22 November 2008

Interview: Chris Walla, Death Cab For Cutie

(Interview by Laura Snapes and Mike Mantin, article by Laura Snapes)

“The only real conversation I had whilst on tour with Neil Young involved woodfired pizza, in Everett, Washington. It was a really nice day so they set up catering outside, and he came over. He had his mouth full, and goes, ‘Man! Fucking great pizza!’ and I said, ‘It is awesome isn’t it?’. ‘Fucking great!’ And that was about it!” laughs Chris Walla, on the afternoon of Death Cab For Cutie’s Colston Hall date.

It takes balls to open for a legendary musician whose career has spanned almost half a century, especially when you consider that to diehard Young crowds, you’re the enemy whose every minute on stage is a minute that you’re keeping them from seeing their idol. However, Young’s fans could do worse than to realise that their stories aren’t a million miles apart – following the success of Harvest in 1972, Neil Young and Crazy Horse almost imploded due to drummer Danny Whitten’s drug abuse and subsequent overdose. While Death Cab’s breakdown wasn’t nearly so fatal, it nearly spelled the end for the Seattle-based band.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time now, about 11 years. We almost self-destructed about six years ago because we couldn’t keep the balance right. We all learned after that series of experiences – we all decided explicitly, verbally and consciously that we just didn’t want to operate like that, and to make sure that everyone has the space they need. We’re all really good friends, but sometimes it takes having a total blowout to remind you of that.” Worries about his thin, reedy voice plagued Young for years, but it went on to become as much of his identity as DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard’s instantly recognisable intonation – later that evening, singing ‘Title and Registration’ (from 2003’s Transatlanticism) during the encore, his voice becomes a warm approximation of his idiosyncratic Washington drawl, and a bitter spit singing, “you were so condescending” on ‘Photo Booth’.

But one aspect that certainly differentiates between the two is the economic musical climate from which they were respectively born. Although ‘Narrow Stairs’, Death Cab’s latest record, reached number one on the Billboard charts in its debut week of release, attracting claims of ‘selling out’ from so-called fans (abetted by their signing to Atlantic in 2004), the implications of a number one album are contrary to the assumptions of many.

“People aren’t buying records in the quantities that they used to, there is so much entertainment, that having a number one record doesn’t guarantee much in terms of fame and fortune anymore, which I am perfectly fine with – I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be Bon Jovi in 1987, that seems miserable to me! But saying that, it’s a really big milestone, and an amazing thing to have accomplished, but it’s not one of those benchmarks that has any weight to any of us.

“It wasn’t nearly as important or as big and gravitational as being on Saturday Night Live was. That was a big deal, we got really excited and totally freaked out about it.” Until recently, SNL and its band of merry mirth-makers was largely unknown among English audiences, save for Tina Fey’s turn writing and starring in ‘Mean Girls’. That is, until a certain nuclear Mrs Palin exploded onto the political scene faster than you can say, ‘we have the facts (unlike Palin), and we’re voting Obama’. But in an election where the youth vote was such a critical one, was this kind of commentary useful in turning the campaigns into even more of a cultural phenomenon?

“There’s not a lot of commentary to it any more. It’s basically just straight impressionism. Nobody’s pointing out any subtleties about any of these people that you couldn’t have already gleaned from watching press conferences, or in Sarah Palin’s case, the lack thereof.” Walla pulls his green woolly hat down over his eyes, grimacing. “That made me kinda sad, especially when some people saw the sketches before they saw Palin.”

Walla started blogging about the election for Rolling Stone over the summer, attending and performing at the Democratic Convention in Denver, along with Ben, and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. It comes as no surprise that every point of conversation we touch on comes back to the election – on November 2nd, two days before election day, Chris turned 33, and got “everything that I could have wanted, save for three senate seats and two congressional seats.” Ensconced in over a year’s whirlwind – or rather a hurricane – of touring and producing without a break, the election pulled his thoughts home daily wherever he was in the world.

I’m totally in withdrawal right now, it’s really freaking me out! Now that the election’s over, I don’t have anything to obsess over from day to day! The first two and a half hours of my day, every day, was spent trawling political blogs.” Despite this boyish yet utterly informed exuberance for all things election and Obama (Walla wrote for Rolling Stone that, “It’s simple: We much elect him president. I very much doubt I’ll live to see another leader who fits the zeitgeist so perfectly.”), the band’s politics don’t pervade their performance, unlike many who use the stage as their own personal (and often misinformed) soapbox.

Live, the band is a measured tour de force, paying equal heed to their three most recent albums, and delighting by delving into tracks from their first three records and EPs. For ‘We Laugh Indoors’ from 2000’s ‘Forbidden Love EP’, The band play momentarily to the back of the stage, accompanied by an orchestra of facial expressions – Ben almost visually goading the others, Chris intently focusing on his guitar, tension flashing across his face when he jabs the foot pedals, drummer Jason squinting at every beat, and bassist Nick Harmer rocking the fuck out – the song adopting a little of the Krautrock spaciness which smatters ‘Narrow Stairs’.

“We’ve always been Krautrock fans, at some points latent, and at some points right here (taps forehead). Jason especially is obsessed with Jaki Liebezeit (the original drummer of Can) – his last name literally means “love time” which is pretty funny. Kraftwerk is part of the reason I play music, and that probably doesn’t come through so much in what we do. That linear minimalism is something, more than anything else probably just in form, is something that we’re drawn to.”

That minimalism came through starkly on ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, released to radio in March 2008. An eight-minute “Can Jam”, as Chris previously termed it, fans and critics alike were shocked to hear their favourite dependable indie band breaking experimental territory. Despite a proliferation of “WTF?!” from some fans, the band didn’t stop to worry about changing their well-known magic formula.

“When we first started talking about Narrow Stairs, it was still a bunch of instrumental basic tracks, it was really bloody and weird, and as we finished it, it got less weird. By the time that the lyrics got written, and the vocals ended up on it, it’s pretty much a Death Cab record,” he lilts matter-of-factly. “We’re all lovers of pop songs, it’s what we do, and I think that for us, even at the points where we tried intentionally to be bloody and ridiculous and over the top, it’s not really in our nature. Somehow or another, whatever we did individually lead us to guitars and destruction pedals, and making a big bloody mess when we finally got back into the studio!”

The members of Death Cab are almost as well known apart as together. Together with Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel, Ben Gibbard makes up The Postal Service (whose unannounced second album might be one of the most hotly anticipated “indietronica” records ever). Jason taught Smoosh how to drum, and Chris has produced albums for The Decemberists, Tegan and Sara (and will be working on their next record), and his own solo effort, ‘Field Manual’, amongst others. After the experience of committing ‘Plans’ to all-digital technology, he said that he wanted to take a break from producing Death Cab records, but it was working with an almost unknown, young prog-rock band from St Louis that convinced him he was the man for the job.

“I made a record with a band called So Many Dynamos - they’re really into Battles, early Trans Am stuff. They tracked that whole thing pretty much live, which was something I hadn’t done in a long time. It was such a screaming success, such a good record! So I started to feel like that was something I could bring to my band, something that we’d never tried. We set out a bunch of rules – nobody stops a take under any circumstances, and if we can’t get something done from top to bottom in two days, we have no business recording it. And it all stays on tape. If there’s cutting and pasting, it’s physical cutting and pasting.”

