New Order is in the news after Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert announced they are playing two benefit gigs in Brussels on 17 and 18 October in aid of their friend and former Factory Records creative producer Michael Shamberg. This is news in part because the announcement was news to bassist Peter Hook, who released a statement saying: “It has taken me completely by surprise! Everyone knows that NEW ORDER without PETER HOOK is like QUEEN without FREDDIE MERCURY, U2 without THE EDGE… it would have been courteous and professional to have spoken to me in advance of the announcements. It is very sad.”
It would be sadder to let the latter day acrimony between the (ex) members of New Order tarnish the memory of a band shaped electronic music. The story goes like this…
Love will tear us apart/Again
When Joy Division singer Ian Curtis hangs himself in his home in May 1980, age 23, the band is left with a Top 20 single and no idea what the future might hold. Joy Division’s swan song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” is a shattering hymn of lost love and disillusion, and a fitting farewell to the bleak British 70s. Wisely, the remaining members of Joy Division, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, realise there’s no future in clinging to the shadows of the past. They change their name to New Order, recruit keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, and begin writing new music.
“There isn’t a band in history to have so radically changed how they sound and what they do in such a short time,” writes Guardian journalist Rob Fitzpatrick. The evidence bears him out. “Temptation,” released two years after Curtis’s death, is an irresistible almost-love song that takes Joy Division’s bass-fuelled angularity and drapes it in a starburst guitar and skittering drumbeats. When bands like the Klaxons and Cut Copy ape New Order’s formula, some 25 years later, the press calls it “nu-rave.”
This is perhaps why New Order doesn’t seem radical: we’re used to the mix of glistening synths, jangling guitars and propulsive beats that they conjured from thin air. Their most emblematic record, “Blue Monday” is not only the best-selling 12” in history, it still has an electrifying effect on dancefloors around the world. I’ve seen it start riots at electro clubs and ignite underground techno dins. This is in itself remarkable; doubly so when you realise “Blue Monday” was first released in 1983. To put that in context, the Summer of Love wouldn’t break on England for another six years, US house music wasn’t even in its infancy: it was still a foetus. New Order sensed a future that hadn’t even arrived, and wrote the soundtrack.
Eventually, the rest of the world caught up and songs like “Sub-Culture” and “Regret” reverberated in parties in London, Ibiza, New York – anywhere people wanted to dance. But New Order was so far ahead of the curve they were coming to the end of that particular arc. In 1993 the band took a seven-year hiatus. In 2001 they released the album “Get Ready.” They followed it up with “Waiting for the Siren’s Call” in 2005 then split for good.
Many ways our lives have changed
New Order didn’t fracture on even lines. Sumner, along with Morris and Gilbert (who are married, as well as being band-mates) are on one side of a divide; an unrepentant Peter Hook on the other. The falling out, detailed in Fitzpatrick’s Joyless Divisions: the end of New Order, involves the usual suspects: money, ego, and legacy. Hook says Sumner is a “twat and he always has been,” while the other three are angry that Hook bought the rights to the Hacienda name – the Hac being the infamous Manchester nightclub that helped create the legend of New Order – and that Hook plays Joy Division covers with a new band. Plus there are, inevitably, “personal matters.” The moral of the story, if there is one, is that even the most extraordinary bands are made up of ordinary people. And that nothing lasts forever, apart from great music.
This profile appeared on Ibiza Voice, an electronic music zine dedicated to ‘hype, lies and gossip’.
Last year , on a hot August night, I was in the bottom of Space Terrace hell-pit, nose-to-armpit with a horrifying selection of gurning, greasy humanity. Not even VIP access and a bottle of vodka justifies my being here, I thought. It was too late to go, and too early to leave, however, so I shouldered my way through the Lynx-saturated crowd and took refuge in the Caja Roja. There, along with five other people, I had the most transcendent two hours of the entire season. Stephan Fasano and Vito De Luca – aka Aeroplane – playing with blissful abandon. If they were disgruntled at being faced with an audience of half-a-dozen it didn’t show. They alternated records, egging each other on, each track more brilliant than the last. There’s one that still haunts me; I’d give anything to remember the name, or even the vocal hook. All I know is it made me happy. I left sober but high as the moon. Aeroplane did what no other DJ did for me that summer: they played music that made me dance.
Much has changed in the last 12 months. Vito and Stephan have parted part ways – “It was friendly, I didn’t call the lawyers or anything” Vito assures me – and the new album, We Can’t Fly, proves Aeroplane can, even solo. Fittingly, I caught up with 28-year-old Vito as he makes his way through airport security to hop a plane to Ibiza. A seasoned traveller, he scoots minutes to spare and chats through the signal-warping walk down the tunnel and a conversation about luggage. “Is making music everything I hoped it would be?” he muses. “It’s the only thing that keeps me obsessed.”
Born in Belgium to Italian parents, Vito’s mum encouraged his love of music. “I started playing around on little synths she bought me when I was five or six,” he says. This led to music school, where he studied piano and guitar, and finally – at the ripe old age of 16 – he started buying studio equipment. Did he always want to be a musician? Vito chuckles: “It’s more like: ‘can I do anything else?’” He tried. There was a stint managing a clothes shop, and he ran a record store for a couple of years but concluded he “wasn’t talented at anything else.”
