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Graham Hughes: A Global Odyssey

200 countries. One year. No flights. No private transport. One strikingly ambitious man.

When most of us feel the urge to break a world record, we join a particularly large Facebook group, start growing our toenails, or attend an oversized pillow fight. Not Graham Hughes. While the world was still shaking off its collective New Year 2009 hangover, Graham was setting off across Argentina, hoping to cross a few borders before teatime. His main concerns this year have been things like ‘Am I going to get arrested for my out-of-date visa?’; ‘How do I convince the government of an African island that I’m not a human trafficker?’ or ‘Why does every backcountry bus’s resident goat gravitate towards me?’. His record attempt is gritty, multi-national and logistically outrageous, and it’s taken the best part of a decade to get off the ground. Graham’s seeing the entire world, and he’s doing it his way.

The aim? To drop in on every one of the 192 UN member states (plus eight assorted others, in the interest of a nice even number) all inside a single calendar year. With a lot of money and a good grasp of flight schedules, though, setting foot in all those countries – an average of one every 43 hours – would be far too easy, and go totally against both Graham’s philosophy and his budget. So the audacious adventurer came up with some rules to make things more interesting: no flying, no private transport (a rule enforced by the Guinness Book of Records race regulations, which can’t condone a public race – even a year long one – in private vehicles) and no sneaking into tiny backwater territories and counting them as visiting the motherland. That ought to make things suitably complex.

Years of planning concluded when, on the first of January, an otherwise innocuous border crossing from Argentina to Paraguay was accompanied by an appropriate mental fanfare and the start of a solo round the world charge. Only four days later Graham found himself curled up in the back of a bus across Bolivia with a nasty case of altitude sickness, no doubt wondering what on earth he’d let himself in for. Things weren’t to get any easier, and though Graham’s an experienced backpacker, the intensity and pace of this particular trip was another thing entirely.

It takes a particular kind of personality to attempt this kind of adventure. Liverpudlian Graham describes himself as “a total fruitloop” and “hyperactive”, while his philosophy is “to have a good time, all the time” as well as showing a healthy disregard for modern materialism: “on your death bed, do you want to look back on the stuff you bought, or the stuff you did?” It’s the same kind of outgoing thinking that had seen Graham become a central figure on the Liverpool Indie scene, where he shot videos for the likes of Arctic Monkeys and The Coral with his film company Hydra Studios, as well as winning the Liverpool 48 Hour Film Challenge. He also teamed up with Mark Bowness, the founder of the off-the-wall ‘The Beach’ inspired island adventure ‘Tribe Wanted’ (www.tribewanted.com).

The first half of the year went swimmingly: Having negotiated the Americas, Graham even had time to drop in on his family in Liverpool, before flitting through Europe in little more than a fortnight. Then came Africa. Graham’s been arrested in Cameroon, Cape Verde and Congo, for things like filming a nuclear bunker cunningly masquerading as a roundabout, or pushing his visa blagging a little too far. He’s had to re-route to avoid Somalian pirates, struggled with ferry routes to Mauritius and then Madagascar, been sent on 4,000km round trip to replace a slightly out of date visa… and then the worst happened, and the West African island of Cape Verde – which Graham’s own rules dictate he can’t fly to – nearly ended it all.

Having paid an extortionate sum to a Senegalese fisherman to acquire a lift, Graham was arrested on arrival, held in 3m2 cell for six days with eleven other men, and not even given the right to meet with a lawyer. When his case did come to court – and Graham was eventually set free with just a fine – he found getting off Cape Verde almost as difficult, and ended up staying for a total of just over six weeks. The record was still on, but the 200-country target had gone. Unsurprisingly, Graham rates the country as his second least favourite on his website’s ‘League of Nations’, accompanied simply by the word ‘No’. Cape Verde was country number 89, a number that, incidentally, has gained him so many stamps in his passport that the Moldovans were convinced it was fake.

There has been the occasional break in Graham’s manic schedule. He (intentionally) paused for breath in The Dominican Republic, Florida, Halifax and (less intentionally) Gabon, but when he’s on the move, things pass by ludicrously fast. Russia and Belarus were so quick they only involved a walk up to the border post, where Graham – having technically entered the country – was turned around and sent on his way. Plenty of other countries have flown by so fast that Graham confesses that he really doesn’t have anything to say about them.

Logistical problems are a nightmare. With two passports on the go, Graham had to obtain a visa for every last corner of Africa before he left, only to have the entire trip thrown out of whack by his jail time in Cape Verde. West Africa then became a case of blag (or pay) your way through, while Graham’s long suffering girlfriend Mandy and the rest of the Odyssey team hung around at home trying to fix it all up. The Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries have proven awkward, too, with personal invitations from residents needed for every visa.

