My Top Five Books of 2018

I remember being told back when I started writing for publication that almost everyone who writes to a high standard reads a lot, too. I’m not sure I quite believed it at the time, but I’ve found myself more and more drawn to well-written tomes over the years, so much so that this particular blog post has just about become an annual tradition (here’s 2017, and 2016). Who knows if any of it’s actually rubbed off!

In keeping with ‘tradition’, this is nothing to do with books that were released in 2018 (they are just ones I read this year), and doesn’t pretend, obviously, to have any learned/ broad perspective (how could it have). I read roughly 50 books in 2018, which has become an oddly consistent number since I started doing this. Of everything I picked up, these are the ones that grabbed me the most…

Marching Powder by Rusty Young (link)

Thomas McFadden was a long-time and seemingly quite effective drug smuggler who ultimately got tracked down and arrested in Bolivia, where he was sent to the notorious San Pedro jail. In this book, a young journalist who was able to buy his way in and out of the jail to talk to McFadden, uncovers the surreal side of his life.

McFadden became a tour guide, showing travelers around the jail. He learned that the prison was the primary source of the drugs he was once famous for buying, with production taking place in areas that the guards couldn’t get near. He bought prison ‘property’, and his own safety, and even found a way to get out of the jail for the night, meet a new girlfriend, and then have her move in with him in San Pedro. Obviously, I have no idea if San Pedro is still like this (the book was published in 2011), but the insight here is breathtaking. The kind of book I had to stop reading to tell people about what was going on: brilliant.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (view)

On finding love in a hopeless place. This is the story of a multilingual Slovak Jew who ended up in the notorious Second World War prison camp, where his language skills and a bit of good luck landed him the job of Tätowierer, the man who tattoos those famous and dehumanizing numbers on new arrivals. There’s an element of mild Nazi-collaboration to Lale Sokolov’s story, but a greater sense that in amongst the sickening world he’s come to occupy, he’s just doing what he has to in order to survive.

For all it’s hard-hitting glances at the prison camp itself, though, it’s the delicate love story that’s what this book is really about. It’s wonderfully delivered, to the point that the grim surroundings almost seem to fade into the background for a while. The ending is powerful, too.

Immigrant Song: Flogging Molly Fly the Flag…

“This is my natural home,” Dave King of Flogging Molly tells us as he sits in his Wexford living room telling us tales of international Irish punk over the phone. “I wish you could see where I’m sitting. It’s beautifully, so quiet, so soulfully Irish.”

King’s tale is a familiar one to our shores. He left his native Dublin as a late teenager, in search of something bigger, and a chance of success. He was drawn to LA, and found himself a regular in a bar called Molly Malones. There, he performed, met his wife Bridget, and eventually encountered the rest of his future bandmates. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, King – at the time a rock vocalist with a band called Fastway – became the frontman of cult Celtic punk band Flogging Molly.

Flogging Molly’s music is a distinct fusion of Irish trad and embittered punk, as well as of the political and personal. One of the band’s biggest hits ‘What’s Left of the Flag’, for example, superficially seems to be about raising the tattered relic of a country high and proud, but is actually a tribute to King’s late father.

Latest album ‘Life Is Good’ – at first glance a deeply sarcastic reference to the bitterness within – is actually a tribute to his mother. After what King describes as “a hard life,” she turned to him on her deathbed and asked him to live his to his full, as she had. He’d always seen her as struggling, but she felt differently.

“I lived in LA for 16 years and it’ll always be the band’s home,” King explains. “Things are different today. I’ve been back in Wexford for 13 or 14 years with Bridget, though we live some of the year in Detroit, too.”

“We spend a lot of our lives on the road. You have to, that’s our bread and butter as a band. We’re just back from South America, and we were in the same airport three times in 30 hours. It gets a bit mad after a while, but we still have loads of ideas. I was on my phone yesterday, looking at notes from last year. When I’m touring, I write them down and then shut them off. I just add sayings to my phone and leave it at that.”