Whether or not this is true, Vito is definitely talented at music. It’s evident in the magic he summons as a DJ and, especially, in the irresistible, 80s-obsessed, kitscher-than-kitsch yet thrillingly original beats of We Can’t Fly. Critics are gushing:
“It’s BONKERS. It’s a fully orchestrated rock-disco epic, like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds on a collision course with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as Trevor Horn, Jim Steinman and Giorgio Moroder battle for supremacy in the studio.”
It is a compliment Vito is happy to take. Giorgio Moroder is one of his heroes and he is unabashedly in love with the 80s. “I tried to record the album as if it was the 80s,” he explains. “I used the same tools, the same process.”
This was a 2008 cover feature for Mixmag and part of a chronicle of a long, complicated relationship with an island that attracts a certain strange breed.
Ibiza’s love affair with house music has made it the dance capital of the world – and turned a sleepy Mediterranean island into one of the hottest tourist spots on the planet. This year, though, things are different. The Spanish government has passed strict new laws banning after-hours parties; the police are on high alert to clamp down on private villa parties; Ibiza’s most revered underground club, DC10, has been shut by authorities for reasons which are frustratingly opaque and the tourist board seems bent on discouraging clubbing. Is this the beginning of the end for the Mecca of electronic music?
It is 5AM. The terrace at Amnesia – once an open-air haven for barefoot hippies – is packed tighter than the Northern Line at rush hour. Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos are whooping it up in the booth as lasers strafe the room. At the bar a raver, pouring sweat, orders a round: six drinks, €90. He hands over his credit card without even blinking. Even in San An, the traditional haven of cut-price package holiday makers, kids get sticker shock as they pay €12 for a Jack and Coke. In the El Divino VIP mini-bottles of cava are a cool €25. At Pacha, Privilege and Amnesia tickets are up to €60 on the door. Ibiza, at peak season, is a study in raw capitalism.
The island hasn’t always been so money-driven. For centuries it was a haven for those who live slightly outside the law, a place where wits mattered more than wallets. Pirates came in search of plunder, as the watchtowers dotting the coastline attest. Smugglers stashed their wares in the caves at Sant Miquel. Jews built secret synagogues here and Nazis skulked in after the war. Ibiza’s benign indifference absorbed them all. Throughout the 20th century a Moulin Rouge cast of Bohemians, painters, poets, musicians and chancers drifted to Ibiza, lulled by the whisper of the turquoise Mediterranean and embraced by the red earth of its hills.
Over the centuries Ibiza was an imperial outpost for the Moors, Romans, Carthegenians and Catalans but none left as indelible a mark as the foot soldiers of rave culture. Hippies were the first to drum and dance beneath the stars but it was the arrival of house music, in the 1980s, that forever changed Ibiza. As the cocktail of ecstasy and electronica melded in the Spanish sun legions of kids fled the cold grey of Thacherite England to look for a new life on a magic island. From that moment, the fate of Ibiza has been intertwined with the rave culture. Clubs fuel Ibiza’s economy, spread its fame and draw millions of visitors who might never otherwise visit.
“Ibiza was incredibly important to acid house. It wasn’t a huge number of people who went there but those who did – like Oakenfold and Danny Rampling – had a huge influence. The knock-on effect was phenomenal. Now, Ibiza season is like the World Cup Finals, every summer. Whether you’re a DJ, promoter or run a record label it dominates your year, it provides an infrastructure to the whole scene,” says Pete Tong.
However, twenty years on from the original Summer of Love music is playing second fiddle as the island lies in the grip of a summer of suspicion. “The government is trying to get rid of the clubbers,” DC10 resident Clive Henry says emphatically. “The mood isn’t good. People are feeling down.”
It isn’t just twitchy, post-rave paranoia either. Ibiza’s tourist council publicly takes a dim view of ravers. “There are different kinds of clubbers. Some have good jobs back home and appreciate the beauty of the island. But others come and want to party for a week. That isn’t an image we want,” says Ramon Balanzat, a spokesman for the tourism board. It’s the “some have good jobs” attitude that particularly rankles.
“I lived hand to mouth my first seasons here, surviving on nothing. I was on the verge of having to go home when I finally got a break,” recalls Bora Bora resident Oliver Lang, who has spent 10 summers in Ibiza. Like many DJs and island faces his first visit wasn’t to a swanky villa, but to a grotty San An hotel with a bunch of mates. “I was the kind of person they want to get rid of,” he says.
DC10 resident Clive Henry echoes Lang’s words. “I was an ‘undesirable’… running around with no money, trying to get in everywhere for free,” he chuckles. Henry, too, has spent a decade on the island, pouring his heart and soul into the scene. He understands how essential it is to the pulse of the island to make a space for those who don’t come with a platinum card in the pocket of their designer jeans. “DC10 is for the workers. A lot of them can’t afford to do anything else. Rich people might come for the casino but they aren’t interested in the majority of the island. Our whole economy and livelihood is based around the clubbing fraternity.”
It isn’t just adventurous music buffs who come to Ibiza to scrape a living from the club scene. Some of the island’s most famous high rollers started off with nothing. Anthony Pike – whose eponymous hotel is a watchword for jet-set glamour – says he arrived “basically broke,” while Es Vive and Rock Bar owner Jason Bull worked as a bartender and PR before becoming one of the island’s legendary success stories.
It has never been exactly easy to survive in Ibiza but plenty of people found the lifestyle compensated for little money and less sleep. “I came here and found a freedom I didn’t have in Britain,” says Nick Fry, owner of Underground, one of the last free entry clubs on the island. “I always intended Underground to be a place for workers and locals, people who couldn’t afford to go to the big clubs. Now we’re being squeezed,” he says, as new licensing laws mean the club shuts at the same time as the bars in town.
