7th November, 2008

Promoting his new solo album The Cross Eyed Rambler, Paul Heaton takes some time out to chat to Student Direct about how to write a great song, using Wikipedia to get a record deal, and the evil that is Walkers crisps.

Paul HeatonPaul Heaton, for those who are wondering, was the chief singer, songwriter, and all round communist of The Beautiful South, one of the biggest British bands of the late ‘80s and early 90s. Formed by ex Housemartins members Paul Heaton and Dave Hemmingway, the band became well known for Heaton’s dark, sarcastic and whingeing lyrics played over chirpy indie pop melodies. Songs such as ‘A Little Time’, ‘Song for Whoever’ and ‘Old Red Eyes is Back’ gained the band a devoted following, and Carry on up the Charts, the band’s first “best of” album, went down in history as the fastest selling British album. The band split up in January 2007, citing “musical differences” as the cause, but Heaton didn’t take retirement.

You’d think with that kind of résumé, getting a deal for a solo album wouldn’t be so hard. “It was devastating”, says Paul. “I finished the record, went on Wikipedia, and took down all the still going independent record labels”. He emailed 30 different labels (along the way finding out that 10 of them weren’t actually independent, but had recently been swallowed), and got two good responses. Five said no, without even listening to the record, stating that they “didn’t think there was a market for it”. Without listening to it. Yes, without listening to it. From that perspective, it’s interesting to consider how independent record labels that do this can survive, a notion that prompts a characteristically guard-dog like reaction from a man who, in his youth, was “left of Stalin” in terms of politics. “They exist on ripping bands off, and the bands you can rip off are the bands without managers or lawyers. Young bands. They sign them to a dodgy deal, before they [the band] know what a dodgy deal is.” “There’s also a bit of a John Peel ethic, you know, don’t touch somebody who’s had such chart success.” But to not want to listen to it first? “Bizarre”, he says.

Heaton has long been known for his song-writing. With lines like “with a choice between loneliness and love-sick QE2’s, well tonight I choose self-abuse” (‘Tonight I Fancy Myself’) to “Life my girl will take away that optimistic skip, stick its big foot out and try deliberately to trip, substitute young hope with arthritic hip” (‘Deckchair Collapsed’), for anyone looking for tips on how to pen an interesting chart topper, he’s your man. “I don’t think you can be too specific” when writing, he says. “If you’re too exact you start sounding like you’re punching the air a bit. Leave a little bit for the listener. Like ‘The Pub’ (a song from the new album). Let them think, “yeah, I know that pub”. Don’t fucking call it the Green Dragon, call it The Pub”.

The great British pub is one of the many issues close to Heaton’s heart, and with its mention springs a good five or six minute conversation about the “5000 pubs closing down a year in the UK”. “That makes me angry”, he says. “Everything about that part of our society has gone skew-wiff”. Preferring a rough pub filled with varied characters and the risk of a glassed face to a “bar full of business suits and wankers”, Heaton attributes the slow death of the “centre of the village society” to a rise in bar culture, and Tesco’s vending of cheap booze. Oh, and the Tories.

The Tories have caused Heaton much anguish, but ranking right up there is the inadvertent forcing of him to terminate his crisp packet collecting. “I do have an incredible collection, and that’s putting it modestly”, he admits. But those days are over. “When I was a kid my politics were to the left of Stalin” he jokingly states, but “I was always told “if you vote Tory then you’d have more choice”. But they didn’t have anything against monopolising everything”. “In my life, Walkers…my fucking daughter will never taste a packet of sausage and tomato crisps…Walkers have taken over. It’s Walkers everywhere.”

Politics is a “real strong vein” through Heaton’s life, as is arguing. “Everything is political”, he says, “and I can argue with that bottle over there. You can leave me in the van by myself and I’ll have a political argument”. “So it’s good to put in songs. Every song is a political song. If you look at charts and you look at a particular month when there wasn’t a song about anything, but there was a big crisis, say the Iraq war. All those people have decided not to talk about that in song. That’s a political statement, not to write anything.”