With his skills as a producer in constant demand, and Death Cab’s star on a seemingly exponential ascent, it’s not hard to imagine a future where young bands supporting DCFC are hanging on Walla’s every pizza-muffled word too.

On political songs…

It’s not exactly a political song, but a patriot song that every kid in America knows all the words to, and it’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’, a Woody Guthrie song, it’s pretty amazing. Ted Leo’s (and the Pharmacists) got some killers. A few are specific to English or Australian politics, which I’m really into, but in terms of modern relevant American political songs, I think that he has some of the best, and there’s particularly a song called ‘Counting Down the Hours’, from ‘Shake the Sheets’, that’s totally devastating, so beautiful and so well written. That guy’s my hero, he’s amazing, so good!

What they get up to on the tourbus…

I catch up on TV shows, I binged my way through all four or five seasons of Lost, in a matter of…god, that probably took 11 days! It’s kind of…uh…I don’t know what’s going on! And anyone who claims to know what’s going on is lying! (laughs) Ben is a voracious reader, and I have so much envy, moving in on jealousy for that, because I can’t finish anything. I carry around, like, five books at a time, but I’ve been carrying around the same five hoping I’ll get through the first one for about a year now. On this tour, every three days, I’ll pull out ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ by Michael Chabon, and crack away at about ten pages, then fall asleep. Or I’ll put it away and watch Lost or something!

On producing…

I just try and make sure that if somebody’s excited about something, that there’s a microphone ready to get it, to keep the feeling of “anything can happen at any time” – if you’re into something, pick up an instrument and let’s do it, that’s cool. So trying to keep things moving, and also to try and foster this idea that nothing is sacred. If we put a ton of time and a ton of work into something, and four days later somebody’s not feeling something, and wants to veto it, that’s fine. We don’t have to erase it, but to take the reel off and put it in the other room.

On intelligent American satire…

‘The Colbert Report’ is pretty amazing. The thing that Colbert has nailed is the fact that his vehicle is the Fox news machine, the fact that he is playing the part of a pundit, it’s a Bill O’Reilly send-up, and it’s great, he’s so good at it, and he’s so smart. He’s kind of one of my heroes. When all we were fucking hearing about was Joe the Plumber, for a week and a half, it was the only thing coming out of John McCain or Sarah Palin’s mouth, he did this amazing thing – it was a Stephen Colbert comment, mock-supporting McCain for bringing Joe the Plumber to the people, and he said something like, “I, Stephen Colbert, am simply longing for a simpler time when we can identify everyone on the streets by the hats they wore. When people didn’t need real identities, last names…!”

On album art…

I met Emy Storey, who designed ‘Narrow Stairs’, by way of Tegan and Sara. She was really fun to work with, she works so fast, and gets so excited! The first time I saw it I gasped, and took it to everybody. They were like, “huh?”, but on second look, “yes!” It’s noisy and chaotic, but it’s not off-putting. There’s something really inviting about it to me, and I still can’t figure out what that is. It’s a collage and computerised. She was really intending that it’d be something buried in the cassette version of the record, if anything at all. It’s a really shitty little low-res jpeg, and she was mortified when we blew it up as a stage backdrop, the pixels are huge!

Britney Spears - Circus

“For me, art is therapy, because it’s like you’re expressing yourself in such a spiritual way,” says Britney Spears in her forthcoming MTV documentary, ‘For The Record’. Such spirituality can be found in the video for ‘Womanizer’, the arch first single from ‘Circus’, as she writhes away her worries, naked and oil-slathered over some steaming hot coals.

But everyone knows you don’t listen to a pop album for spirituality, nor usually soul-searching – yet on ‘Circus’, Britney’s lived up to the public information announcement given at the start of the confident, paparazzi-baiting ‘Kill The Lights’ – “our very own pop princess, now Queen of Pop” has created an intelligent, honest (and most importantly, brilliantly danceable) record with an intrinsic duality – the chorus of ‘Blur’, where she sings, “can’t remember what I did last night”, could be anyone’s hangover - but Britney’s well-documented personal history, and sweet natural voice breaking through the raspy processing lends it a strata of sad frankness  - it’s perhaps her most accomplished ballad to date.

‘Circus’ isn’t a record where Britney makes any bones about her newly rediscovered self-esteem – on the subliminally filthy ‘If U Seek Amy’ (do I have to spell it out?), she defiantly sings, “love me, hate me, say what you want about me”, her roboticized voice leading the synth-heavy artillery beneath; challenges pretenders to her throne on ‘Rock Me In’ (which sounds more than a little like DFA’s ‘North American Scum’), and never makes the rookie mistake of working with big-name producers who could upstage her by rapping their territory across her songs. ‘Mmm Papi’ sees a playful Britney giggling “let’s make out” over a jaunty guitar line and fizzy cymbal ting which tickle the edges of Bollywood OSTs, and ‘My Baby’ is a ballad to her children, which, despite being more sickly than a Christmas Quality Street overload, is the most honest song on the record, so personal it almost feels intrusive to listen.

On ‘Blackout’, we saw Britney goading and wildly confronting the eyes that follow her every move, but just over a year later, ‘Circus’ sees her take a more reflective turn on events. Although musically, it’s neither groundbreaking nor particularly innovative, it’s Britney’s bold, raised-eyebrow risqué delivery and refreshing honesty that might give dirty pop music the spiritual re-awakening that it’s long been in need of. Madonna, step down. Britney’s back.


15 November 2008

Clinic @ Thekla, 13.11.08

Clinic’s ‘Planetarium of the Soul’ visually-aided tour sounds pretty lofty; Stephen Hawking meeting Richard Dawkins in some sort of metaphysical microcosm perhaps, but definitely not pretentious close-up shots of redcurrants and vintage Spirograph toys. Billed as a “Brand New Happening” by Thom Yorke favourites, Clinic, Clemens Habicht’s apparently acclaimed visuals were just the start of a wildly underwhelming evening – violin/guitar/drums support Threatmantics’ guitarist’s doe-eyed attempted to eke out approval from the crowd like a child at a nativity play (a pretty epic fail considering the simplicity of his parts), and despite Clinic’s 11 years of experience and avant-garde recorded material, live, they’re a generic flogged indie horse – they have all of Brakes’ style and succinctness, but none of their jittery energy and visual magnetism, ‘The Witch’ borrows the riffs of their Domino brethren, Archie Bronson Outfit, and ‘Free Not Free’ could be any woozy west coast American band. And yet they’re still smirking behind their face masks – perhaps they’d be better off paying heed to the musical content of their live shows before focusing on gimmicky embellishments.

5 November 2008

Russell Brand

As the world’s “most famous teetotal vegetarian sex insect”, Russell Brand has irked and delighted with his verbose cockney patois, making him Britain’s most imitated export since Manuel himself. Post-Sachsgate, Brand has quit the BBC, and disappeared to America to perform stand-up and reprise his Hollywood success. So should we be rejoicing that he’s off our screens? Or mourning the disappearance of an unpredictable burgeoning talent in British entertainment?