This – along with DC10’s closure – means workers are running out of ways to enjoy the island. “I thought it was going to be 24/7 parties, but there’s nothing. By the time I finish work I have a choice of paying €50 to go to a club for an hour, or going to sleep,” says Adam Steedman, a waiter who lives outside Ibiza Town. Across the island in San An money – and fun – are in equally short supply. Tracy Jones runs Shipwrecked, a Wednesday morning boat party which is the last legal after-hours option on the island. Their 230-capacity vessel is always sold out and disconsolate late-comers shuffle home from the pier as it sets sail. “A lot of them work six or seven days a week, this is their one chance to party,” she says.
It is a safe bet Shipwrecked’s high-seas antics would curl the hair of any passing member of the Ibiza tourist board, but the stubborn fact remains these pie-eyed kids with their Ray-Bans and bottle-blond hair are essential to the island economy. Danny Whittle knows better than most how a trip to Ibiza can change a life. He was a fire-fighter in Stoke-on-Trent when he discovered raving and it was a cheap holiday to the island that set him on the path to becoming manager of Pacha, Ibiza’s most glamorous club. “Pricing young people off the island is the worst thing that could happen. Sure, they stay in San An and don’t spend any money the first couple years, but they fall in love with the place. They get better jobs, get a credit card, then return to stay in good hotels and go nice bars and restaurants. They come back, year after year,” he says.
There is little indication the tourist board understands this dynamic of rave culture, or appreciates clubber’s fierce loyalty to the island. The recently launched official tourist web site www.ibiza.travel doesn’t mention clubbing at all on the home page. Keep trawling and you’ll find “nightlife” buried beneath items about sport, beaches and conference facilities on the “what to do” page. Notably, there is no mention of DC10 in their list of clubs – further fuel for conspiracy theorists. This reluctance to even acknowledge Ibiza’s biggest tourist draw smacks of stubbornness. It is like Paris refusing to talk about the Eiffel Tower or London banning any mention of Beefeaters. Even Balanzat thinks the tourist board is in danger of alienating its friends. “Officially, our stance is nightlife has enough publicity so we don’t talk about it. Personally, I feel if you want to communicate about Ibiza your first target should be the group that’s coming now, and that’s clubbers,” he says.
Pete Tong has had a front row seat to Ibiza’s evolution and he suggests the government’s approach is less to do with malice and more to do with misunderstanding. “I don’t think they realise how important daytime clubbing is to people’s perception of Ibiza, around the world. Or take Café del Mar – the most iconic image of the island. Why invest millions of euros in reinventing San An then not allow them to play music for sunset? That’s mad,” he says.
Not all the blame should be laid on the government’s doorstep though. While they are openly favouring other types of tourism and making life difficult for some clubs they certainly aren’t the ones setting outrageous ticket prices or charging €10 for a small bottle of water. If clubbers are being priced off the island it is at least partially the fault of the money-grubbing tactics of its most powerful venues. But who sets the prices? Who decides whether a bottle of beer is €7 or €12? DJs, according to Danny Whittle: “you have to cover the cost of your talent.” It is a rather glib argument though. DJs in Ibiza demand huge fixed fees in part because they don’t get a cut of the bar proceeds. The more money a club makes on the bar the more DJs can ask for, creating a price spiral where the only losers are ordinary clubbers.
In the past, when the pound was strong, British ravers were happy to pay the price. Everyone moaned, but most thought it worthwhile for a once or twice a year blow-out. Some still do, like the lad queuing for Tiesto who lost his original ticket and bought another. “I’ve paid €100 to get in tonight but fuck it, I’m on holiday,” he grins. That attitude is becoming rarer as the credit crunch bites harder, though, and clubs are nervous. Tourist numbers for June are down 8% on last year, according to official figures, and promoters are fighting tooth and nail over every last punter. The promoter of SuperMartXe, which has taken Manumission’s old Friday night slot at Privilege, went into restaurant kitchens the day before their opening party, giving out wristbands to dishwashers and waiters. While even nights headlined by big name stars like Danny Tenaglia are offering generous free entry.
Ravers who take advantage of the freebies will save a bit, but “in before midnight” usually means an few extra drinks at the bar, which easily makes up the cost of a ticket. As in gambling, the house always wins. “People built the clubs over the last 20 years and made the rules as they went along. It’s a bit backstabbing. They all try to bend the rules in different ways,” says Tong. The major clubs are locked in bitter turf wars and just how far they go to undercut their rivals is a matter for endless speculation. Some are perceived to be more favourably enmeshed in Spanish politics than others and it is clear outsiders like DC10 and Underground are leaned on by everyone. “I feel demonised. Circoloco is treated like a monster,” says Circoloco promoter Andrea Pelino.
One thing is very clear: the egalitarian, tolerant spirit which made Ibiza famous – which drew dreamers, crooks, idealists, refuges, hippies and finally ravers – is in danger of disappearing into a maelstrom of opportunism. The clubs, in their panic to protect profit margins, and the government, in its understandable desire to give the world a broader picture of the island, are in danger of colluding to drive out the people who love Ibiza best, those who are here for the long run. High-rolling VIPs may come and drop €100,000 in a few days, but the next week they’ll have vanished back to Knightsbridge, Monaco or St Tropez. Workers sharing roach-riddled apartments and sitting on the beach swigging San Miguel don’t offer an immediate cash boost, but they are the ones who will return. Some to visit, year after year; others to make a life in Ibiza.