Silverbacks: “we’ve never really known anything but DIY”

The Irish rock scene is in the healthiest state in years, so much so that international publications are starting to pay attention not just to the likes of Fontaines D.C and Girl Band, but also to the broader scene that spawned them. Alongside The Murder Capital, Dubliners Silverbacks look like the next band poised to break out from the scene and make a wider impact. They’re not shy, either, thrashing their guitars through tracks that explore issues like classism and love of false idols. I asked them about their story so far…
Tell me a little about the new single.

‘Just In The Band’ is a song about being in a band inspired by our own experiences and what we imagine it was like for the likes of Iggy Pop and others. It’s also one of our favourite songs to play live.

You get some interesting comparisons when it comes to other acts. Are there any you particularly like? Any weird ones?

We got compared to The Wire last week, I enjoyed that one. I take the ‘Pavement’ and ‘Television’ comparisons as a compliment, we definitely ‘borrow’ a few of their tricks. Both bands had their own unique sound and I’d like to think that we do too.

You seem to have a full-on DIY ethos. How have you found forging your own route?

Doing it DIY was initially a necessity and eventually became a natural progression that made sense for the band. We’ve never really known anything else and it’s been fun, but it’s not necessarily and ethos we’re married to. A good few of our favourite bands started out this way (Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth). I think it often stands to a band if they’ve been doing things for themselves and writing songs for a number of years before they get picked up by a wider audience.

Has it been useful to move on from the ‘bedroom project’ concept and flesh things out a bit?

It definitely has. When we were releasing songs recorded in our bedrooms we were intentionally writing music that would suit the lo-fi ethos and our very limited recording equipment.

Moving to a full band and a proper studio has allowed us to be more adventurous and have much more freedom with what we can write and record. The likes of ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Just In The Band’ would have never worked if we had tried to record them in our bedroom.

Simple Space: Escapism on Wheels in Rural Wales

BEING A SUN LOVER, Wales has never been on my list of preferred travel destinations, and yet here I am, and it works. Our newly acquired campervan’s parked on a hilltop, a great expanse of sand stretching out to three Hobbit-like peaks beneath me, the too-tall shape of our shelter and rollicking wind causing a boiling kettle to shake in the summer breeze.

The Gower is a rugged peninsula south west of Swansea; a largely unheralded corner of south Wales with a distinctly rural complexion, known for its beaches, walks and pub dinners. There’s a Famous Five-like innocence to the place. It’s the kind of happy middle-class escapism that pushed Enid Blyton’s characters into adventurous antics on rowing boats of dubious stability, the kind of place where you escape the tide in your swimsuit and then retire to a barbeque with an oversized hot chocolate.

My wife, five-year-old son and I have decided to explore the area in an old VW, which we check in to the civilised but minimalist peaks of the Three Cliffs Bay campsite. It’s a spot that’s home to a mid-sized camp shop, lots of alluring footpaths, a view of the waves and the heady waft of burning campfires every evening.

The beach is a short stroll down a hill, past timber-framed houses and onto an expanse of sand that varies between a small ledge and 500 metres of smooth, water-dappled space, depending on the state of the tide. There are the ruins of a castle, accessed by clambouring laboriously up a steep sand bank. There are views out over the Atlantic, and a long walk round the headland at low tide takes you to sea-view restaurants and more hilltop visages.

Life drifts. Days involve lying in rock pools, trying to surf the gentle ripples that lap against the shoreline, or ad hoc games of football between two corners of the campsite, obstructed by dogs and ended with marshmallows melted vigorously over a fire.

The Welsh language lives here in the way Irish does in the Gaeltachts: not quite dominant, but always lingering at the edges, the quick and distinct marker of a local. The visiting English speakers seem to soak up the lilt. It gently infected the fringes of their speech, as they take to walking the trails through tangled forests.