It’s not at all difficult to see why many find Brand so profoundly irritating – his Edwardian pimp image pervades TV, radio, cinema, the press, and literature, and when working within the constraints of the primetime, he’s rehashing the same wildly-delivered but forced and tired lines – “swines”, “ballbags” and “Hare Krishna” to name but a few. But in a television climate where permasmiler Fearne Cotton and the languidly “hip” Alexa Chung and Alex Zane hold the fort, surely it’s refreshing to have a loose canon on the scene, whose every move isn’t predictable sycophancy (as is the wont of Sachsgate’s other victim, Jonathan Ross)? And who didn’t get a sniggering sense of Schadenfreude, watching the Jonas Brothers weep as Brand ridiculed their chastity rings?

Stephen Fry, on his superb blog, recently wrote of the “pheme” theory with regard to fame, whereby the celebrity doesn’t necessarily seek to be well-liked or well-known, but the very act of talking about them, even in a negative or scandalous sense, exacerbates their notoriety. Andrew Sachs’ burlesque dancer granddaughter certainly seems to have caught onto this notion (besides, who has sex with Russell Brand, lets on that their granddad is famous, and doesn’t expect it to materialise in the act of a man whose whole career rests on innuendo and rudery?), and despite their apparent outrage, Auntie Beeb has perpetuated this theory by employing Brand in the first place – after his sacking from MTV and XFM, it’s incredulous to believe that the BBC thought he would tone down his act. To an extent it’s a safe bet – he can never be held up for drinking, falling out of clubs or taking drugs, as it’s old news.

Whether you like sex-obsessive Brand or not, it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that the Daily Mail are the biggest criminals in this tale – if they’re so morally affronted at Brand’s behaviour, why do they constantly reinforce his image? Their incitement of mass hysteria, leading angry Mail Online surfers to kiss the arse of “national treasure Andrew Sachs” and sales of Brand’s collection of excellent Guardian columns to dwindle, is exponentially more offensive than calling a president “that retarded cowboy fella”.

4 November 2008


Following on from 1991’s ‘JFK’, and 1995’s ‘Nixon’, it was inevitable that Oliver Stone might turn his hand to the story of a president who could effortlessly match the aforementioned in terms of scandal and notoriety. Stone stated that with ‘W’, he wished to emulate the achievements of Stephen Frear’s 2006 film, ‘The Queen’, to track “seminal events in Bush’s life.” An admirable quest, but whereas his two previous presidential biopics came over twenty years after the events had passed, ‘W’ appears in the final thickets of Bush’s presidency and lame duck period, instantly placing question marks over the validity and detachment between director and subject matter.

Stone doesn’t help himself by making Brolin’s lines as Bush what Juno’s were to youth vernacular – peppered with constant “cockamamie” and “nukes”, his speeches are laboured from the offset, coming across as a hybrid between Jon Culshaw and the sniggering Beavis and Butthead. He’s not the only character portrayed as a caricature – Thandie Newton’s transformation into Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is aesthetically brilliant (perhaps the film’s sole chance at an Oscar nod for Best Makeup), but the tension in keeping Condie’s trademark bullfrog pout extends to the rest of her body, which twitches like a Thunderbird puppet. It doesn’t take long for the notorious Bush-isms to start spewing forth either – “they misunderestimated me”, “is our children learning?” – Stanley Weiser’s script reads like a sixth form parody. It’s manipulative, estimating conversations from behind closed doors, but recycling genuine quotations in an attempt to seek low-blow laughs.

The film’s portrayal of Bush fails to weigh up – as a headstrong Yale graduate, he’s full of bravado, keeping his cool in grotesque frat boy initiation ceremonies (which are obvious in their redolence of the torture images from Guantanamo Bay), and as a young man, he’s cocky, self-assured and adaptable, taking control of his father’s successful presidential campaign. However, following his conversion into a devout Christian, Stone paints him as a bumbling fool. It’s difficult to know what Stone wants to achieve – sympathy for the young Bush, always his father’s second favourite son? Sneering laughter, as President Dubya chokes on a pretzel, and has to have Cheney explain the statistical possibility of biological warfare using a sandwich as a metaphor? Or learned and retrospective disgust, as Bush and his Cabinet decide to go to war over his gut feeling that there are WMDs in Iraq?

As students, we’re told not to just re-narrate stories, but to evaluate and offer new interpretations. Perhaps singed by the negative reception which plagued his acknowledgement of conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination in ‘JFK’, Stone fails to enlighten the audience to anything they wouldn’t already know, or challenge their preconceptions of Bush, despite promising that “it will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors”. The film’s discussion of the Patriot Act and the “axis of evil” goes too in-depth for any casual punters looking for Michael Moore-style sensationalism, but it’s far too much of a chronological superficial parody for close observers of the two Bush terms. The very fact that not only is Bush still alive, but he’s still (by the string of his teeth) in the position he’s being lampooned for makes the line between fact and artistic license difficult to blur – to what extent should the scripts be based on real life? Despite the film’s timely release, it offers no new perspective on the election process, its sole links being a mention of everyone’s favourite paradigm, Joe Voter, and George Sr. smirking as he approves the “naughty” smearing of Democrat rival Dukakis. There’s no intelligible end to the film, which only manages to point out the idiocy and contradictions of the Bush regime by being equally idiotic itself.


3 November 2008

Githead at the Arnolfini, 29.10.08

It’s pretty culturally demoralizing that as post-punk supergroup Githead play the Arnolfini to a modest gathering of mostly 40+ men reliving their youth, less than a mile away the Mighty Boosh play the Hippodrome to a sold-out audience of screaming young fans going crazy for Vince Noir and Howard Moon’s overhyped hipster capers. It’s all a question of musical education, and Githead’s performance is an history lesson in itself – you can hear obvious nods to the work of each member’s former bands (although they never satisfy the vociferous desires of some eccentric crowd members to play Wire songs) – Wire, Minimal Compact and Scanner - similarities with the work of Factory Records (Joy Division, A Certain Ratio), Jesus and Mary Chain-esque walls of sound, and, despite Robin Rimbaud’s berating of the laptop for being “a really slow drummer!”,  Battles would surely be proud to call Githead’s frenetic percussion their own. Next time you’re about to sit down for an evening with the Boosh, why not dig out Simon Reynold’s thorough account of post-punk, ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’ and realize what you’re missing instead.

23 October 2008

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

So, High School Musical 3, where the buff and glistening Troy (Zac Efron) turns to smack, gets expelled from East High, and pimps out Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) to feed his addiction. If only. It seems pointless to criticize HSM for the very reasons it became this pithy market-conquering phenomenon, but there’s something repulsively pious about Disney’s insistence that the Albuquerque high school remain completely devoid of sex (despite the perspiring homoeroticism throughout)– surely even the most conservative of mothers wouldn’t be offended by the leads sharing the odd kiss? Instead, the Wildcat golden couple are the frustrating human embodiments of magnets repelling one another, their emotions symbolised by the most trite of weather metaphors – from thunderstorms to dancing in the rain with youthful abandon.

It’s Disney through and through, thus by rights has incredibly high production values, aided by a considerably bigger budget for its move to the big screen – the set pieces are extravagant, and an electric visual magnetism perpetuates the whole film (it’s impossible to avert your eyes from the horror) – but the musical numbers which made the franchise’s name are weak, and heavily indebted – ‘A Night To Remember’ is ripped directly from Daniel Bedingfield’s ‘James Dean’, and ‘The Boys Are Back’ is ‘Greased Lightning’ for a post-JT generation – and tainted by brassy vocoder-ridden pitchiness, embarrassingly X Factor key changes, and sharp insights like “high school wasn’t meant to last forever”. Sadly, Disney obviously think high school should be never-ending – a fourth film is in the works. There’s hope yet for the smack storyline.