They are people like Oscar Casu, who started off flyering and now owns ultra-hip bar Noctambula. Or Emilie Antigny, who came to work a season and fell so in love she opened Ibiza Town’s favourite coffee spot, Chill Café. There are countless like them, scattered across the island, running bars, restaurants, hotels and record shops. They don’t have mountains of cash to flash, like some do. (“In a recession the wealthiest are the least affected. They might only have €9 million instead of €10 million – but they still have millions,” points out Whittle.) However, unlike easily bored celebrities or the idle rich, ravers who have come to Ibiza to dance and found a way of life that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, won’t flit away when the weather turns, their future is the island’s future. Drive them away and some of Ibiza’s magic will be gone forever.
One of the first clubs I went to in London, sometime in ’99, was Trash at the Annexe in Soho, where I danced with a boy in leather trousers because he looked a little like Brett Anderson. A weekly Monday-night debauch helmed by soft-spoken musical genius Erol Alkan, Trash became one of most influential (and popular)clubs of the early Noughties. It was a huge privilege to cover its final party in Jan ’07 for Mixmag.
Everyone’s huddling against the walls to avoid the spitting rain. It’s not just any Monday night, it is Trash’s 10th birthday – and their farewell party. After a decade of trendsetting, musical innovation and eye-popping fashion Erol Alkan and friends are bowing out. These days Trash’s giddy mix of sex, dance and rock ‘n’ roll is standard practice, but it wasn’t always. “What everyone’s doing now, in terms of live music in clubs, Trash did years ago,” observes Liam O’Hare, The End’s general manager. From its earliest days at Plastic People, to its stint in Soho’s Annexe, to its triumphant years at The End, Trash has become a byword for what’s fresh and adventurous in clubland.
So much so no one is surprised at the volume of bodies crowding the pavement. “It’s the Blitz spirit,” 28-year-old Sam observes, looking over his shoulder at the throng flowing seamlessly around the building till it comes face to face with itself. Everyone’s smiling, talking to strangers. Sam passes around a bottle of Strongbow. A blue-haired girl called Charleigh and her bandmates are discussing the video they’ve just shot. Like Bloc Party, Klaxons and New Young Pony Club before them the budding pop stars are regulars. “I can’t remember most of it,” she confesses.
Charleigh’s not the only regular with amnesia. Graham, a 24-year-old roadie who has been coming for five years says, “You don’t remember the really good nights.” He does remember, though, how Trash changed his life. “Where I grew up in Essex even wearing a white belt was asking for a fucking smack. Trash was the first place I fit in. I used to come on my own and just dance. Then I’d wait till 6am to get a train home. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he says. Inches away a girl is swinging from the ceiling, knickers flashing. No one pays any attention. If you want a fashion eyeful just look around: there’s the bearded bloke in an apron, the pint-sized brunette wearing Superwoman-style pants and suspenders, the trio sporting multi-coloured rave gear.
“Trash is a one off. It’s the people that make it,” Rory Philips says. A resident DJ for nearly seven years, Rory’s seen a lot happen on the dancefloor. “One of my friends married a girl he met at Trash. No surprise really, it’s been ten years of drunken fumbling,” he chuckles. As if to make his point a couple reel past, joined at the lips. There’s an air of barely controlled chaos as The Lovely Jonjo whips up the crowd. “I was getting quite tearful,” he says later, but it doesn’t show. Jonjo is typical of the parade of clubbers who’ve reinvented themselves at Trash. He started out as a door picker but “hated it.” So when Erol invited him to DJ instead he jumped at the chance. “I get all soppy when I talk about him. He’s been a mentor to me.”
As the newest member of the Trash crew Jonjo reacted like many fans did to the news it was ending. “I was upset, devastated really.” For a lot of people it was a question of: why cut off a night in its prime? “There’s a lot I want to do I couldn’t do with Trash every week,” says Erol, who missed one night in a decade.
“A lot of people talk about going out on a high, but carry on. We didn’t want to outstay our welcome,” Rory adds.
Jonjo’s come around to the idea. “My first thought was, ‘this is over’. My second reaction was, ‘if I don’t grab it by the balls someone else will.’” By “it” he means Durrr, the new Erol-endorsed Monday night at The End where Jonjo and Rory will preside over a rotating cast of DJ talent and new bands. “We’re going to get a breath of fresh air. You need to embrace change.”
Change is on everyone’s mind tonight. Trash will be missed. Joost is over from Amsterdam, resplendent in a handlebar ‘tache and a tee-shirt reading Kids Want Techno. “There’s nothing like it in Europe,” he shouts over the music. There’s nothing like it in London either. George, another half-decade veteran, is sweating his glittery green eye shadow off as he waits in the crush by the bar. It took him two and a half hours to get in, and it’ll take him another forty minutes to get a drink, but he’s happy to be here. Where else can you get beaten up by Selfish Cunt? “He just grabbed me by the throat for no reason!” he shrugs, smiling brilliantly.
Celebrities, violent and otherwise, are part of the fabric of Trash life. Everyone has their favourite. Rory plumps for Suicide, Erol for Gonzales, Jonjo remembers Kelly Osbourne and Simon Amstell queuing (separately). “Grace Jones came once. She doesn’t queue!” he laughs. Liam O’Hare fondly remembers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He saves his highest praise for Erol though. “I had faith in him and he’s never let me down. He’s always pioneered.”