On the ground, things are a lot more fun. In Gabon, Graham sampled Iboga, a hallucinogenic tree root that the local tribes use to liven up the evenings, but managed to avoid the full tribal induction. A good thing, too, since it involves taking so much you vomit, and often having the root inserted up your bum to top it off. In Venezuela he sat quietly and pondered amongst nerve-jangling maps laying claim to Guyana, a long time British (and never Venezuelan) territory. On reaching Columbia, Graham experienced America’s ludicrous forest-destroying anti-cocaine policy first hand, and responded by blogging “fair trade cocaine is the way forward”. Later, in a single day in Europe, he visited Liechtenstein and Switzerland by 5am in the morning, before mistakenly taking a train to the tiny and inconveniently named Italian village of San Marino, and having to turn round to check off the better-known principality.

Mind-bogglingly, the total budget for the entire trip is less than £18,000, which works out at under £90 per country, meaning – if you have Graham’s flare for a budget – you could see the entire world for the price of a mid range car. This works partly because of Graham’s insanely fast pace of life (he covered most of Europe in days, and England, Scotland, Wales, the North and the Republic of Ireland in just 24 hours), but it’s largely because experience has taught him how to travel on the cheap. Couchsurfing, sleeping on trains, eating street food and hitching lifts are all part of the fun, and keep Graham’s hard earned cash stretching to plenty of new horizons.

The madness all has to be documented somehow, and Graham plans to turn his adventures into what will no doubt be one of the more off-the-wall travel books. He’s gained the (non-financial) backing of National Geographic, Lonely Planet and the BBC, too, who plan to make a documentary on his efforts, while all the man himself wants from the experience is to enjoy the lunacy and set a seriously hard-to-beat benchmark. So will he make it? Well, Graham’s latest estimate puts him at around 170 countries by the dawn of 2010, 30 short of his original ambitious target. That’s still an average of very nearly a country every two days. He blames Cape Verde for falling short, but he’s far from bitter. If he makes it as far as Australia (country number 188) for New Year, our gallant explorer has promised to head for Cairns, watch the fireworks whilst quite phenomenally drunk, and throw himself naked into a billabong.

As Graham’s attempt is the first of its kind, however it goes he will finish up with a record. It’s going to be a seriously hard mark to beat, too, but should you have the guts to make your own attempt, Graham’s been kind enough to throw us some tips: “Have your own yacht, or know how to sail. Get to Cuba from Mexico, not the US. Don’t turn up in Cape Verde with a bunch of Senegalese fisherman. Wear your safety belt. Smile, and the world will smile with you”. Go on, we dare you…

To catch up with Graham, you can find his blogs, video diaries and witticisms on every country to date at www.grahamdavidhughes.com, or catch up with the day-by-day madness on Twitter at @TheOdysseyExp.

As published in AU Magazine, December 2009.

Can’t Find Concert Tickets? You’re Not Alone

Expats – at least those fresh off the boat – often bemoan the difficulty of buying concert tickets here.

With the likes of Oasis, Jamiroquai, Maroon 5 (and Weezer!) starting to show their faces Seoul-side, it’s high time we all learnt how to get past our language problems.

As Muse, Kasabian and Nine Inch Nails know, interest in Western music is at an all time high in Korea, which means the need to get tickets early is almost as pressing as it is in the rush for those magic Seo TaeGi or Drunken Tiger passes.

If you live in Seoul, ticket-buying’s not too difficult if you know where to go. Bandi and Luni’s bookstore (in Gangnam and Bundang) or Kyobo bookstore (in Gangnam, Bucheon and Jogno) are good places to start, with each branch selling tickets for a selection of events and usually able to provide service in decent English.

In other cities it’s also common for major bookstores to stock tickets (Kyobo in Daegu, for example), though tickets for events elsewhere are rarely held.

Alternatively, turning up at the venue with a calendar and the name of the artist spelled out in Korean has worked for me in the past, too. It’s worth noting that a lot of bigger events have an early bird price if you buy a few months in advance, which will usually save you 5,000 to 10,000 won.

For those living a long way from the venue, online ticketing is the way to go. Some good places to start are ticket.interpark.com or ticket.auction.co.kr.