19 October 2008

Interview: Foals

In January, NME got it right, naming them one of eleven “New Noise” bands that would come to define 2008. (They also cited the Ting Tings and Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong, but that’s by the by). But now, towards the culmination of an expansive 18-month tour that’s taken them around the world more than once, Foals seem weary of the lazy genre-appending hype lavished upon them.

“We’re all going to run away, not talk to each other, and write on our own, do side projects,” says Yannis Philippakis, switching between brushing the curly black asymmetric mop that straddles his Greek and musical heritage out of his eyes, and ash trails off of his ripped black jeans. “We never intended for Foals to be this monolithic, all-consuming thing that took over our lives, but it’s been very much the centre of our existence for a long time. Once we’ve finished the tour, it’ll make for a better record. It’s very easy to become part of this “rock world” where all that matters is your band – you end up crushing it, and becoming self-absorbed.”

Self-absorbed is hardly an accusation that’s easy to level at the Oxford-based quintet. The evening after the interview, the band play to a sold-out audience at Bristol’s Carling Academy, a gig they kick off with five minutes of Krautrock-indebted intensity that confirms the band’s intuitive nature. They stand as a five-pointed star, sporadically illuminated, looking inward at each other. How many other album chart-bothering bands would brave potentially alienating a hysterically excited audience in favour of launching straight into a crowd-pleasing hit? They teasingly drop hints to the interlude of ‘Cassius’, injecting the intertwining high-fretted motifs that have become a staple on indie dancefloors with heavier, more industrial explosive drumming, suggesting that ‘Antidotes’ could have been more of a brother to Battles’ ‘Mirrored’ than their supposed new-rave cousins Klaxons’ ‘Myths of the Near Future’.

“We seem to get slotted into pretty much every new genre – math rock, new-rave, Afrobeat – I find it funny. I think the next record will be a progression, but the fundamental chemistry between the five of us – I’d be wary of tampering with it too much,” says Yannis. “Some elements of the sound will remain the same, instinctively Foals, always with a big rhythmic emphasis.” Conversely, the singles that characterized their sound were left off of ‘Antidotes’ – namely ‘Mathletics’ and ‘Hummer’, laying bare an unwillingness to conform to expectations that has permeated their reputation. The most obvious example of this came with the band’s decision to abandon David Andrew Sitek’s original working of ‘Antidotes’ in favour of remixing it themselves. Philippakis was quoted as saying that Sitek made the record sound as though it had been recorded “in the Grand Canyon”. What with the TV on the Radio guitarist being the indie producer du jour, lending his talents to cultural luminaries such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Scarlett Johansson, wasn’t it a risky move to discard his work?

“I meant my comments about our dissatisfaction with ‘Antidotes’ in almost a positive way – in the sense that we can be better, that there’s an element of being unfulfilled. If you’re satisfied with what you make, surely the creative process is at an end. Unless David Sitek releases it as part of a box set – NME would call him “the greatest super producer!” – it’s not ever going to be released.” He puffs on an asthma inhaler, apologises, and continues, “If money and record labels were no issue, I wouldn’t have released Antidotes. I think we’ll be better at making records next time around, it’s been a pretty weird year.”

However much they attempt to escape the conventional, there’s one aspect of being in a band that Yannis seems totally at home with – the attention lavished on them by fans. He prowls along the monitors, tilting over the crowd, before launching his tiny frame over the photo pit and drowning in a sea of fans. There’s no denying the significance of this band to their followers – groups of neon paint-daubed teenagers (mostly girls) congregate outside the Academy from midday, and after the gig a girl exclaims to a friend that “they were inspirational, that’s the power of music right there.” Something in the imprecise despondency of lyrics such as, “these wasps’ nests in your head, these terminals in your head, these heart swells” makes it easy for anyone in the throes of angst and upset to adapt Foals into their own personal metaphor, visible as the crowd steal the words to ‘Cassius’ from under Yannis’ self-effacing on-stage stance.

He’s unambiguous when it comes to being comfortable with the power of influencing their younger audiences.

“Yep. Definitely,” says Yannis without hesitation. “If kids are at our shows and get to see bands like Holy Fuck instead of listening to bands like The Teenagers, then I see that only as a good thing. We feel at least that we have some sort of responsibility to promote some music that we feel might not otherwise get attention. We came from that same background, we had a lucky break – becoming more accepted, more mainstream, and there’s a lot of luck involved in that.”

Signed to Transgressive Records in 2006, Foals became mooted as the Next Big ThingTM following a performance at industry festival, South By South West, that caused music website Drowned in Sound to name them “a live tour de force, a band capable of twitching toes…disassembling modern indie-rock and redesigning it using broken rulers and shredded blueprints”. An appearance on Skins sent them stratospheric within the indie mainstream, and a US deal with Sub Pop buttressed their credibility within the Pitchfork community.

As for the next step, aside from piecing together the jigsaw loops that will form the predecessor to ‘Antidotes’, there’s a slight chance of a collaboration with one of the band’s most important influences – minimalist pioneer Steve Reich.

“We’ll see what happens when we stop touring. It’s difficult – I heard the first movement, it’s hard to play. None of us read music, so we’d have to tab it. If it didn’t happen, it’d be more due to our other commitments than not feeling capable, but we would have to dedicate a lot of time to it. I hope it happens, but at the moment it looks bleak.” You get the impression that Foals feel cheated – after a year of success based on an album they weren’t happy with, they still feel obliged to conform and release a second album while the iron’s still hot rather than pursuing pleasure projects. They neatly finish the year where they started – playing a homecoming show in Oxford, and at the end of the evening’s gig, aided by tour-mates Danananakroyd, they unleash a cathartic and symbolic destruction of the stage that suggests the end of this era is in sight. “See you in a year,” mumbles Yannis into the microphone. That should be about enough time for lazy journalists to come up with a new asinine genre to lump them into. 

Anni Rossi, James Blackshaw, and the Ensemble Drones at Redland Park United Reformed Church, Bristol, 18th October 2008

There’s something about drinking beer in a church that feels inherently wrong, particularly when surrounded by the friendly vestiges of church life; framed vicars smiling down from photos, and patchwork community projects about the walls. However, reverence is restored when the first bowed guitar of Duane Pitre’s Ensemble Drones trembles to the rafters, chasing the ebb and flow of blood through our veins. Violins, cellos, a harmonium and an accordion coax up the hairs on the back of necks the room over, inducing a strange physical tranquility that feels something akin to a warm head massage. The orchestra breathes and billows, hiccupping occasionally with the breathless parp of a clarinet, or voice-broken squeak of a violin, as light glints off the 14-strong orchestra like a starry constellation in the dark sepia magnificence of the church.

James Blackshaw’s 12-stringed fluidity recalls Radiohead’s lighter pessimistic moments, and is far softer live than on record (although punctuated by the fizz and crack of beer cans being opened periodically). His modest shyness is counterbalanced by the impassioned whooping and standing ovations at the end of each song – it’s a performance that could definitely see him join the Joanna Newsom-led roster of contemporary artists pushing the boundaries of folk. It’s safe to say that the cold, wood-backed pews of the church certainly weren’t responsible for sending shivers down spines this evening.