It’s a compliment Erol would be pleased with. Stepping up to the decks, wearing his trademark specs and an inside out D.A.R.E. tee, he is an unlikely focal point for frenzied adulation, but there’s hysteria in the air. Outside riot police have arrived to calm a crush of disgruntled clubbers. “We can make this a funeral or a celebration,” he says. Then he drops LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ and the crowd erupts. They get the joke. Later, when the dust has settled, he says softly, but very emphatically, “The only thing I’m frightened of is resting on my laurels. I relish the future.” For now, Trash’s loyal following is relishing the present, and the string of favourites ricocheting around the room. ‘Take Me Out’, ‘Danger! High Voltage’, ‘Lust For Life’ and, finally, at 4AM, long after reality has melted away, ‘Dancing Queen.’ Manager Liam should be on holiday, but he’s here instead, beaming. “It’s like the last party on earth!” Surrounded by the blurred grins and flailing limbs one thing’s certain: if this were the last party on earth no one here would mind.
This originally appeared in the print issue of Mixmag.
The following album review was written for Pennyblackmusic. Though I still have a soft spot for this histrionic masterpiece, I’d hesitate to call it a ‘favourite album’ now. Yet am pleased not to be embarrassed by my 22-year-old-self’s assessment.It was fair and not dumb, which is more than can be said for a lot of things I did at 22.
Like some kind of drugged-up, post-modern Virgil, Spiritualized front man Jason Pierce takes his audience on a pitch black, tragi-comic journey on their epic 1997 album, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’.
Pierce weeps and storms his way through his own personal hell for seventy soul-searing minutes. Unsettling shouldn’t be the word to describe what this sounds like; and it isn’t. Rather, Spiritualized creates music as luscious, as monstrous, as egotistical as grief itself.
Unashamedly epic, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ harks back to a time when rock bands weren’t afraid of endless solos, massive orchestrations and wilful musical indulgence. The closest thing to a conventional radio-friendly tune is the anomalous ‘Electricity’ (which was still cut before its release as a single) which marks an uneasy boundary between the yearning sadness of the first half of the album and the defiant bitterness of the second.
Eponymous opener ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’, ‘All Of My Thoughts’, and ‘Stay With Me’ all ooze heart-rending ‘I’ll do anything to get you back’ desperation. “Don’t know what to do by myself / Cause all of my time was with you,” (All Of My Thoughts) Pierce sings, voice bubbling over with emotion so raw it’s almost debasing. There’s nothing more painful, or more transfixing, than someone who will do literally anything to win back their lover, and listening to Pierce teeter on the sharp edge of total self-abnegation is horror-flick-style peeking-between-your-fingers voyeuristic ecstasy.
After the momentary respite of pop fantasy ‘Electricity’, the tone becomes less resigned, less measured. The bubble, it seems, has burst, and deep down he knows she’s never coming back. Any semblance of ‘coping’ disappears in paroxysms of rage, defiance, apathy and suicidal despair – and under a barrage of pharmaceuticals.
“I don’t even miss you,” Pierce claims (Home Of The Brave) then admits in the next breath, “but that’s ‘cause I’m fucked up.” He injects quavering glamour into the image of having breakfast “right off of the mirror,” and embodies junkie bravado with, “I’m too busy to be dreaming of you / There a lot of things that I’ve gotta do.”
Like all addicts – whether to love, heroin, or softer drugs – Pierce is, ultimately, selfish as hell. Which is the guilty pleasure of Ladies And Gentlemen… we all tumble into black holes of solipsistic grief sometimes, and its nice to have something to listen to while you wait for the light at the end of the tunnel.
The following excerpt is from an interview I did for Pennyblackmusic in Dec ’01 or Jan ’02. I’d only been in London a couple of months and found the West End as dizzying as did Mr Wratten. Despite being one of my first profiles, this remains one of my favourite pieces. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.
The first thing you’ll notice about Trembling Blue Stars frontman Bobby Wratten is that, well, nothing stands out. No requisite dangling cigarette, no Mick Jagger sneer, not even any Bono specs, just a very slender, slightly balding man with light hair, blue eyes and a spaniel smile; a thoroughly unprepossessing rock star. Not that Bobby would like the term rock star: too clichéd, too aggressive.
Wratten doesn’t appear to be fond of the hectic or overstated. Even on a weeknight the routine bustle of London’s West End seems to unnerve him slightly. And he only looks marginally more comfortable settled into a low-lit pub. He’s not, it turns out, drinking orange juice in deference to his slight cough; he just doesn’t drink. Most of the nervousness, though none of the soft-spoken courtesy evaporates though as Wratten begins to talk about what really interests him – his music.
Though for someone who has devoted his life to making music, Wratten didn’t have a particularly polished beginning. Wratten confesses that he and [bassist] Michael Hiscock “couldn’t even tune our guitars,” in the early days of his first band, The Field Mice. When asked how their now-cultishly-adored whispery, twee-pop style developed he smiles, “you copy the bands you like and get it wrong, so that’s where you end up.” But press on and ask what bands he liked as a youngster and he rather incongruously names The Jam, The Clash, XTC, and Joy Division.One wonders exactly what strange things have to happen to bass and guitars, etc to get – accidentally – from The Clash to The Field Mice, but then the studied innocence of Wratten’s expression hints that he’s being more than a little disingenuous. And when he adds that, “there was nothing deliberate about any of it” it seems certain that the dim light of the pub is masking a twinkle in his eye.