If you did know who the Beautiful South and Paul Heaton were, then you probably would have been wondering (before 2007) if they would ever go away. But Heaton has plenty left in the tank to rant about. Plus, when asked what he’d be doing if he wasn’t putting his politics to music, he looks visibly worried. “Err…err…when I was a kid I wanted to be a fireman, but I was scared of fire. I think I would’ve just been a real sad loser, I can’t imagine anything else I would’ve done.” So, when he writes that “nothing’s black and white no more, just permanently tanned”, the future for Paul Heaton is quite definitely orange.


29th September 2008

ANOTHER ALBUM, another tour; music editor Matt Elwell chats to Jesper Stromblad, guitarist and founder of Swedish metallers In Flames.

“We are super happy with the new album”, exclaims Jesper, a remark not without justification. One and a half years in the making, A Sense of Purpose is the band’s ninth album, and perhaps most mature, but it wasn’t without its difficulties; “when you’ve been living with the songs for so long it’s hard to be objective and know if we’re putting out a crap album” he explains. The band also invested their own finances in the album’s production, purchasing their own studio in their home town of Gothenburg. “Fully equipped, state of the art”, Jesper boasts, comparing it to the days of The Jester Race where the band “had a much tighter budget”, and so “had to go in and out of the studio really fast”. The Jester Race was recorded in eleven days; A Sense of Purpose has, including the pre-production, two months of recording time behind it.

Across their eighteen year career, In Flames has managed to irritate every music classifier on the planet. Their debut album, The Lunar Strain, flirted with black and death metal, but landed in neither camp and even brought a melodic touch to the table. “Gothenburg” and “melodic death metal” are terms which have been tried, tested, and rejected, as attempts to describe the progression of the band’s sound from the early ‘90s to 2008’s A Sense of Purpose, which features a logical progression from a more metalcore and melodic death metal influenced Come Clarity. It would be easy to ascribe these changes to careful planning, but Jesper disagrees; “we don’t really think about it, it’s just a natural thing; every time we’re ready to write songs and go into the studio…we’re not sitting down and discussing ‘which direction’, or, ‘do we want to please certain market’”.

It’s a mindset that has produced its fair share of controversy over the years. Soundtrack to your Escape was dismissed by some critics as the band jumping on the nu-metal bandwagon, abandoning their extreme metal roots, and selling out. “It’s very different from the earlier stuff” says Jesper. “It came about because we more or less jammed the songs together…we rented a house and just locked ourselves in for three weeks, with a lot of beer”. “A totally different way for us to work”. It was an experiment, something that In Flames is in no way afraid to embark on.

Jesper Stomblad is the guy on the far left

Jesper Stomblad is the guy on the far left

In Flames has also enjoyed an incredibly stable relationship with their record label. Nuclear Blast is now the biggest independent record label, almost with In Flames as one of their flagships. It holds the band in high regard and pretty much drops everything when a new In Flames album appears; “you develop a relationship with the people that you work with…we haven’t seen any reason to change” he says. Politics and finances have only been an issue in America, and it is a situation that the band feels has in many ways taken away a lot of the pressures of the music industry, leaving them free to write, record and tour.

Their approach to music and all of its political and financial pitfalls has reaped many rewards, not just in terms of a devoted fan base. “I might be going to play ‘Cloud Connected’ for the 700th time but every time the intro goes on and I hear the crowd, that they’re really into it, you just feed from them” Jesper declares; In Flames is very much a band that wants to please, and rides on admiration received for that desire. “When you go on tour and you meet all the fans and you see how much people really love what you do; it can be as simple as meeting a fan and shaking his hand as he says ‘Hey, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t pick up the guitar’, or when a tiny baby is called Jesper”. “Music is therapy; it makes me happy” Jesper states enthusiastically. That’s why the band is still going after eighteen years. “Plus the fact that I couldn’t do anything else; I would probably be flipping burgers in McDonalds.”

25th April, 2008

Per, Opeth's keyboardist

Per, Opeth

OPETH TOOK a while to get going. They didn’t tour until their second album, Morningrise. But now, thirteen years on, they are signed to Roadrunner records, headlining Metal Hammer Defenders of the Faith tour with Arch Enemy, and are on the bill for Bloodstock 2008. Has Roadrunner affected the band’s fifteen minute songs?