Anni Rossi is the first vocal act of the evening, her bobbing and weaving voice standing strong through an unusually (but pleasingly) swampy and dramatic sounding viola. She forgoes spindly stringed delicacy to adopt a tone more similar to that of Do Make Say Think, tapping out a beat on her stompbox, and trilling her lips as she sings of snow and deteriorating sentiment. Vocally, she’s a lot like Regina Spektor, with the same impetuous high pitch saving a song about liking “freezer pops and freezer units” from becoming overly twee. She sings “if I were to crack in half you would see, all of my bones and all of my teeth” so softly that the macabre image stands out a mile, and encores with a Nouvelle Vague-esque cover of The Cure’s In Between Days. They say you shouldn’t worship false icons, but a whole load of praise is indebted to these magical performers for such a beautiful evening.

15 October 2008

Interview: Sara Quin

If we lived in a just world, eating chocolate would make you lose weight, Kerry Katona would actually be working in Iceland, and Tegan and Sara would have been bothering the charts for some time now, given their cutely curious love songs, jesting sisterly repartee, and inherent self-worth which ignores all the narrow-minded maligning that they’re just “Canadian Lesbian Twins.”

In the ten years they’ve been peddling their wares, the quipping Quins have gone from post-riot grrrl acoustic punksters, to synth sweethearts covered by The White Stripes, and all round Good Eggs – their fifth album, The Con, features echoing paeans to the gay marriage debate, alongside disquieted thunderstorm-loud electronic crashes, and a plucky way with words all registering on the Joanna Newsom side of the sound scale. We had a chat to Sara about cocks, crying and critics…this is why we love them:

They couldn’t give a flying banana about what chauvinistic critics think

“NME reviewed our record twice, the first time giving it a positive review, then a really shit one the second time round – they said we were “only a modicum edgier than Kelly Clarkson”. I didn’t realise publications do that! The thing that bothers me about it is that this guy obviously thinks we’re the lamest, most boring regurgitated easy listening music, whereas he probably just doesn’t like what he thinks he knows about us. For our last record, they said that it was good despite the fact we “don’t like cock”. We sent them a press release immediately after, telling them how much we really love cock, so that was completely inaccurate!”

They’re relentlessly giving to their fans, even though they don't always return the favour...

"We’ve already done over 120 shows on this album, been out for over 200 days and we’re exhausted. I love playing music, and if there were Workaholics Anonymous, I would be at the front of that room! Early on, Tegan and I realised, especially when we started to get a little older than our audience, that we were role models for some kids. They weren’t just coming to hear music, but to see us, and what they see in us is what I saw in people like Ani DiFranco and Kathleen Hanna - outspoken honesty, and vulnerability. Fans show up hours before shows so they can all hang out with each other - they’re a community, and I think that’s awesome. If we can give them more access to us than they’re used to getting from other bands and people, I think the only danger is that when you do want to withhold or disappear a little, there’s a guilt. But on the other hand, when they start shouting, "I love you!", "take your shirt off!" you think, well did you come here to see me pole dance, or to sing the songs from the five albums I've put out?! It’s not a bad problem, but I don’t show up at your job, and ask you to take your clothes off while filing those papers!"

They're savvy business women, signed to a major label, but still in complete creative control

"When we went over to Sire/Warner, people thought we’d compromise what we do. I know bands who have no control over anything, nothing at all – their album artwork, their ads – Tegan and I control EVERYTHING, every little detail that we can. In five albums, there’s not been one record company person who's asked to listen to a track before it gets released – people have always given us money no matter what. We set the guidelines, and we control everything! I would never be ok with being censored. For the White Stripes to record and release their cover of Walking With A Ghost, we had to give them permission, but they can do whatever they want! When they finished recording it, we were on tour, passing through Detroit, and Meg came down and gave us the song, hung out with us, and said, “we hope you like it!” Even if we had thought it was shit, we wouldn’t have cared, it’s like, “oh my god, the White Stripes are covering our music!” "

They're not jumping on the political bandwagon; they actually know their stuff

"It’s warped – the class divide, racism, millions of people who are illiterate and have no health care, who really struggle. It's really shocking, that tens of millions of people don’t have insurance and can just die, not being able to be helped. I don’t understand a government that just turns its back on its people. And if the Democrats get into power, maybe we’ll finally see civil unions be legalised in America. I don’t think that Canada was necessarily ready for gay marriage, but the liberal government was listening, and the Prime Minister at the time, Paul Martin, gave a very profound speech. He said, “there is a time, as leaders, where we have to say, this is what we’re doing, this is fair. And the population may not agree, but we have to, as leadership, progressively advance this forward.” I’m hoping that as a bare minimum, with a democratic government, they'll recognise the rights of people in same-sex relationships – people who’ve been in these relationships for decades, they die, and their partners aren’t entitled to severance packages, they get their children taken away from them, and it’s outrageous. It goes against everything that most of us as human beings stand for, so I’m hoping that they will, god willing, move forward on that."

Like a true 80s child, Sara's not afraid to cry at Madonna

"In my time off, I went and saw Madonna play, and I hadn’t been to an arena show in ten years – everything I listen to is indie rock, or hip-hop in smaller venues – but I went and saw Madonna, and I cried! I actually cried! Totally didn’t expect to! It was so loud, and so thrilling, when everyone cheered and she came out, I was overwhelmed. I don’t think I was crying in a sad way, but I had total sensory overload!"

10 October 2008

Lykke Li at the Thekla, 6.10.08

(photo by Leah Pritchard)

There’s a guy like Big Jeff at every gig; flailing around to the quietest ballads, rubbing their sweaty paunch on your face, and annoying everyone, but there’s the rare occasion they actually psyche up a flagging artist and transform the evening. “You have to stop dancing so much, I’m going to crack up!” giggles Lykke Li surprisingly, after singing ‘Melodies and Desires’ to her feet. Subject to a relentless tour since November 2007, you can’t blame her for being subdued, but suddenly she’s transformed; furiously thrashing a cymbal during ‘I’m Good I’m Gone’ with her left hand, and cutting jagged shapes with the other. She jumps to the floor during ‘Dance Dance Dance’ (for a face-off with Jeff), pumping her shoulders, reminiscent of pioneering XX-chromosomed dignitaries from new wave notable Lizzy Mercier Descloux to Bat For Lashes and Camille. The frustrated mews of ‘Little Bit’ float through the cage of her elbows, she clutches the air, frowning like a doe interrupted by headlights, but then breaks into the Justice-esque playground sing-along of ‘Breaking It Up’, slinking into A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Can I Kick It?’ Yes you can, Li. Maybe even better than Jeff can.

