23 – Sober Life in Ibiza

The following profile, written around 2014, was commissioned but wound up not being published.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Late February, Agrotourism Morna, Sant Carles, Ibiza. The succulent smell of roast pork and chicken wafts across the terrace. White plates nestle against the whiter cloth covering a long wooden table shaded by gnarled almond branches. Guests chat over glasses of red wine while their children attack colouring books and bowls of tomato-clad pasta. Dogs romp. Halfway through the starter, proprietor and chef Simon Johnson pops out of the kitchen and realises he needs five more place settings.

A volunteer goes in search of chairs. Someone else conjures a fistful of cutlery. Folks squeeze closer. By the time platters of carved meat and heaping bowls of succulent veg arrive at the table there is space for everyone. More bottles appear. Glasses are raised. Here’s to long lunches with friends, overlooking verdant fields and inhaling the faint honey of almond blossoms.

This idyllic afternoon in the campo belies the winding road that brought Simon to Morna, and his pressured quest to turn a time-worn agrotourismo (the local name for a rustic bed-and-breakfast) into a homey country retreat.

Photo: Cila Warncke

In November the Agro, as it is affectionately known, resembled a cyclone landfall. The pool was half-full of brackish black water. The terraces were strewn with broken furniture, old mattresses, rubbish, and piles of broken concrete. Inside, mildew crept up the white walls and cobwebs laced together the corners of the high ceilings. The garden was mud, weeds and a welter of dead grape vines. Beneath grey winter skies it had a chill air of decay.

Admittedly, all Ibiza tourist accommodation is worse for wear off-season. Two things made Agrotourismo Morna different: 1) its new manager Simon had never run a hotel before and 2) he had no money. Not in the way some perfectly solvent folk claim to have no money, but literally. Simon was broke, impoverished; in the Cockney rhyming slang of his youth, brassic. Nobody, including him, knew exactly how or where he was going to magic up the money and people-power to renovate Morna. Putative business partners flailed and bailed, neighbours eyeballed the scene and wished him luck, the owner of the land chewed his cigar and muttered.

Yet Simon was eerily calm. Cigarette in hand, West Ham matches burbling in the background, he pieced things together. He hosted a curry dinner to raise rent money, haggled for curios at Sant Jordi market, and sourced furniture from Facebook. He bartered home-made Scotch eggs for advertising space. He hired a gardener then sweet-talked him into emptying the pool, one bucket of sludge at a time.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Making do is a talent Simon has cultivated since boyhood. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just got on with it.” Getting on with it may as well be the family motto. “We’re all self-employed,” he muses. “Quite an entrepreneurial bunch.” His grandparents ran pie and mash shops in London’s East End and a greengrocers (“that’s where I got my love of food”). Dyslexia hampered him in academics but he was savvy and good at making friends.

Bonhomie became his ticket to the world. After brief stints working in the stock market and as a chef, in London, Simon took off and spent years in Asia. He made a living selling “a bit of land, anything really” while absorbing the cultures and cuisines. Eventually he settled in Barcelona, still working in sales. He got married and divorced. Made some money. And drank. “I was always a heavy drinker, always doing things I didn’t want to do.” He pauses, foot bouncing, looking for the right words. “You can get to a point drinking or taking drugs, that you don’t actually want to be doing it, but you continue. You don’t understand why, you just have to. It happened a few times and I managed to pull it back, but three years ago I crossed a line.”

During his sodden slide towards that demarcation Simon decided to move to Ibiza. If you can call it a decision. “Ibiza was a whim. I was drinking a lot and at a loose end. I didn’t really have a reason to do anything.” He arrived and started doing barbecues for a friend’s villa rental business. This blossomed into his own catering company, Cook Ibiza, and let him to slip into a routine of “drinking, earning money and continuing drinking.”

Ibiza didn’t drive him to drink, he is quick to add, but didn’t stop him either. “Wherever I was in the world at that time, I would have been drinking. But it gave me an excuse to shut a door and drink all day. You can disappear here.”

Parties were, paradoxically, an occasion for restraint, something to grin and bear until he could slip away to drink alone. “Don Simon was my poison,” he says, naming the cheap cardboard-carton plonk beloved of teenage holiday-makers. “At my worst I was drinking six or seven litres a day.” Simon struggled to maintain a social façade but that level of intake damages a man’s impulse control. He was arrested on a drunk driving warrant while trying to check into Es Vive and marched out of the self-styled party hotel in handcuffs. He went on a ten-day binge. “People were scared of what I was doing. I was scared. I had to admit I was really in the shit. I’m an alcoholic.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

Agro Morna’s first overnight guests are due in forty hours. The gardener and handyman pump last week’s rainwater out of the pool, bragging like schoolboys about Amsterdam red light district exploits as they work. A painter wanders out of the house, brush in hand, to bum a smoke. An interior designer who has taken on Morna as a labour of love, scurries past with an armload of sodden sheets and jumpers. Her kids shriek over a DVD. A trio of dogs get noisily underfoot. Simon and his cousin appear laden with the spoils of a last-minute shopping expedition. Unspoken questions crackle in the air: Will everything be ready? Can he pull it off? Is this really happening?

Five days later Simon and I perch on a white outdoor sofa marked with only a few paw prints. Simon’s puppy, Potter, lies alert but sedate at our feet. Sun peeks through a smothering sea fog. The pool gleams David Hockney blue. Guests loll on the terrace, savouring a home-cooked lunch. It is as abrupt and unlikely a transformation as the denoument of a fairytale.