If you don’t have substantial Korean skills, you’ll need to rope in a friend to guide you through the online booking steps. If you’re lucky, they might lend you the use of their credit card – in exchange for the cash, of course – to get your reservation through. But if not, most companies accept payment via the easy to use English language bank transfer options available on most Korean ATMs. You’ll probably need to take the supplier’s account details to a branch of your own bank to make the transfer, though some banks allow transfers from cards connected with other banks. You’ll also need a Korean address to have the tickets sent to; most employers will allow you to use their details if you have any doubt.

It’s worth noting that the booking isn’t always confirmed when you complete the online process. Confirmation can involve a follow up phone call from the company you purchased from, or in some cases ticket purchase is confirmed when the bank transfer is received.

Check the policies carefully. The sites can also prove troublesome when it comes to registering: Alien registration numbers are required, and we’ve found they’ve been accepted or declined at different times and on different sites, with various levels of success.

The phone options have no such requirements, so if it’s proving too difficult, InterPark English ticket reservations can be contacted on 02-1544-1555 (press #2 for English).

With so many concerts cancelled in Korea, there might well be times when you need to return your tickets, too. Summer Breeze Festival (featuring The Prodigy), Flower Power Peace Festival and 50 Cent’s Korean date were all announced last year, but never took place.

It’s always worth keeping a close eye on official websites to check the status of any concert right up to the day before you head off. If the worst does happen, those who paid by bank transfer should wait a week or two before getting in touch, as refunds are often automatic. If you bought your tickets in another way, get back in touch with the point of sale as soon as you can. The promoters are legally required to refund your ticket money, though you’ll probably lose out on any booking fees.

As published in the Korea Herald, 15th December 2009. Click here to view original

Interview: Basement Jaxx

For all his international acclaim and house-tinged pop smashes, Basement Jaxx’s Simon Ratcliffe still comes across as extremely down to earth. Defying the fame-related party clichés tracks like the notoriously raucous ‘Where’s Your Head At’ lead you to expect, Ratcliffe still lives in the same corner of Brixton in which he once – together with partner in crime Felix – launched the ‘Rooty’ club night that set Basement Jaxx on the long road to international notoriety. Ratcliffe summarizes the area he lives in as “far from glamorous”, and his studio apartment as “probably not big enough” now that he’s bringing up a three-year-old daughter. He still cycles to work every morning, and dismisses the five-star perks that come with being part of a noted touring band as “great, but you have to keep your feet on the ground”. This down-to-earth attitude to fame goes a long way to explaining why ‘Jaxx are so rarely in the press for anything other than their music, and why – a decade down the line – they’re still as influential as ever.

If you ask Simon for tour stories, he’ll admit there have been a few wild times (“but you can’t live like that all the time, we try to keep our sanity in check”), and – highlighting the abundant female singers accompanying the group – portrays the atmosphere as “almost mothering. If we were just blokes together we’d probably be a bit more naughty. But there’s a really good chemistry, all kinds of characters”. The pumping live show and manic videos are not so much a portrayal of the duos lifestyle, but “in a spirit of fun, humor, imagination and experimentation”. All, it seems, is not quite as chaotic as public image has led us to believe.

Kish Kash was evidently a massive breakthrough for the duo on a personal level. Having always relied heavily on guest vocals, Jaxx graduated from “grabbing people off the street” to working with an up and coming (and yet to be signed) Dizzee Rascal and Siouxsie Sioux. The latter, in fact, is the product of a conversation about the title track during which the duo described their need for someone ‘like Siouxsie Sioux’ to sing the vocals, and found they had the draw to get a proper pop star on board. “From that moment on, we felt that we could venture out and ask a few more people who are established. We’ve always had guest vocalists, but now they’re people who have their own careers. We look for people with real character and personality, and most of the people who have that are already established.”

Simon describes latest effort Scars as “Basement Jaxx ten years after ‘Remedy’”, and therefore “more mature and reflective, as that’s where we were when we were making it, you can’t rock the world when you’re five or six albums down the line”. Despite acknowledging the new album’s successes live, it sounds like Basement Jaxx are their own harshest critics. “I’d have loved it if Scars had sold millions of copies and gone to number one all over the world. You put your heart and soul into something for two years…”

The house to Scars pop is Zephyr, an EP originally slated to stand alongside Scars as a double album. Simon describes the two efforts as “the two parts of the Basement Jaxx brain. Zephyr’s more influenced by jazz and experimental music, and we know there are people out there who like that side to what we do. In a way that comes from the original meditative deep house music, which was very soulful and reflective. It’s less like a set of songs, and more just a stretch of music”. By separating the two, Jaxx also hope to make Zephyr distinct from a ‘bonus CD’, and while they’re certainly not expecting much commercial success from the EP, they plan to promote it as the more experimental effort that it is, as well as marking it out as distinctly different to the new album without the less pop-focused audience switching off.

