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.