Within a swift half hour stroll of Three Cliffs if the Gower Heritage Centre, where chickens roam about, Ariel the mermaid provides lively entertainment for the children, and plastic ducks race down a tiny stream to a still-functioning mill. It’s fronted by a cinema no bigger than a living room and a yoga venue, with cider served up in the courtyard to hardy folks in designer hiking gear.

Wheatus: Seasoned Dirtbags…

NEW YORK pop-rockers Wheatus had a monster of a debut. Their first single, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ was an iconic, catchy ditty that’s actually about distancing frontman Brendan B. Brown’s love of rock music from bizarre 80s allegations of satanic ritual. It went straight in at number one in the UK and Australia, while follow up ‘A Little Respect’, an Erasure cover, also grew wings.

Since those heady days back in 2000, something of a rotation of musicians have taken up roles alongside the frontman also known as BBB (“It’s Batman today,” Brown jokes of his long-mysterious middle initial). The same heights have never been reached, though Wheatus now have six albums, and are working hard on a seventh.

From the mid-00s, though when the band’s relationship with major label Columbia fell apart, Wheatus’ road has been one of resilience, independence, and survival.

“From 2010 to about 2016, we’d have to liquidate after every tour,” Brown explains. “That meant selling off most of the instruments, starting again. I lost some important stuff, like the snare from Teenage Dirtbag, but I needed the $400. It was in part because of technological improvements, too, but it was a way to get by.”

Brown’s passion for the project, then, is clear: struggling independence is a price worth paying, and it’s slowly starting to come good. Wheatus have always been successful in the UK and Ireland, but it’s internet funding through Patreon that’s really pulling them back from the brink.

“Patreon’s been great for us,” Brown says, revealing a few of the stranger requests that have come along with the fan-funded platform. “It’s a lot of fun, they mess with us but in a really fun way. They had us playing a country version of a ballad, and a kind of Britpop dance version of ‘A Fisherman with a Clock’, which is really not that kind of song.”

“We’ve been putting out a lot of stuff that way. It’s a real fly on the wall kind of thing. We also do a Q&A with the fans every month. Once, they asked each of us to name our favourite other member of Wheatus, which was pretty awkward. They’ll be a new album soon. It’s taken time, but it’s never been about rushing through it for me. The album keeps getting delayed because we keep getting asked to go on tour, which we’re happy about, of course.”

Fontaines D.C: Spirit of the Liberties

FADING PHOTOS star on the covers of Dublin rock band Fontaines D.C’s early singles, the images featuring a variety of street-famous Dubs of old. The story, we’re told, goes back to tales of local ‘characters’ passed down through generations in the west of Ireland.

When the band set up in one of Dublin’s most iconic districts, in the shadows of Guinness, they kept hearing similarly compelling stories of local ‘characters’, and the stand-outs became a core part of the band’s identity.

“We all lived in the Liberties together, and it became a big part of our lives. Both the people and the place. We’ve got so much love for it,” guitarist Carlos O’Connell tells us. “The Liberties got us really focused on authenticity, in particular in our vocals. So many Irish bands sounds Americanised. Our band’s accent is just that: ours.”

“We’ve found that authenticity travels. People respect it, even if they don’t always 100% understand it.”

There are plenty who won’t immediately connect with the harsh, jarring backdrop to plenty of five-piece Fontaines D.C tracks. They’re a well-constructed affront: intense and pulsating, lyrically oblique and layered in a kind of tonal grit that makes the guitars scream and the speakers judder. The vocals are almost spoken, yet manage to twist and cut. Tracks like ‘Chequeless Reckless’, ‘Hurricane Laughter’ and pointed reference ‘Liberty Bell’ have got the band jetting around Europe, though a first album remains out of sight around the corner.

“It’s going to be as live as possible,” bassist Conor Deegan of the album they’re working towards. “It’s all written. We’ll take a few days preparing and then go through it as we set up on stage, or as near as possible. We might get to it when we’re done touring.” There’s only a handful of touring off-days for the band between now and Christmas.