6 October 2008

Interview: Lee May Foster of the Bonbi Forest Indie Emporium

These days it’s nigh on impossible to buy any decent high street clothing without playing second fiddle to some Grazia-glorified celebrity, spotted paying their dues to Topshop in a vain attempt to retain that “girl next door” allure. And what with every which wagon-dismounting celebrity lending their name to a clothing range (Lindsay Lohan’s absurdly expensive leggings; Lauren Conrad’s pitifully plain “couture”), it’s a genuine relief to discover DIY, independent designers creating apparel for those of us who remain unphased by Agyness Deyn’s usurping of Kate Moss’ best dressed throne. Thrust into the limelight by the Chicago-based online community Threadless in 2000, the trend for independent design has intensified sufficiently that numerous designers have been able to abandon their day jobs, and wholly dedicate their efforts to the creation of exciting, eccentric designs a million miles away from the laughably generic designs of Topshop et al.

One of the frontrunners of the sparsely-populated UK scene is multi-talented Cornwall-based designer,
Lee May Foster, who, at the age of 27, not only commandeers her own line of limited edition jewellery and t-shirts (as Bonbi Forest), but owns and directs the Bonbi Forest Indie Emporium, an online store selling tantalizing and quintessential wares of likeminded designers from around the world.

“Originally, Bonbi Forest existed as its own individually branded shop, but after a while, I realized I was struggling to fill the shop all the time, so I decided to expand. Consignment was the most suitable option available, whereby designers send me their things, and I sell them for a percentage of the cost,” says Lee May, sat in her neat white, sunlit studio, a farm outhouse transformed into an orderly haven of mood boards, inspiring CDs (as we speak, iTunes flits from electronic post-rock outfit Mice Parade to Mirah), and treasures waiting to be uploaded to her pretty, scrapbook-style website.

A vast number of Cornish designers draw inspiration from the pervading coastal heritage of the county (here, you’re never further than 12 miles from the sea), but Brighton-educated Bonbi Forest’s illustrations admiringly revere the county’s woodland mysteries, beasts and Celtic heritage. Woodland creatures gallivant through her illustration-based designs with ephemeral intricacy, the elegant lines of her deer motifs are as fleeting as a glimpse of the creature itself, and her charming willowy birds evoke the twitchy effervescence of Cy Twombly and the late Robert Rauschenberg’s work. It’s no surprise that she describes herself as “always having been a big animal fan” – her horse is stabled nearby, birds chatter inquisitively with the fake taxidermy on her windowsill, and the family’s beloved creaky old dog Jay Jay keeps a sleepy eye on proceedings from the conservatory.

Another huge boost to her label has been the creative partnership with Brighton-based musician Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Kahn, who in the space of a year has been nominated not only for two Brit Awards, but also the Mercury Music Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious and culturally reflective accolades. They became lasting friends at university in Brighton, Lee May studying Fine Art Painting; Natasha Film and Music, and combined their respective heritages to establish the band’s mysterious imagery of majestic animal hierachies under the spell of a full moon.

Despite drawing influences from an unfettered Cornish landscape, Lee May has contrastingly also taken advantage of the internet’s many benefits.

“Everyone says with Web 2.0 that everyone can be someone, but if you use the internet wisely, you can start to infiltrate people's ways of life without going over the top. I get customers from all over - Hawaii's the furthest west, and Japan and Australia the furthest east! Without Myspace and Facebook, I wouldn't have been able to reach out to those people as easily, I'd have to have had massive targeted campaigns, which wouldn’t fit with my business ethos.”

With tens of thousands of international visitors to her website each month (that number increasing without resistance), and gaining second place in American website Fred Flare’s Next Big Thing contest (think a higher profile contemporary site, showcasing cutesy clothes, trinkets and fripperies), Lee May is well on the way to realising her dream where the Bonbi Forest Indie Emporium becomes the biggest website of its kind in the UK.

“I’d like to establish more of a community around the site. A “bricks and mortar” shop would be lovely, but there are expenses involved. The nice thing about the online shop is that it runs itself, and that I can spend the rest of the time in the studio, drawing and making things. I love the DIY scene – the idea of people getting really passionate about something, regardless of its commercial prospects. It’s exciting to see creativity utilized in a really positive way.”


The press may constantly highlight our country’s economic and social inadequacies, but it seems we have a lot to be grateful for after seeing Import/Export, a beautifully shot look at just how bleak life can be, and the lengths people go to to afford so little. Olga leaves her baby and the Ukraine behind, to find work as a nanny, a “live” on-demand internet porn worker, then eine Putzfrau (cleaning lady) on a geriatric ward. Director Ulrich Seidl authenticates these painfully affecting scenes by using what are ostensibly non-actors; frail old ladies muttering blindly to god, and playful men who pinch the nurse’s bottom. He switches, vignette-like, between Olga and Paul, machine-like in physicality and searching for personal “harmony”, but instead stuck working for his stepfather, a coarse man who tries to prove that money is power by taunting a 19 year-old prostitute. Seidl never shies away from discomfort or uncompassionate characterisation, focusing in on the violence inherent in desire (a customer riles angrily at Olga to “stick [her] finger in [her] asshole”), the fallen glory of old men having their nappies changed, and teeth removed as punishment, and the heartbreaking sight of Olga singing through silent tears about a starry wonderful life down the phone to her baby. Makes you think how much worse things really could be.


Islands at the Cooler, 03.10.08

It’s hard to order the worst bands you’ve ever seen live, but Bristolians Sid Delicious would definitely be a contender. All buzzwords and formulaic song titles (“Vinyl”, and the neither seductive nor enticing “Synthesize Me”), their hackneyed and inarticulate Mark E Smith meets David Byrne polemic about the vacuous nature of modern culture backfires into accidental postmodernism as they perpetuate every cliché they’re mocking. Married to the Sea are to The Hold Steady what The Kooks are to The Kinks, bland and largely unremarkable, so it’s a relief when Islands slink onto the stage, in uniform black and with infinitely more energy and affinity than either of their predecessors. They’re as fun in spirit as The Unicorns, but the long set is marred by painful volume levels, exacerbated by the violins slicing precise oozing wounds to our ears. Pieces of You channels the nautical and mariachi, Don’t Call Me Whitney Bobby hasn’t aged in its 16 years, and The Arm should have been a perfect high note on which to end. Instead, the violinist throws chains against the ceiling, and they tease us with potential endings, but every crescendo crashes into noodly interludes or krautrock-esque lulls.


16 September 2008

End of the Road 2008

It’s a testament to End of the Road organisers Sofia Hagberg and Simon Taffe that not even the festival’s most professionally melancholy acts could contain their merriment at playing amongst peacocks, enchanted forests and parrots in the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens, with everyone from Bon Iver to Warren Ellis singing EOTR’s praises. Squirreled away down the rabbit warren lanes of the Dorset border, this wonderland infant festival managed to command an amazing roster, and sell all 5000 tickets whilst keeping its friendly ethics and atmosphere intact. Canada’s The Acorn hit on a slightly guilty note, commenting, “so this is where white people come from”, but lifted the mood with their comfortable woodsy snow-capped songs (although they’re the first of the weekend’s bands to not do their album much justice). A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s intense jarring Baltic folk was sadly lost a little to the leafy heights of the Garden Stage and the drizzly afternoon, and the augmented band clustered together in a corner of the stage.