After all, he insists that his music is neither as sad, nor as obsessive as some might like to believe. The acrimonious break-up of The Field Mice is well documented, as is the subsequent formation of Northern Picture Library by Wratten, and fellow former-Field Mice Annemari Davies and Mark Dobson. Even more legendary is the break-up of Annemari and Bobby’s long-term relationship, which led to the dissolution of Northern Picture Library after just one album and a handful of singles.
A self-professed incurable romantic, Wratten says, “like the idea you have a soul mate,” which goes a considerable way towards explaining the raw sadness captured in many of his lyrics. “I wrote a lot of songs about Annemari,” he says, perhaps understating the case just a little. The Trembling Blue Stars debut ‘Her Handwriting’, released in 1994, is an unabashed hankie-wringer of a CD recording the emotional devastation that came in the wake of the split with Davies. Unsurprisingly, Wratten reports that Davies declined to sing on ‘Her Handwriting’, though by the time he’d written the second Trembling Blue Stars record, ‘Lips That Taste Of Tears’ his ex-girlfriend was ready to rejoin him in the studio.
Which he claims is not at all creepy, in an “Every Breath You Take” kind of way. “I don’t [write songs about Davies] anymore but people still think I am, it’s just kind of funny,” he says. Then by way of supporting evidence points out a lyric from the third TBS record, ‘Broken By Whispers’: “it goes, ‘the way we left it was you would call,’ [from ‘Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise’] which I thought made it pretty obvious that it was about someone you weren’t in contact with, but Annemari was in the studio with me when I recorded it!” What’s more, he says, they are good friends outside the studio as well; Davies minds his house for him when he’s away. Which, most recently, was on Trembling Blue Stars inaugural tour of the States. Their American label, Sub Pop funded a multi-city junket, which Wratten thoroughly enjoyed. “[We’re] treated more seriously [there]” he says; possibly, one imagines, because Americans prefer to forgo the irony that Britain almost requires of its musicians.
Not that all their tour was spent in front of fawning audiences; in Portland, OR Trembling Blue Stars were booked to play a club called Dante’s – a seedy gay/leather sort of club.“ There were a few people in front who were there to see us, and a lot of people who just looked confused… but there were no disasters” Wratten recalls. Playing bars and clubs also meant that the shows tended to start late, after a long day of driving (the band navigated all the way from New York to San Francisco in the course of their tour), so “you play the first song three times as slow as it should be.” And instead of throwing yourselves a backstage shindig afterwards, apparently, you pack up and climb back into the van for some kip. “We weren’t very rock’n’roll,” Wratten explains, unnecessarily.Though in a world where“quiet is the new loud”, sleeping, chatting, and hanging out at truck stops may be new rock’n’roll.
In any case, returning to Mitchum, South London was a bit of a jolt, “it felt really strange coming home to nothing… we don’t really know what happens next,” he says, betraying for the first time a sense of anxiousness. This has something to do with their bassist leaving the band at the end of the American tour, and perhaps more to do with the fact that Trembling Blue Stars have already far overreached their intended lifespan. Her Handwriting was meant to be a one off record, and now, four albums later Wratten still believes you should “treat each record like it’s the last one you’re ever going to make.” Great for raising the artistic stakes probably, but surely stressful?
This column appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian 21 years ago, on 31 January 2000.
Loud, obnoxious – and decidedly American
All I could think was that I’ll never be able to open my mouth in this class again. He was ruining it for me, ruining everything with his grating tone, his blatant rudeness, the patronizing way he kept interrupting other students to correct their opinions
If only he was German or French or Dutch or Spanish, I would have been all right. But he was American. Loud, overbearing, inconsiderate, arrogant and undeniably American.
As much as I wanted to light into him, my tongue was tied by the sudden awareness that my voice and accent would betray me in an instant. It wouldn’t matter what I said, my accent would stamp me just as quickly as his had identified him — and equate us beyond my power of control.
Until that mortifying hour in my critical theory class, surrounded by British students who were —justifiably — looking daggers at this specimen of Americana, I hadn’t realized to what extent language shapes and projects our identity.
It was the first time I had ever been afraid to speak because of how I would be branded by my accent and diction.
The worst of it, though, was the fact that my boorish fellow student could not have been French or German or Korean, or anything but a citizen of the dear old U.S. of A., for the simple reason that no other nation so assiduously fosters such linguistic arrogance.
Whatever his name was, the plaid-shirted Washington, D.C., boy was merely projecting a particularly noxious version of the snobbery of Americans toward anyone who doesn’t speak our language. (Granted, Brits and Americans ostensibly share a language, but the differences in manner and expression are so fundamental as to constitute British and American as two separate entities.)
It is a condescension that is manifested in American language education — or should I say the lack thereof. Some young people are fortunate enough to attend high schools that provide the opportunity to seriously study another language, but more often than not, language courses are viewed as something of a joke.
My own high school experience was with Spanish, a lovely and eminently useful language. However, for all the benefits I would have accrued by actually developing a proficiency in it, I was never given much in the way of an occasion or encouragement to do so.
Spanish class was a haphazard affair, a conglomeration of worksheets, flash cards, pop quizzes and lots of goofing off. In my second year, due to lack of funds and interest, it was taught on a semi-volunteer basis by an assortment of half-a-dozen people, some of whom spoke less Spanish than I did (which is saying something indeed). After muddling along with A grades for two years, I moved on to other subjects and was never given reason to use Spanish again.
However, the language problem is a more general one, beyond my own school or secondary education in general. I remember reading over a college application form from the University of Oregon where “foreign language” was merely a suggestion, not even a prerequisite, for study at the university level.
