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.”

Nerina Pallot: Growing Up In Music

IN 2006, Nerina Pallot had a big, topical hit single with a perfect piece of peace-demanding pop, ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’. It was the aftermath of invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both greeted with mass protests, and Pallot’s punchy, memorable hit was a throwback to the era of flowers and love. In context, the chirpy pop song made perfect sense.

The thing is, that’s not really who Pallot is. While many will forever tag her as that summer’s big protest-pop singer, that particular track was always a bit of an aside. Her modern-day music is very much deeper and more personal, a kind of soulful, vocally-led exploration of self, warts and all.

“I’ve got another audience now, especially in the UK,” she explains. “The people who bought that song probably aren’t my core fanbase, which is very supportive and much more long term. I’m really in a different part of my career, and I don’t often play ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’ live anymore. It’s not really representative of me as an artist, it just happened to resonate at the right political moment.”

‘Stay Lucky’, her latest LP, follows a string year of monthly EP releases. Pallot jokingly calls it the latest her “death and shagging” record: it’s got this Sunday-morning delicacy, a storytelling quality and quick-witted lyricism that makes it stand out. It’s very much a grown-up reincarnation: still supping wine, perhaps, but with a worldview that’s less quippy sloganeering and more gritty sensuality and storytelling. She’s evolved to be a far cry from her major label years.

“I did years with the majors, but no major label would touch the EPs,” Pallot laughs of her habit of putting out shorter, more experimental releases in recent years. “Majors are all about products and marketing, and I just wanted to do different things. After the fifth one I got a real block, and the sixth EP ended up being real bubblegum pop, but I did one every month for a year, and it was great fun.”

“Then I went on to ‘The Sound and The Fury’, which was very political, but also quite personal. Social media was relentless around Trump and all that stuff, and I was very despondent. This real bitterness became the new normal and I really just wanted to go out and clear my garden, I suppose. Trump is such an attention junkie and people just keep on encouraging him.” Pallot got her anger out of her system, and stepped away.

Planning Objection: Mill Street Student Development Public Access

This week I lodged a formal objection to a planning application aimed at closing off the Mill Street (Dublin) student accommodation block from public access. I thought I’d share it below, in case anyone wants to borrow it (or parts of it) to do the same (note: the deadline for this is Wednesday, October 25). It costs €20 at Dublin City Council’s offices in Wood Quay, after which they’re obliged to tell you of their decision and the reason for it, and you have the right to appeal.

There are a lot of blocks like this being built in our part of Dublin city (I live just south of Cork Street, Dublin 8), and many of them talk a very good game about integrating into the community. Of course, students are a little transient by nature. That’s not their fault, I remember living my university years almost totally cut off from the community I lived in, and most of the time I wasn’t in blocks like these ones, which seem still more shut off.

That said, I think the developers could help integrate the students in a small way by opening up some of these vast complexes to public access, and that’s exactly what this particular block promised in their planning permission. I think this was a key factor in getting such a massive project past local objections.

I was particularly frustrated, then, that when the block opened they immediately shut off all access, including a planned through road, via a huge metal gate (the gate crosses the entrance shown in the pre-build design image, shown above). This has since been protested and highlighted locally, and the current request to change the planning conditions from the owners seems most likely to be a response to those protests. Essentially, the owners are trying to bring the rules back to their position, rather than comply with the rules that got them very recent planning permission. They cite ‘safety’ in a fast-improving area that is, if anything, better than the time of their original application.

I think this is a complete spoof: get the plans past the public (they weren’t popular at the time) by promising to participate in the community, and totally go back on that once you’ve got your highly-priced student accommodation blocks in place.

You can read more about the issues in a Dublin Inquirer article published earlier this week, here.

The objection I have lodged on behalf of myself and my wife (whose name I have removed from the version I’ve put up here) is below. It goes without saying I wave copyright on the below if anyone wants to use it to lodge a further objection themselves.

SUUNS: “In the Age of Selling Records, Nobody Would Have Signed Us to Begin With”

Canadian indie band Suuns are an experimental, aesthetic-led bunch who formed part of a wave of impressive music from Montreal emerging around the turn of the last decade. Their brand of quirky minimalism explores soundscapes, lurching between melodies in this kind of disparate, dismembered approach to music.

It’s not the most accessible of sounds, then, though things have got a little easier to connect with over recent albums. Instead, the four-piece delve down dark alleyways of texture and nuance as they look to indulge… Well, mainly themselves. But a lot of the best music is a slave to no one, right?

I asked singer and guitarist Ben Shemie all about the decade-long journey so far…

It’s been six months since the release of ‘Felt’. How do you see the album now you have a bit of space from it? Have you got used to people calling it ‘happy’?

I still kind of feel the same about it. To be honest, I haven’t listened to it. It’s probably our most concise work, our most mature and complete work to date. don’t get the ‘happy’ thing too much, but mostly it’s because I meet people at our shows and our show is a different thing. It’s looser and more unpredictable.

The general consensus seems to be it’s the most accessible record in a while. Do you care about that kind of thing when you’re writing?

Not really. I think it’s more about making something that resonates with you, and that you feel represents yourself and what you are going for. After that, it’s really out of your hands if people get into it or not. I think it’s nice to be completely uncompromising in our vision and still make a record that is our most accessible to date. I think that’s quite an achievement.