They’ll be plenty of chances to air their more experimental side live, too: “the live show’s wicked for us, it’s a chance to reinterpret stuff. I’m more in the mood for the DJ side of things right now, rather than the songwriting, so we’ll be taking the chance to do a little bit of what we were dong twelve years ago. New voices give you new ideas, so we rearrange the songs. Obviously we can’t have Yoko Ono, Dizzee Rascal etc. on tour with us every time, but there are about ten people on stage. It always goes off in Ireland. People are not portentous; they get stuck in. If people will come, we’ll be there.”

It’s hard to push Simon on where things might head next. The remixes seem to be a thing of the past, with Simon pointing out “the last thing we need is any distractions, and people are really good at doing mixes with their laptops. We were known for our part in the mash-up, bootleg scene, and everyone’s doing that now. It seems a little bit pointless, and the desire isn’t quite there at the moment. Vampire Weekend asked us recently, though. That could be interesting.” There’s a sense that it depends a lot on where the next spark of genius comes from, but Basement Jaxx are certainly at something of a creative junction: “Scars was the fifth album of a five album contract, and now we’re looking back at the DJing. It’s all very cyclical in a way. Ten years we’ve been with XL. Now the future’s open. The final date of the tour is the 28th of February in Japan, and that will be kind of the end of an era. After that, I think we’re both keen to take a break, maybe do a few things just for fun”. At a push? “I’d like to do some more stuff like Zephyr, and we’re thinking about doing some film music. I’d like to get together with someone who’s making a film”. There it is, then: Basement Jaxx, coming soon to a stage and a screen near you.

As published in State Magazine, December 2009. Click here to view the original.

Introducing: El Salvador

‘Fly to El Salvador, don’t know why and I don’t know what for…’ English rockers ‘Athlete’ pretty much sum up the prevailing wisdom about this small corner of Central America, which people still remember for it’s ferocious 90s civil war. As we all know, however, prevailing wisdom isn’t always that wise. There is still an undercurrent of illicit activity, but all in all, the negative image is the perpetrators loss.

If it is the civil war that fascinates you, check out the sobering sites at Perquin – a former rebel stronghold – where a revolutionary museum gives visitors a glance at the homemade hardware and political leanings of the insurgents, as well as the remains of the helicopter their leader ultimately died in. The area is also a haven for bird spotters and plant lovers, as home to copious breeds of birds of prey and an abundance of tree-hugging plants.

At Parque Nacional Montecristo-El Trifinio you can stand amid the clouds, and watch drops fall from the leaves of a lush green rainforest stretching to the horizon. Forest hikes take you over quivering footbridges and past a phenomenal array of technicolored wildlife, scampering and fluttering through the trees. Off shore, surfers traverse waves many argue are the best in Central America, launching off brooding black-sand beaches right in the heart of the jungle.

Hopping San Salvador is not the prettiest of cities, but it does have a noisy street culture and funky nightlife that charms visitors nonetheless. Gang culture’s alive and well here (you’d best avoid the notorious district of Soyopango), but with a little care, most travelers find it an unexpected highlight. A more laid back, colonial ambiance is up for grabs at quiet Suchitoto, where you can gawp at the surrounding volcanoes from a cobbled lane, or visit harrowing bomb craters on the back of a trotting steed.

Relatives may greet news of a trip to El Salvador with presents of flak jackets and tearful send offs, but, as long as you’re careful, the same group will be eying your photos with ill-disguised envy on your return.

Commissioned web-content article for TravBuddy.com (reproduced with permission, click here to view the original). Brief: to give a colorful, interesting introduction to El Salvador in less than 350 words.

Classic Album Review: Moby – Play

Part of New York’s notorious late 80s party scene, DJ Moby’s eclectic dance output made him a popular deck master at some of the cities most infamous clubs. His clean-living lifestyle – a reaction to an exposed upbringing amongst drug-fuelled hippie communes – earned him the nickname ‘techno monk’, and had Moby labeled an oddity from the start.

The music press never took to him. The refusal to conform to techno stereotypes singled Moby out, while – once his solo career started – a wild inconsistency in the style of early albums made him artistically awkward, and difficult to define. The problem was, with a background flirting with thrash metal, hardcore dance and offbeat hippie beats (he’s a self confessed Jefferson Airplane fan), Moby simply didn’t want a single distinct sound, and even adopted several pseudonyms to avoid having to adopt one. Instead of pondering the possibility of Moby producing something brilliant, journalists mocked his straightedge lifestyle and dismissed his mottled – and extremely haphazard – output. 1999’s Play proved them emphatically wrong.