‘No’ replies Per Wiberg, Opeth’s keyboardist. ‘Not at all’. ‘Don’t edit the songs…that would go for every record company in the world for Opeth’. The message is clear. No one will stop Opeth from experimenting, and making some of the most inaccessible but highly rewarding music in the metal industry.

Per joined the band in 2005, but was a fan from the release of Orchid in 1995. ‘It was a fresh take on more extreme metal’ says Per, but it was 1998’s My Arms Your Hearse that really blew him away. ‘I was recording with Spiritual Beggars that year (Per’s stoner rock band), and actually the guy who owned the studio double booked it because Opeth was there to record My Arms Your Hearse’. Per’s move to Opeth wasn’t as much of a change as I expected: ‘a lot of the influences are the same bands…especially from late sixties psychedelic stuff’.

And there are a lot of those influences on Opeth’s new album, Watershed. ‘Every Opeth album sounds a little bit different’, says Per, but with Watershed, ‘this one is a little bit more raw sounding, a little bit dirtier’, ‘a few more twists and turns in the songs’. And Opeth are known for their twists and turns. The new single, Porcelain Heart seamlessly combines brutal death metal with mellow, acoustic sections and almost angelic singing.

Opeth may not have toured for their first few albums, but for Watershed they are embarking on a twenty month world tour. Does this tour-length affect the band’s performance? ‘Travelling can get to you’, ‘and it affects your everyday mood’ admits Per, ‘and everyone hates security’. ‘But as soon as you’re up onstage everything is good again. All you have to do is play the right notes’. Once you’ve done your stretches. ‘Stretch’, says Per. ‘The back and the neck. It would be impossible to play a gig if you didn’t do that’.

Roadrunner records might not have had an affect on Opeth, but mp3s and downloading certainly have. It’s an issue that is beginning to hit all bands says Per: ‘record labels don’t know how to sell records’. ‘Bands have to look elsewhere to finance the touring’. Illegal or cheap downloads seem to be the way of the future, and Per fears that ‘no one has figured out what to do about it. It’s become an attitude towards music’. And in many ways, he’s right; music is now so easy to get hold of that the thrill of saving up for and buying a CD has gone. People’s unwillingness to pay for their favourite band’s music might soon mean that they don’t get to see them live. In the end, ‘people get the music they deserve’.

Towards the end of the interview Mikael Åkerfeldt, the band’s songwriter, wanders in. He wants his laptop bag back, but it turns out he has a few minutes to spare, and so joins us. He starts talking about the motivation behind releasing Damnation and Deliverance at the same time, when someone brings in a large fan, and starts unpacking it. The fan then becomes the center of conversation for several minutes. ‘It’s a beautiful fan’, remarks Per. ‘It was experiment’, continues Mikael, getting back to the albums, ‘but a bad experience’. ‘The band almost imploded, we recorded them at the same time’. And no, for all you Porcupine Tree fans, no news of a collaboration with Steven Wilson any time soon.

Instead, stories of someone falling asleep during gig, things being thrown at the band whilst on stage. ‘He got a shoe in his head; that seems to be an Australian way to have fun’ says Per, pointing at Mikael. Milwaukee gig goers apparently throw cookies. ‘Getting panties thrown on stage isn’t that common’ for Opeth, but Per remembers a bra. ‘I like the bra. It was huge as well, I don’t know why someone would throw a bra…’.

Finally, an attempt to explain Scandinavia’s link to metal music, from Norway’s black metal scene to metal bands charting in Finland. ‘Finland differs a lot from Sweden’, states Per. ‘They are bigger on metal as a mainstream type of music. Norway recognise metal bands a lot better than in Sweden’; ‘they have something similar to the Grammies’. But ‘Scandinavia has always had a good heavy rock tradition, and NWOBHM was huge’. Which would explain why underground bands like Reverend Bizzare and their 15 minute doom-metal epics chart there. And also, why I’m moving to Finland.