“It’s funny that a year ago we were doing our first 2FM session and we were so excited,” Deegan recalls. “It’s become normal so quickly. It feels great to have people coming to us, to have so much reach. The reception has been unreal, we’ve been on BBC6, Radio X, KEXP. You get caught up in the moment. We’ve had to try hard not to let days just pass by; to really appreciate it all.”

TVAM interview: “I’m a natural introvert. I suppose that goes a long way to understanding my motivations”

Wigan’s TVAM is very much the bedroom producer. Joe Oxley’s brand new album ‘Psychic Data’ is the sum of years of work, showcasing a distinctive, intense style, a sprawling urban soundscape of spacey intensity. He’s lost, he says, in a deluge of pop-culture references and musical touch points.

I caught up with the fast-rising urban man ahead of his Dublin show this month…

So the album is just around the corner. How’s the process been, and what can we expect from it?

The tracks were written over the course of a couple of years but I got Dean Honer in to mix them. He helped glue them all together. I’ll never be happy with it (I’m not supposed to) but it’s a good representation of everything TVAM has been to me since the beginning. Distorted pop banger melts.

 You’ve put quite a few of the tracks from the album out ahead of its release. What are the themes that run through them in album form?

I think they sort of stack up on one another when you listen to them as an album. Each track has it’s own sound and theme but the effect is compounded when they’re dished out one after another. I think a lot of the album is about me coming to terms with my own sense of identity-based on feelings of nostalgia, rather than my actual memories. It’s about how completely lost it feels to be a child of pop culture influences.

 Recorded at home, orange vinyl, fruit on the cover. You like to make an impression, I take it?!

As dark as the music can sometimes be, it’s got a lot of colour to it. Orange, to be precise.

Superorganism: Music for the Internet Generation

When London-based Superorganism released their first single, some of them had never met. In fact, their lead vocalist, a Japanese girl living in the USA, had blended with a fading New Zealand indie act living in the UK, and another member from South Korea, but living in Australia. A geographically confused entity, then, they met through message boards and wrote entirely online.

Debut single ‘Something for your M.I.N.D’ changed everything. Its wacky eclectic pop sound threw Superorganism into the mainstream limelight almost overnight. Soon enough, rather than sharing memes and musical thoughts online, they were appearing surrounded by inflatable whales, using apples as instruments and singing about prawns on NPR’s memorable YouTube music channel ‘Tiny Desk Concerts’.

Bravely, the eight-piece moved in together, in London, and things suddenly became a little less virtual. “We never imagined this would end up with us touring and playing festivals,” backing vocalist Ruby tell us ahead of a show at Europavox Festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Frontwoman Orono Noguchi cuts across her immediately, joking “I did. Everything that’s happened, I saw coming.” She’s being tongue in cheek, but Noguchi relocated from Maine to London off the back of early successes to make Superorganism a reality. The band, in general, have shown no little faith in the concept.

“The idea was everything would be done over the internet. Even at the start some of us were living in a house together, but we did everything online,” Ruby explains. “There was quite a big time difference, but we’ve always done things that way. Even now, all in the same house, we do everything by sending it between our rooms.”

Superorganism’s music is knowingly weird. Their eponymous debut album, released in March, is like a trippy, fast-paced sugar-coated glance at the weirder corners of internet culture, all abstract escapism, and wacky asides. The early single won the band a contract with renowned label Domino Records, and the album’s weirder moments include unwater ode ‘The Prawn Song’ and ‘Everybody Wants To Be Famous’, which walks a fine line between parody and a straight-faced reflection of the band’s origins.

The live show includes lots of synchronized dance, garish backdrop videos, and endless smiles. “We could release ten albums right now if we wanted to,” Noguchi tells us. “There’s a huge backlog of stuff we’re working on. There are so many ideas flying around.”