Frighteningly, we’re used to it. No one ever makes a big deal of it—not politicians and not educators, and I imagine parents only rarely. We are conditioned from an early age to regard learning another language as something that may be done, but is never in any way vital.
Sure, it’ll help you get into a better university, but not much else. Or if you wish to go into business, or international law, it might be useful to acquire another language. But the idea that it is a crucial part of educational and social development to partake of another culture through language study simply does not seem to exist in the States.
Hence the arrogance, hence the rudeness, hence the all-too-often-true stereotype of Americans as loud-mouthed, know-it-all morons. Because, you see, we are never forced to identify with another group through the intimate process of acquiring their mode of speech.
“Why should we?,” the argument goes. Everyone speaks English anyway, so why should we learn Spanish or French or what have you? We don’t need to.
We do need to. Not for the sake of mere communication, though.
Learning another language is not about knowing how to ask for directions or tell time or find the loo or order a meal, it is about understanding how to truly identify with someone else. It is about entering into their life through the medium with which we shape our lives – language.
Cila Warncke is a junior English major from Portland, Ore. She is studying abroad in London this semester. Bigmouth Strikes Again appears on Mondays.
January 27th is my 41st birthday. To mark the occasion I am going to post 41 pieces of my published writing — one a day for the next few weeks. Some are minor triumphs; others capture a moment; others are naive and flamboyant. But they matter, to me anyway, because they are the warp and woof of my life.
The following column appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian on Monday, 6 March 2000. The same day, as it happens, that I got my first tattoo before getting blotto at my best friend’s birthday party.
The wrongs of the U.S. religious right
According to The New York Times, current media-darling John McCain has just put his foot in it — big time. All because he had the gall — the audacity to suggest that maybe Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are not in fact directly related to God the Father.
“Talk about hate-mongering,” sniffs Marion J. Fisher, an elderly Baptist woman quoted in the Times article.
“To me, that’s what he’s doing, throwing mud and bad mouthing people who have faith and beliefs.”
Oh bless. The image of a lonely, chubby McCain figure standing on a platform flinging handfuls of slop at an overdressed granny is almost unbearably funny But that isn’t the point.
Was Ms. Marion J. Fisher — or any of the tiny-minded conservatives who are currently gathering wood to incinerate the political ambitions of the heretical McCain —actually paying attention to what he said? Has anyone had the courage to point out that, if anything, McCain was far too easy on the so-called Christian leaders he took a swing at?
McCain merely called them “agents of intolerance” when he would have done well to point out that their entire faith is founded on intolerance. He called them an “evil influence” on the Republican Party when he should have said they were an evil influence on society.
When, pray tell, did Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson do anything good for America? As much as the religious right would like to convince itself that America’s current host of social problems is a direct result of our collective straying from the fold, they are pointing the finger in precisely the wrong direction.
Fundamentalism, a throwback to our embarrassing Puritan ancestry, is a ball-and-chain around the ankle of American social and political life. When we should be concentrating on improving public education, fundamentalists start quarrels over posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. When we should be seeking to improve social services for single-parent families, they rant on about the evils of unwed motherhood And so it goes.
My most vivid memory of Robertson’s aspirations for our country is his suggestion that we build a wall along the southern border of the U.S. to keep all those damn foreigners out.
Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority recall Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads, whose drive for moral purity in 17th century England resulted in terror, regicide and a ban on dancing.
I’m sure God was impressed.
In short, these are not good guys. They would happily drag America back to Puritanism for their own personal gain, and apparently a lot of people love them for it. This is enough to give any free-thinking citizen serious pause.
Imagine life under the religious right. First, women could forget about reproductive rights. Second, we could look forward to children being indoctrinated at school, the tenets of Christianity being crammed down their throats. On the agenda for their education would no doubt be the evils of sex. a primer in xenophobia and a long list of who God disapproves of and why. And if you’re gay — just move to Canada now.
The ultimate drive of the religious right, after all. is not for spirituality, but for hegemony. If all they really cared about were their God and their faith, they would shut up and take themselves off to a prayer meeting. But that, heaven forbid, would be letting all us non-believers get away with it. Because the Christian right, you see, demands not just individual devotion but zealous proselytization, too. It isn’t enough to “walk humbly with God” — they have to make sure everyone else is goose-stepping along as well.
This is where the ordinary, anonymous zealots get their wires crossed with the big name zealots such as Falwell and Robertson.
The rank and file, I reckon, sincerely believe that the prominent leaders of the religious right are their best chance for the mass reform of America, while Robertson, Falwell and Co. are—I would wager—more interested in power than in redemption.
They found a niche in the market and hope that if they stick with it —convincing the faithful of the impending demise of Christianity at the hands of Catholics, Jews, homosexuals, atheists, immigrants and women — then maybe one day their domination fantasies will come true.
But don’t tell the true believers that, or you’ll be making the same cock-up McCain did.
Which is to say, you’ll be giving the religious right credit for more wit than they are actually able and willing to exercise.
Cila Wamcke is a junior English major from Portland. Ore. She is studying abroad in London this semester. Bigmouth Strikes Again appears on Mondays.
Yesterday brought a Guardian article to my inbox: How ultra-processed foods took over your shopping cart. In it Bee Wilson recalls eating slice after slice of buttered white bread, and whole tubes of sour cream and onion Pringles. It struck a chord: those were two of the specific staples of my late-teens/early-twenties diet – along with SuperNoodles, PopTarts, Papa John’s, Taco Bell, chicken cheesesteaks, Dunkin’ Donuts and frozen pizza. These are, Wilson explains, ultra-processed foods: manufactured edibles made from other manufactured items. Their role in the global obesity and disease crisis is emerging, and it fascinates me because, though I’ve eaten my share of them, I didn’t grow up eating them – which has perhaps made all the difference.