In truth, even Moby’s most successful album was a slow builder. Initially dismissed as an ambient twist on his consistently unpredictable sound, despite strong reviews, Play garnered little early press coverage, and gained a slow-building success through its emergence in copious adverts and films.

Eventually selling over 10 million copies worldwide, and seeing half its tracks launched as singles, Play’s success builds on Moby’s stalwart faith, using gospel samples throughout on what most critics agree was an entirely new twist on electronic music. Porcelain, a chill out tune that became synonymous with East Asian trance culture after it’s appearance in the film The Beach, quickly established itself as the ecstatic stand out, while Natural Blues, a lively remix of a Vera Hall a cappella track that developed into a wild dance classic live became a massive fan favorite. Why Does My Heart Feel So bad, a slow-building, mournful piece of ambient techno with a gospel choir on vocals was an instant backpacker classic, while the lively Honey and Bodyrock showed Moby hadn’t left behind his more dynamic roots altogether.

It’s difficult to imagine a more insightful look into a man’s soul than Play, which oozes sensual spirituality, and many see it as a definitive work in the ambient electronica genre. If you want to know anything about Moby, grab a copy of this album – and the forceful ethical essays that weigh down the accompanying sleeve notes – and enjoy a sound that could only be produced by someone with such a fantastically eclectic background. It’s a moment of sparkling genius, and despite his other successes, Moby has never – and probably will never – reach the emphatic heights of Play again.  Gospel and techno? who’d have thought.

As published in Pith Magazine, Autumn 2009 issue.

Interview: The Wailers

Before taking his chance to jam with The Wailers in 1996, Elan Atias was a reggae loving L.A. musician of no particular repute, still even to set foot on a stage. A few days afterwards, he found himself appointed the new lead singer of a band that – if you take into account their Bob Marley days – has sold in excess of 250 million records, and was formed a decade before Atias was even born. Pressure enough, you’d think, but throw in the unavoidable stigma of being ‘Bob’s replacement’, as well as Atias’ mixed North African and European heritage (he has a pale complexion, and on taking the job, in the days before Sean Paul and co, became one of the first mainstream ‘white’ reggae artists) and the singer must have spent the first heady weeks alternating between pinching himself and hiding under a rock.

Somehow, though, he came through and the singer State finds on the other end of the phone is a confident and charismatic man; a man with an evident passion for what he does, who politely thanks us for our questions and answers them with substantial thought and insight, simultaneously bouncing his young baby on his knee throughout. Atias knows life has been kind to him, and he has every intention of being kind and courteous in return. No doubt he’s sick of being asked about Mr. Marley, but we couldn’t resist. “I’m not trying to be Bob” Elan’s quick to point out, “I’m just trying to keep the message going. I’m just another member of the band. The most intimidating thing to start with wasn’t ‘replacing Bob’; it was making sure I had all the lyrics. I wasn’t scared of the crowds, though The Wailers was the first band I ever sang with. But every fan knew word for word all the songs and the first shows we did together I did entirely from my memories of the records as a kid. We didn’t rehearse or even sound check together until after the first eight shows”.

Elan is actually one of several singers who’ve fronted The Wailers over the years, but having held the post for thirteen years now, he’s the longest standing since Marley. The Wailers’ message, according to Atias, is stronger than ever: “It’s all about one love, one aim, one destiny. Today there are more wars, more atrocities, more problems, than ever before. I think the music means more today than it did when it was first made. We started an organization called ‘I Went Hungry’, with the UN World Food Organization, after we realized that at every show we had so much food backstage, and there’s only so much room on the bus. We were wasting 80% of it every night, and thousands of people are dying of hunger every day. Every six seconds a child dies. So we started telling the promoters to take the money allocated to our rider and give it to the world food program. We persuaded some other artists, comedians, and actors with the same privilege as us to give up their riders as well. It’s been a year and a half, and we’ve saved 600,000 kids. I speak to the audience in the encore about it, and we sell these red wristbands, like the Live Strong ones. In Europe it would be for one Euro. We post up on the website how much money we raise at each show. It goes back to what ‘Wailers’ means: to cry out. This band was a voice to so many people, and this kind of thing is what I think it’s all about. The message is what made this band bigger than any one individual.”