Fourteen months earlier, Simon was in a Bedfordshire rehab clinic, doped on Valium, not sure he intended to stay sober. “I was with a lot of people who didn’t want to be there. All they did was plot how they were going to go drinking when they got out.” A counsellor took him aside and asked if he was going to join that gang, or take his life seriously. He’d already lost half a kidney due to drinking. Alcohol would kill him, probably sooner than later.

Simon wanted to get on with things, but how? In rehab counsellors advised him to take a year off work and concentrate on sobriety. But faced with the option of living in a hostel in London or returning to Ibiza, Simon took a chance on the island: “I thought, it’s time to get on with life.” A catering job at Pikes Hotel was a chance test the waters. It went well. He wasn’t tempted to drink. So he took the plunge and moved. “I didn’t have any expectations. I was happy to be back but it was very day-to-day, work-wise, and going to as many AA meetings as I possibly could.”

Alcoholics Anonymous is the world’s most recognisable anti-addiction brand but sticking with the programme in Ibiza has its challenges. Simon faced practical ones, like getting to meetings despite being banned from driving, and psychological ones, like maintaining a semblance of anonymity on a gossipy little island, but he is adamant about its value. “AA is an amazing fellowship. Anyone who’s in any doubt should get into a room. It’s a lifesaver for me.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

Motivated by sobriety and the family ethos of getting on with it, Simon busied himself with Cook Ibiza. Then a friend invited him to see a house near the northern village of Sant Carles. He went along and surprised himself by signing a 10-year lease to renovate and manage Morna. “I wasn’t looking for it,” he says with a shake of the head. “And couldn’t afford it, but there was something welcoming about the place. It was peaceful.”

Simon is voicing a consensus. Everyone who visits, even those who saw the Agro at its scruffiest, falls in love. It has – along with quantifiable Ibiza charms like olive and almond trees, sublime sunsets, and rustic architecture – an intangible allure. People feel at home. Kids and pets thrive. Its first guests paid it the compliment of immediately booking another visit.

Things are, touch wood, going well but Simon approaches each day knowing the future depends on his resolution. “Sobriety hasn’t been easy. I have to focus on staying sober and knowing that if I do good things will happen.”

This means changing old habits and holding himself to a high standard. “The biggest difference in my life now is trying to do the right thing every day, trying to be as honest and clear as possible. I probably get it about fifty percent right at the moment. There’re some bills I haven’t paid. I’ve been late on things, forgotten things. But it doesn’t sit right with me any more if I’m creating enemies or problems. Whereas before, that’s what I’d do.”

What advice would he give himself if he could go back in time a year?

Simon thinks for a long moment: “I wouldn’t know what to change. Every single thing, every mishap has been part of the jigsaw coming into this. I’m very, very lucky.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

6 – Trembling Blue Stars

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.

Photo by John Higgitt on Unsplash

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?

Read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk

4 – Deaf Stereo

Profile of a short-lived indie electro outfit written for Clash sometime in ’06 or ’07

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash (NB: Not Deaf Stereo)

Deaf Stereo

Deaf Stereo has been percolating ever since Luke, Will and Ben met at Westminster Uni on a music course, at the turn of the millennium. It was four years before they had a name and an idea to go with it. “We decided to stop playing stuff we thought we should, and play music we wanted to listen to,” they explain. The music they wanted to play, if their first single is anything to go by, is solid, grooving beat driven indie pop. Disco biscuits with a side order of Jack Daniels, say.

“We’re into bands like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld… we like the peaks and troughs of dance, but we also wanted proper songs,” says Barney, who describes his role in the band as doing “keyboards and laptop stuff.” About a year ago, they completed their set up, with fifth member, Tom, the clean-cut drummer.

Sitting in the trendy bowels of the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, it’s Will, who plays bass, who keeps up the steadiest stream of patter. A series of wry asides from behind a hand rolled cigarette. “Would I ever sail a giant effigy of myself down the Thames? Shit. If I were as big as Michael Jackson that’s the least I would do. I’d have a whole set of them.”

Ben, (guitars, backing vocals) is small, dark, thoughtful. He takes on the philosophical questions. Or rather, turns questions philosophical. If you had a band uniform, say, what would it be? Luke (singer) runs a hand through his beautifully cut hair and says, “That’s something we’re still thinking about.” But Ben launches into an earnest and articulate explanation of the dangers of embracing style over substance. Absorbing this, Luke effortlessly readjusts his stance on the issue. “We happy wearing what we wear. No one’s told us to change anything yet.”

These small, subtle realignments happen more than once. Not in a deliberate presenting-a-united-front kind of way, but in a fluid manner which suggests long practice in accommodating each other’s ideas and opinions. Disagreements are minor: Barney prefers Addlestone cider, while Ben is happiest drinking mojitos. Will predicts a Dire Straits revival to general eye-rolling. When it matters, they’re in perfect sync. They want the right songs on the album (“we have a reputation as a party band, but we have some slower songs too, we want to showcase that”); they like the same venues (Koko and Fabric, where they played a riotous 3am gig); and perhaps most importantly, they all know what they want on their rider: “You mean when we have a rider? We’ll have as much as we can get! We got sandwiches when we were at Brixton, that was great,” Luke says.

So far, they’ve humped their equipment through calf-deep mud to play at Glastonbury last year. They’ve written a raft of songs which will somehow have to be whittled into an album. They’ve learned to party on backstage freebies because “we can’t afford to go out unless we’re playing.” They’ve been given some good advice: “Get a job, sort your life out, stop wasting your time,” Will guffaws. And what advice would they give someone following in their footsteps? Ben and Will catch each other’s eye and chorus, “Get a job! Stop wasting your time!” They all laugh.