There was a lot of strange in my childhood, ranging from benign to destructive. Yet, at the other end of the teeter-totter (as we called the wooden seesaw my father carved and balanced on an salvaged driftwood log), were a few quirks for which I’m grateful. My parents’ stopped-clock moments, I’ve dubbed them, undertaken at random, or for the wrong reasons, but nonetheless beneficial. No TV was one – the edict that set me on the path to becoming a writer.
The other is harder to sum in a phrase, no junk food? No processed food? Plain food only?
Whatever they might have called it, if asked, the food ethos of my childhood was that anything artificially colored or flavored, anything with cartoon characters or superheroes, anything that could be put in a toaster or microwave, was essentially forbidden. My mother is, by her own admission, not much of a cook. Nor was her mother. What she knew about cooking she must have learned from fellow drifters (hippies, in a loose sense) when my siblings were young and from my grandmother, a reluctant emigre of East Prussian farm stock.
We were also poor – for most of my childhood I thought Food Stamps were colored money – and my father was ardently interested in Eastern spirituality, yoga, tai chi, and Transcendentalism.
Somehow, this combined to determine that childhood meals consisted of variations on the following: potatoes (which they grew in humped rows on the east side of the house), brown rice, beans, carrots, peas, broccoli, zucchini, beans, milk, and cheese.
My mother baked whole wheat bread, brushing the crust with melted butter as it came out of the oven so the thick brown dome gleamed. Her signature dish was spinach souffle, made with a dozen eggs and two frozen bricks of greens. She also made vegetarian chilli with kidney, pinto and black beans, and fresh tortillas to go with it. I’d slice tomatoes, then get out the orange block of Tillamook cheddar and grate a golden mountain that melted through the bowl in unctuous swirls.
Dairy in everything must have come from my grandmother, whose cooking was as weighty as her Lutheran faith. When we visited my grandparents in California, or they came to Oregon, she’d make pound cake and what we called crumb cake. I have no idea of its proper name, but its flavor is ineradicable: dense, slightly sweet base topped with melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of hard-packed butter and sugar. Perhaps it is not surprising my grandmother wound up having quadruple bypass surgery and evenutally died of cardiac-related causes. What is curious, though, is that she was always slim. To my memory, thin, even. Though stockily build, my grandfather, who never missed his afternoon coffee and cake, was fit and vigorous well into his 80s.
Despite the abundance of milk, cheese and ice cream in our diet (my mother was deeply brand loyal to Tillamook Dairy) we rarely ate conventional processed foods. Sweets, apart from ice cream, were limited to elaborate home-made birthday cakes. The most popular among my siblings and I was a chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, layered and adorned with chocolate buttercream frosting, and wrapped in a marzipan bow. Its creation was a day-long process, at minimum. The marzipan alone required almonds to be blanched in boiling water, peeled (accomplished by pinching the fat end until the point broke the skin and the nut shot forth), cooled, and milled in an orange-plastic and stainless steel hand grinder before being mixed with the appropriate ratio of powdered sugar.
Even store-bought goodies, as we called them, were outside the usual realm. On our weekly shopping trip to Trillium, a wooden-floored, patchouli-scented health food shop where my mom bought bulk grains and beans, we were allowed to choose a treat: either a peach frozen yogurt pop that you pushed up through a blue-and-white cardboard tube, or a paper-shrouded, sticky-edged frozen sandwich: ice cream between two chocolate graham crackers. These were flavored with carob rather than cocoa, a trend which extended to my mother’s version of hot chocolate: bitter, clumpy powdered carob boiled with hot milk and laced with honey – an anti-indulgence that left me with little taste for the real thing. Other dishes we experienced only in health-food form included chow mein (tofu) and burgers (veggie).
This food ethos felt oppressive, restrictive as the Biblical edicts we were fed each Sunday – and, like any good American child, I craved Wonder Bread, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Singles, Snickers, and Capri Sun. Even without a TV, food advertising found me; the slogan – M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand – has been jingling in my head since I was about six. The difference was, my parents were stubborn/mean/enlightened/impoverished (delete as required) enough to make me to eat boiled carrots and broccoli, brown rice and potatoes regardless. In another twist, they introduced me to foods like hummus and avocados, things my working class British friends didn’t experience as kids.
Plus I had the tremendous fortune of a big sister who loves to cook, is good at cooking, and helped me discover the joy in food that was the missing ingredient in my childhood. My mom did her best, according to her lights, but daily life was too tense and unhappy for eating to be the celebration it should. One peculiar feature of her cooking was a lack of seasoning. My father didn’t like salt (or perhaps didn’t approve of it; he was a man who could be hostile to a condiment). Herbs, spices, chilli, vinegar – I don’t recall any of them. It was a relvelation to learn how fantastic vegetables can taste when slathered in olive oil, roasted, spiked with rosemary and chilli, sprinkled with lemon, sea salt and coarse black pepper. Like many aspects of growing up, the food could have been brightened, mitigated, with a little effort.
Between then and now, I spent many years in food deserts, actual and self-constructed. Unhappiness shaped my relationship with food and my body yet, simmering beneath, were memories of a worthwhile conjunction of effort and occasion.