As part of their ‘peace and love’ leanings, The Wailer’s have become well known for breaking down geographical boundaries to play in countries most artists wouldn’t even consider. Recent tours have taken them to India, Morocco, UAE and Brazil. Atias clearly loves the mystique of it: “These people don’t know the words or understand them, but they make the sound, phonetically, and you can see that they’re feeling it. On this tour we’re gong straight from Ireland to Abu Dhabi; from a place where drinking is a way of life to a place where you get put in jail for drinking publically. I’d really like to go to China, especially with their politics.”

Despite the loving international outlook, things haven’t always been plain sailing for the singer. When he first stepped out, for example, crowds struggled to take to a non-black front man. “Back when I started, there was no other white reggae artist. Well I’m not really white; I have a bit of everything in me. I’m like a world mutt. But back then, there was no Manu Diao, or Sean Paul – well he wasn’t famous anyway – and people’s jaws would drop. They’d think I was lip-synching, I could see the audience talking about it for the first 30 minutes of the show. And afterwards, they’d come up and be like ‘man, you had us for 20, 30 minutes, we thought you were faking’, you know. People would really say that. It’s faded over the years, but once there was a really negative reaction. I saw a commotion at the side of the stage at one gig, and after the show security told me that these two women had been talking a lot of sh*t early on. But by the end of the show, they were won over. Actually, Bob had so many kids, people often think I’m one of them. That’s kind of funny.”

Of course, the kind of attention The Wailers attract is always going to come with a certain number of odd experiences. Atias is being sued for the use of his first name. “This Mexican woman also calls herself Elan, and she tried to sue me for copyright breach. It was a waste of time. I’ve known of her for years, but I never even thought of doing anything. She’s a blonde girl from Mexico, so there’s no conflict, it’s not like you’re going to get mixed up. She sings rock music. And I’ve actually been around longer than her. If anything, I could have sued her, but why would I need to do that? It cost a lot of money, and took a lot of time and energy, and she ended up losing. The court found that I had been using the name first. It was a lot of wasted energy for something so negative.” For reggae singers, it seems, the worst thing about even a court case is the bad energy it throws up.

Atias and Aston ‘Familyman’ Barrett, The Wailers notorious Rastafarian bassist, have recently started their own record label, and have been pouring their hearts into the first record. “It’s a collaboration record” Atias explains, “The idea is to get in lots of different artists from different genres, and have them sing on top of a Wailers-sounding track. Familyman has a tape of unreleased drum tracks from his late brother Carly, from the 70s, outtakes from the Exodus album, that kind of stuff. We digitized them, and used them as the cornerstone of the new material. So all the new tracks have Carly Barrett on them, Familyman adding new bass lines, Tyrone Downie on the keyboards, Earl ‘Wire’ Lindo on the organ, it’s all the guys who are still alive from the old albums. And one of the dead ones. It sounds like the old Wailers. But it’s taken so long, as we’ve been chasing after these artists, who have their own schedules and their own priorities. They’re A-list artists from all around the world. I can’t mention any names yet as we’re still finishing up the paperwork, but we’re hoping it will be out towards the end of the first quarter (of 2010). We have all the songs, and we’re mixing it and working on the paperwork. It’s amazing; there are country, pop, hip-hop, rock, soul and R&B artists, singer songwriters… There’s no need to put things in categories, actually, it’s all music…”

On this particular tour, which comes to Ireland this week, The Wailers will be performing seminal album Exodus in full. “Time Magazine voted it album of the century, and ‘One Love’ was voted by the BBC as song of the century”, Atias explains, “so we thought, why not do it in its entirety, like it is on the record, and it’s been really great. We found it really worked live. In the beginning it was a bit weird, because ‘Exodus’ from the album was always one of our big finale songs, and now it comes in the middle of the set, like on the album. But the audience really respond to it.” The Wailers often follow ‘Exodus’ with a selection of Atias’ own material, tracks that the audience often mistake for old Marley era B-sides. “It’s such a compliment” he gushes, “I was inspired by The Wailers”.

It’s amazing, really, that a band that peaked in the 70s is still such a mammoth cultural force. Atias puts it down to their message: “The message of the band transcends everything else over the years. We’ve never been about any one member, there have been so many members in this band since its inception, we’re named after ‘to wail’, which is kind of the voice of the people. When I first started I was the same age as the majority of the audience. And now, ten years later, the audience is the same age and I got older. The majority of the audience is still 16-25, though there are people there aged 7-70. That is the difference between this band and other bands. Other bands that have been around for that long, like the Rolling Stones, for example, are playing largely to people the same age as they are. They play to 60 year olds. But our younger audiences are just finding out what life is about, what life is going to bring them, and what they’re going to choose. This music is that guide. It was a guide for me. I mean, I had no idea I was going to be the singer, but it was almost like a religion. It helped me find myself. It speaks through generations.”

