, will come out on Drawing Room Records later this year.
• KITES AT NIGHT are Rose Melberg & Jon Manning (with Jen Sbragia on bass for this show), whose previous band was called Imaginary Pants. This is their first show in London.
• THE SOFTIES — Indiepop queens Rose Melberg & Jen Sbragia (from Vancouver BC & Portland OR, respectively) reunited for the chickfactor 20 shows in 2012 in NYC, Portland and SF. This is their first-ever show in London.
• STEVIE JACKSON is the amazing guitarist, singer and songwriter in Belle & Sebastian! He also happened to write a song named after our zine “chickfactor.”
• THE WOULD-BE-GOODS — Jessica Griffin, Peter Momtchiloff, Debbie Greensmith & Andy Warren are indie legends based in London & St Leonards.
• THE CATENARY WIRES — This super-duo formed in 2014 when Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey (ex-Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research, Tender Trap) moved out of London.
• Gaylord Fields is an excellent WFMU DJ, a music writer and a longtime MC for chickfactor events.
• The Hangover Lounge is a much-beloved event that happened for years at the Lexington, a label and a community that’s often collaborated with chickfactor before.
• chickfactor is a fanzine started by Pam Berry and Gail O’Hara in 1992. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, it will publish a new print zine in late 2017.
we first heard the clientele when they played a chickfactor/papercuts party in london in 1999 and were dazzled for life (we interviewed them in CF13, 2000). they continue to be one of our favorite bands, even if they’ve been less than prolific the past few years (we also love alasdair’s other band, amor de días, natch). we asked alasdair a few questions in advance of their first US show in 4 years (and first with this classic lineup in 9): we cannot wait to see them! the clientele plays at chickfactor 22 with versus, barbara manning and the saturday people on march 21 (night two of two) at the wonderful bell house in brooklyn. be there!
interview & polaroid by gail o’hara
what has the clientele been up to? are you back together for good or just a few shows?
I’ve been slowly and painfully writing a novel, and playing in amor de días. mark has moved into a canal boat and is tuning pianos. james has been growing chillis and playing bass for comet gain. ¶ last year I wrote a couple of songs that sounded more clientele than amor de días and it coincided with an offer for the old lineup to play a festival in denmark, which we decided to do for fun. then merge asked us to record a song or two for their 25th-anniversary 7″ singles club so we had a chance to record together again. that’s all so far.
why was it important to reissue suburban light?
again, it was merge’s decision, as part of their 25-year anniversary reissues series. I over-listened to that record when we mixed it the first time round and I got sick of the songs. james and I were talking about how frustrating that whole time was, we kept losing drummers and we wanted those songs to be on the radio but we were in a little studio trying to cut out the hiss on the tape by sliding the faders up and down. every sound engineer we met tried to make us sound like radiohead. ¶ coming back to it was really positive though—we unearthed a lot of stuff everyone had forgotten. It was weird being in a room and hearing our younger selves bantering on tape. I think the reissue does it justice, and it seems to be a lot of people’s favourite clientele record so hopefully it will be enjoyed.
how has your songwriting process changed since you were a teen?
I learnt that songs don’t need to be symmetrical—if one verse has four lines it’s okay for the second to have three. otherwise, not in any way!
how do you keep your guitar nails from chipping?
on tour you can’t keep them from chipping but once they do chip you can replace them with estee lauder press-ons and superglue. kurt wagner showed me when we toured with lambchop and since then both have become an essential piece of tour kit.
what records are you most excited about these days?
I really enjoyed gerard love’s lightships record. the new boards of canada is interesting. I’ve been catching up on old martin newell and cleaners from venus records and also listening to a lot of virginia astley.
what’s the best pub in london?
for me the pembury tavern in hackney central is OK. also the elderfield in clapton.
who is the comedian in the band?
we are all equally amusing.
what will you do in NYC when not playing?
have lunch at angelica kitchen.
best chickfactor party memory/story?
flying in to play one of the london chickfactor shows after a gig in berlin. we arrived backstage with several bottles of berentzen apfelkorn, which is a kind of schnapps which sends you completely bananas, god knows why we had picked them up but we did. we tried to get club 8 to drink it, a german guy personally interceded and warned them not to deal with us.