The many nooks and crannies of the festival only upped the charm quotient, from watching parents getting carried away in the kids’ bhangra dancing workshop to giggling whilst a hokey “peace healing practitioner” conned a gullible family into a trip around the woods to massage each other’s auras. Back on the Garden Stage, Bon Iver’s natural candour and emotional understatement made for many a lump in the throat, breaking away from his falsetto for a new organ-led song, Blood Bank, about “finding yourself trapped in the snow with someone you’re meeting for the first time”. This apparently is one of his last gigs touring For Emma, Forever Ago, and this aching song of missed opportunity and awkward encounters is an auspicious sign of what’s to come. His songs climb from burning embers to cloud-piercing firecrackers with The Wolves, the audience shivering as they sing “what might have been lost”, beaming with awe at our own mellifluous intensity. Brightonian Sons of Noel and Adrian, a self-professed “musical centipede”, are reminiscent of a more folk, less neurosis Arcade Fire, with their huge vocal harmonies and chorus of whistling glowing like the spirits in the woods, perfect for relaxing on a bin bag (as much as is possible) in the morning wake of far too much hot spiced cider the night before.

Low play what should have been a triumphant set, sad and redolent, with Dinosaur Act and Sunflower amongst others, but as the sky darkens so does Alan Sparhawk’s mood. He bitterly asks the audience if they’ve ever had a day where “everyone you love tells you that they hate you?”, and ends the set by violently hurling his guitar across the heads of the front row. Miraculously, no-one was hurt, but although the owner of the mangled instrument went away beaming, many of the audience left silenced with concern for his emotional wellbeing. It was an evening where many seemed let down by their heroes, as Sun Kil Moon followed with an esoteric, grumpy and indulgent set. Someone shouted, “play Glen Tipton”, to which an ostensibly bored Mark Kozelek replied, “jeez, three songs in and you’re criticizing me already?” Yep, three songs, and half an hour. However, their aloof monotony makes it even easier to be charmed by the cute, but never twee dancing of The Chap, who brought joyous angular poppy krautrock to The Local stage. They borrowed from Fujiya and Miyagi’s delicious cornered pronunciation, and Devo’s arch deadpan outlook on life, their manifesto for “proper songs about girls and clubbing!” making them a jolly good fun antidote to the weekend’s weightier bands.

The goofy fun streak shines brightly in Sunday afternoon’s bands too; The Wave Pictures aren’t particularly innovative, but frontman David Tattersall’s bashfulness at potentially offending his mum, and their slinky-like lyrical bounce lead nicely into Kimya Dawson’s busy set. She cuts an altogether different figure above the magic eye-esque sea of of checked shirts before her, starting bashfully with a song from her new album of songs for children, a cutesy actioned tale about bears which delights the beaming families in the crowd. Unbeknownst to them, it’s probably all a giant metaphor for skag. The parents in the crowd are quick to cover their spawn’s ears as she starts Alphabutt, the A-Z of animal poop – “d is for doody…f is for fart”, and the humour turns more puerile, comprising some staple festival Bush bashing, and her polite decline to ride an audience member’s cock. She completely epitomises the childlike wonder of the festival, and it’s brilliant to watch adults sniggering like Beavis and Butthead at the toilet humour inherent in her set.

Jason Molina is impossibly well presented given the gloopy mud, and slightly disappointing – he does little to lift the spirits – it’s more of a fan’s gig than anything likely to convert anyone, which is a shame considering the wealth of his back catalogue. Another berserk shift in tone comes from Bob Log III, who looks like Boba Fett phoning adult chat lines, and roars like Billy Childish should. His one-man band schtick and thankfully very layered striptease are funny for five minutes, but we escape before any mention of dipping a boob in his Scotch, bewildered at the reverie surrounding him. Both Darren and Jack Play Hefner, and Jeffrey and Jack Lewis are spirited manolescents, followed by the majestic grandeur of Calexico. The muddy camaraderie of the festival extends to a member of the crowd buying them a round of steaming ciders, which are subsequently passed around the front rows. Were it not so teeth-chatteringly cold, there’s no doubt that everyone would have been on his or her feet. Brakes end the festival on a frenetic, wired high, with Eamon Hamilton bringing his new wife on stage to sing Jackson (so new in fact that she seemed still to be wearing her wedding dress), and Comma Comma Comma Full Stop seems the perfect definitive cue to bite the cake reading “Eat Me” and slope back to reality.

31 August 2008

Last Summer in Gothenburg...

“So, what made you decide to go to Gothenburg?” enquired my family. At this point, I could have fabricated an elaborate admiration of a country that has resisted the onslaught of the Euro, and a lifelong fascination with trams and Abba. However, truth prevailed, and I had to admit that it was the result of a slightly inebriated game of “pin the tail on the Ryan Air cheap flights map”, with a little help from Gothenburg native Jens Lekman’s album, Night Falls Over Kortedala (which happens to be at the end of our tram line). But as we cycle serenely across a city basking in midnight silence, the cool air off the Göteborg Älv brushing our faces and the curvaceous reflection of the Operan swimming in our eyes, I’m convinced this is the start of a Scandinavian love affair.

Our hostel, Slottsskogen Vandrarhem, in inauspicious concrete turns out to be a bustling haven of Erasmus students frantically apartment searching, Asian backpackers blogging their experiences on Macbooks in the corner of the friendly book-laden lounge, the heart of the hostel, and noisy German school children (who one morning meet their comeuppance playing knock-a-door down the corridor, waking up an unimpressed 6ft 4 Finnish goth). We make friends with our Parisien roommate, Pauline, who takes us to a tacky but fun club in the heart of the city. We’d read that alcohol in Scandinavia is supposed to be extortionate, but a five hour long Happy “Hour” (about £2.20 a drink) left us sated when the prices jumped back up to 48SEK (about £4.30).

Belying its metropolitan status, the city is closed for business from about 4pm Saturday, and the whole of Sunday, so we borrow bikes free of charge from the hostel (“here’s three sets of keys – if you can make the bikes work, you can take them,” says the trusting girl at reception in perfect English), and meanderingly cycle sunkissed down 12km of clapboard coast to Saltholmen (from the air, the houses look as though they’re made from Port Salut), the ferry port for the Southern Archipelago, a cluster of eight verdant islands not dissimilar to the Isles of Scilly (but where the Scillonian costs close to £100, this ferry was £1.20). To say that we’re amateur cyclists would be far overstating our prowess on the pedals, but the clearly marked cycle paths and sit-up Dutch bikes make for an easy ride, with few mishaps other than chains flying off at high speed. We hop off the boat at peaceful Vrannö, the smallest island, comprising 382 residents (although we’re not sure where they were), a fleet of curious bicycles with huge loading pallets mounted on the front, and a crystal clear, unfettered coastline. We ferry back, and cycle a more direct route home, through Slottsskogen Park, where we see penguins, parrots and pelicans (and other animals that don’t begin with the letter P). Sweden is apparently in the midst of a baby boom, evident by the number of men made all the more handsome by the babies papoosed to their fronts. Whole families cycle together, and the sight of giddy blonde children racing down cobbled streets is affirming – we don’t see an advert for Wii all week.

Everyone had told us how expensive Sweden is, but the only things we pay for are food (the same price as in England), and travel – we spent 100SEK (about £8) on a joint travel card, and after taking 12 trips on it, still £2 remained when we left – beat that, National Rail!). Museums are free as we’re under 25 (not that they ever wanted to check – we were shrugged through without even the promise of ID), and really challenged our preconceptions of Sweden’s national identity (which, to be fair, we had guiltily only gleaned from Eurovision, Ikea, and Swedish pop music).