You can’t help feeling that Atias still speaks as much as a fan of the band as a member. He’s not an outsider, not by any means, but he’s still in awe of the work those around him have produced, and extremely proud to contribute his own small part to an astonishing musical legacy. He’s not Bob’s replacement. He’s just here to spread peace, love and understanding through some sublime music, whilst standing alongside his childhood heroes, and save the lives of a whole lot of starving children along the way.

As published in State Magazine, October 2009. Click here to view the original.

MICE Overview: Shanghai World Financial Center

Adding it’s own distinct, hanger-style peak to the ever-modernizing skyline of Shanghai, the characteristic, centrally located Shanghai World Financial Center has the stated aim of being “the venue that consistently raises the bar in the conference industry”. It certainly starts from an iconic base, as one of the defining features of China’s most modern city, and hosts such a vast assortment of services within it’s curving sides that attendees could easily enjoy their entire trip to China without ever leaving the building.

Of course, it’s ‘the forum’ – an extensive and well stocked business and convention segment – that will bring MICE participants to the center, and it consists of an incredible 21 different spaces in which to hold your event. For premium events, the superlative open spaces of the 94th floor (750m2 floor area, 8m high ceilings) have views across the city, and elevators that allow customers to bring in substantial displays (as large as a mid-sized car, and including one, should you need it) into this striking space. It’s over 400 meters above the surrounding city, and perfect for wowing even the choosiest of potential customers. The whole thing was only completed in 2008, so even the most local of clients may be taking their first glance.

For the less cash-stacked, venues downstairs are similarly flush, minus the views. On the 4th, 5th and 6th floors you’ll find luxurious, secure conference rooms with a heavy focus on ergonomics and energy saving (the minimal environmental impact of the center’s facilities make it an ideal venue for green companies – other green facilities include biodegradable amenities and the exclusive use of recycled paper). Aside from the 800m2 grand ballroom, attendees can also access private, boardroom style VIP rooms that incorporate all the overwhelming opulence of the 94th floor, minus the views, and with a far less substantial price tag. State of the art conferencing equipment includes audio and visual services that are set up for on-the-spot translation, while a large business center and wireless Internet are also up for grabs.

If your event just won’t be complete without a decadent menu, custom made organic dishes can be provided, and altered to incorporate any number of national cuisines or an elaborate selection of fusion dishes. The center’s banquets can comfortably welcome up to 360 people, while the largest of the conference room squeezes in up to double that number.

Besides the conference facilities, there are plenty of other attractions on site for visitors to sample. The 100th story observatory – at a vertigo inducing 474m – surpasses even the 94th floor for overwhelming views, particularly in the early evening. If that’s not exhilarating enough, the 97th floor sky bridge can give even the bravest visitor a spinning stomach. The exotic, modern art interpretations of the buildings on offer in the souvenir shops make wall-worthy mementos.

Then there’s the elegant luxury of the Park Hyatt Shanghai, with views across the river and an enviably personalized service. There’s a range of restaurants incorporating high street brands (Starbucks, Subway) alongside astonishing, sort-after luxury eaterys, local dishes, and even a selection of shops that’ll help you stock up on souvenirs and high-class wine before the journey home. When it does come to going home, both the regional and international airports are only half an hour drive away, whilst the nearest subway is a five-minute stroll.

Of course, as much as you could stay on site for your entire trip, you probably won’t want to. Fortunately, Shanghai World Financial Center couldn’t be much more in the thick of things, and a gentle walk will take you to some of the city’s premiere attractions. The iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower – Asia’s tallest – is a mish-mash of iconic modern architecture, featuring a revolving teahouse and stomach-wrenchingly fast-paced elevators. The huge Jin Mao building is just down the road too, as is Shanghai’s impressive Science and Technology Museum. If your clients are Shanghai based, you’re in luck: the huge number of the city’s biggest businesses are crowded around the fashionable Pudong area.

Back inside the building, the high technology of this modern day venue can only reflect well on the businesses that use it. From the cleverly designed two storey elevators, to elaborate energy saving systems and sophisticated temperature controls, there’s little in the way of modernity that the designers haven’t incorporated. Of course, being only a year or so old, you certainly won’t find anything shabby or run down.

The stunning design of the Shanghai World Financial Center, combined with a vibrant, business-oriented surrounding area, a spectacular array of conferencing options and an undeniably flash feel to the whole place make the facility a massive MICE draw. Throw in a staff that focus on the small things alongside a strong ethical appeal, and it’s hard to think why anyone wouldn’t be interested in this monstrous Chinese venue.

As published in ASEAN Tourist Board literature, 2009.

Interview: Girls

How many bands must there be around the world that are searching desperately for a record deal? If you think about it, you probably know at least one, but Girls – a quirky lo-fi rock duo who, despite the name, are 100% male – picked up an offer for debut album Album without even trying. Then again, when you have a history as interesting as Christopher Owens’, writing music must come incredibly easily. When State caught up with the songwriting half of Girls, he was preparing for the latest date on his European tour in Malmo, Sweden, and willing to discuss much more than your average well-prepped musician will delve into with the media. Read on, for a glance into the cult-influenced, drug taking world of a man who’s finally found his niche…

Your new record, Album, comes out next week. Tell us about it…
Well, it’s the first thing I ever wrote. I was in punk bands before as a guitarist, but this is the first piece of music I wrote myself. I didn’t actually write it with the intention of making an album; it was all just a bit of fun. We recorded it all in the early hours of the morning on broken recording equipment, while we were working full time jobs. Then it got a good reaction from our posting the songs on the Internet, and we’ve gone from there. It’s actually been quite a long time since we wrote the album, even though it’s only coming out now. But, as much as we’re happy with this, it was never our aim. We kind of fell into it.

I hope you won’t be offended if we say Album is quite a raw LP, perhaps because of the way it was written. Is there anything you’ll do differently on your next effort?
We won’t be changing our values, but we will be going for a slightly more mature sound. There were things we weren’t able to do with this album, because of how it was recorded. I’ve already written about fifty more songs since, and our live set now is made up of a 50/50 mix of songs from Album and other stuff. We don’t know what will be on the next album yet, but we plan on touring a lot until about spring or summer next year, and then making another album.

You had quite an unusual upbringing. Is that something that comes out in your music?
Not really. I mean it’s a big part of me; I was born into a cult, and escaped when I was 16 and went to live with my sister, who escaped before me. But my time playing punk was more a reaction to that, to the anger. Obviously I’ll never forget it. This album is more about my life now. But the cult’s still going. It’s been through about five different names since then, and changed a lot. I was a second-generation child, and most of us left, though the older members would tell us it’s the worst decision of our lives, and that we’d go to hell for it. Shortly after I left everyone started leaving. There were murders, suicides and all sorts after I left because of kids leaving. In the end the group were forced to go back on their beliefs, and I’ve heard things are different now, though I don’t have any contact with them anymore.

You took a lot of drugs when you were writing the album, right?
(laughs) Can you hear it in the music? Yeah, we just did it to relax, really. We don’t do it as much now that we’re touring, but we’ve had a few gigs where fans who’ve read about the drugs come along afterwards, and I wake up the next afternoon and have to scramble to the next venue. But the rest of the band isn’t really into it, and for me it’s pretty normal. It’s not really exciting.

If that’s not exciting, what is an exciting tour story for Girls?
I prefer just meeting people. On our first US tour with The Smith Westerns we got really close, and became best friends. We still keep in touch by email all the time now, set each other up with gigs, stuff like that. There have been quite a few crazy things happening, but not as many as you might expect, mainly because I’m so scared of failure.

What’s the dynamic like between yourself and JR?
We have a really good relationship. I think it works well because we need each other. I write the songs, but I can’t do the production. He’s really good at that.

Laura and Lauren Marie (song titles from Album), are they real people?
Yeah, Laura’s a friend. Actually she’s an old girlfriend’s best friend, who became jealous about her friend spending more time with me than her. The song’s about trying to clear the air with her. Lauren Marie is a girl I met at a party that I kind of liked, but it never really worked out. They know who they are; it’s a really tight knit group in San Francisco. Everyone knows what everyone’s doing all the time.

Do you think San Francisco is an important part of your music?
I think it probably is, but it’s not intentional. Bands usually sound like where they’re from; it’s natural.

The album manages to be quite upbeat despite being about quite negative things…
Yeah, a lot of our lyrics are quite downbeat, but the music’s about me trying to be positive and look at things in a good way. When you have a background like mine you can’t concentrate on the negative all the time, so even when the subjects aren’t so positive, I wanted to keep a positive feel.

Will we be seeing you in Ireland soon?
I hope so. I’d love to come to Ireland; one of the first band I bought all the albums by when I escaped from the cult was The Cranberries. But we’re still at a stage where budget is a major restriction on where our tours can go, we have to go where we can afford to. We’re doing a UK tour in February, so hopefully we’ll make it over then.

As published in State Magazine, September 2009. Click here for original.