Our metonymic association of Ikea as representative of Sweden is certainly swayed – the fascinating Röhsska Museet contains a chronological exhibition of furnishings, with every corner questioning what constitutes Swedish design. When the exhibition reaches the seventies, great heed was paid to flat pack design, and the ugly uniform hegemony of homes across the world, with their generic Billy bookcases and Oslo beds. There definitely seemed to be an artistic rebellion against Ikea’s usurping of the homeware market, from Design Torget – a chainstore paradoxically dedicated to showcasing and selling the work of independent Nordic designers – to the beautiful and varying typography throughout the city (Times New Roman and Comic Sans seem unofficially banned from the city’s signage, thankfully).

With its beautiful, stoic university buildings and the romantic village feel of Haga’s cobbled streets, Gothenburg is reminiscent of Oxford and Paris, yet never feels pretentious, or that it’s trying to conform to rose-tinted expectations of how a city should be, it’s casually dismissive of trends, and artlessly welcoming both aesthetically and in spirit. On Monday evening, exhausted after walking miles through the town, we collapse waiting for a tram at Järntorget, and spot a club called Pustervik, advertising a “Pingisklubben” for that evening. A quick Babelfish search on the hostel’s free internet tells us that this is a ping-pong night (and mentions cottages and babies…never trust internet translations!), so we group together with six Germans, a Dutch guy, an Australian, a Lithuanian and an Italian for one of the funniest evenings I’ve ever had. Pingis is a ping-pong table in the middle of the room, with 20 paddles passed around the crowd – everyone takes one hit at a time, going out when you miss or hit the ball off the table, all to the tune of Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and Lykke Li amongst others. As more people go out, the remaining players run doggedly faster and faster around the table, eventually leaving two players to battle it out. We stumble home, to find a new girl asleep in our room, and she’s gone by morning. It reminds me of Lost In Translation, hotel rooms providing the possibility for romantic surprising encounters with people in a similar state of culture shock.

Tuesday takes us and a new Dutch friend around the city’s numerous museums, with highlights including a skateboard exhibition at the Röhsska, and Tomorrow Always Belongs To Us, a showcase of 11 young Nordic artists, whose work ranges from flashing light installations that you’re supposed to watch with your eyes shut, to lifesize gnarled papier maché humanoids twisted under the weight of their self-imposed capitalistic chaos. The museum is an aesthete’s dream, and a brilliant film called Surplus: Terrified Into Consumerism, by Swedish director Erik Gandini catches our eye – set to music by the Gotan Project, and other slippy techno/dubstep beats, he samples and loops excerpts of his interviews with people in the throes of consumerism, lip synching Cuban leader Fidel Castro into saying “I LOVE THIS COMPANY!”, taken from the sloppy mouth of a sweaty, hyped up Microsoft motivational speaker. We’re in stitches, and have to tear ourselves away before the museum shuts.

For our last night in the city, we decide to have a barbeque in the gorgeous Slottsskogen Park, surrounded by babbling ducks and our proud bikes silhouetted against the lake. We promise one another that we will definitely be playing “pin the tail on the Ryan Air flight map” again, for the thrill of the unexpected and the secret internal pride at our intrepid international trailblazing – we feel like pioneers, and leave Scandinavia’s biggest port exporting excited memories as our cargo.

I am in love with Sweden.  

8 August 2008

Mamma Mia

That the two biggest chick flicks of the decade contain subtle allusions to the economic recession should be wholly implausible, but where the Sex and the City film was a climactic exhibition of material excess in the face of the credit crunch, Mamma Mia retorts with a “make do and mend” attitude familiar to the older generation, gently ridiculing its sole socialite and her moisturiser containing “flakes of 24 carat gold and extract of donkey testicle, at $1000 a dollop”. That’s not to say it constitutes cutting edge social commentary by any stretch of the imagination – it’s a film so saccharine and wholesome that the off-key singing of the protagonists is as close at it gets to gritty realism. In case you’re blissfully unaware of the plot, wide-eyed and fatherless Sophie (a spry Amanda Seyfried) is getting married to Sky (Dominic Cooper, who’s about as dreamy and exotic as an Any Dream Will Do contestant), and using covert information gleaned from her mother’s diary, has invited along the three men who could potentially be her father. Cue hilarious conversations at cross purposes and far too much menopausal camel toe for anyone in their right mind to stomach, all to the tune of ABBA’s finest…
There’s a great deal to loathe about this film (not least the soundtrack if you’re not an ABBA fan), from the horrible soft-focus cinematography to the repetitive pratfalls into the glorious Mediterranean, and the pithy script (particularly Pierce Brosnan’s polemic about respecting the rights of the father). The casting is as off-key as the singing – Colin Firth is so embarrassingly unconvincing as a gay man that come the end of the film, the director included an apologetic slow-mo homage to Pride and Prejudice where the abundance of wet-shirted men is in direct inverse proportion to the amount of sex appeal Firth exudes here. It suffers a lack of balance, dedicating little time to the relationship between Sky and Sophie (although we should be grateful for small mercies – their relationship makes that of Troy and Vanessa from High School Musical look transcendent and intense), and its only success at subtly acknowledging Greek mythology (shoehorned in by director Phyllida Lloyd at every opportunity) comes with faintly disturbing shades of the Electra complex that Sophie threatens to develop against Donna pre-wedding.

However (and it’s an extremely begrudged however), Mamma Mia’s greatest success lies in its impeccable knowledge of its target audience – the older generation (or the “BBC crowd” as the film’s marketing manager labelled them)- and part of the film’s indirect charm is to see largely senior audiences one minute acting giddy as school girls (you’ve never heard anything like the screams when the male contingent appear in shiny blue leotards), the next empathising with Donna’s self-confessed technophobia, then cooing with grandmotherly affection as the youth make impassioned decisions. It’s visually addictive HRT, and an older crowd will appreciate a cast that’s not American by majority.
Your average teenager understands that singing in front of people is a mortifying pastime reserved for delusional X Factor contestants, public displays of affection are for saps, and that you should never trust a girl who says her mother is her best friend - but for the older generation, the sentimental decency of the plot recalls a time when entertainment came from making the best of what you had, and not compensating for emotional voids with capricious capitalism. It’s good clean fun, with old favourite Julie Walters delivering the film’s sharpest and most risqué line – when discussing Donna’s sex life in a cringeworthy scene starring a power drill (no prizes for interpreting that metaphor), she upholds that “it’s just more plumbing to be maintained”, and often steals the show with her wired delivery and unabashed willingness to send herself up in the stickiest of situations.

Only people who bandy about the word “trendy” could ever see this film as cool, but happily, the film never pretends to be anything of the sort. It’s a self-indulgent and undignified farce, but the original ingenuity of the ABBA-led narrative still shines through, despite the gaping plot error (the oldies reminisce about flower power and the good old days, making Pierce Brosnan a latent hippy, or Sophie the world’s youngest-looking 39 year old). Where Sex and the City failed to emphasise the so-called empowerment of feminist, liberated modern women, Mamma Mia thrives by discouraging subordination to a life of domesticity and emotional materialism, promoting independence, and self-discovery. Which, when you think about it, is far cooler than desperately chasing romance and $250 cushions…