41 – The Comedy & Magic Society

This was one of my all-time most rewarding commissions. The Comedy & Magic Society asked me to write their bio. Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood sat for long interviews to make this word-portrait possible. Rereading it, I am struck now, as I was then, by their wit, intelligence, humility and generosity.

Photo by Kovid Rathee on Unsplash

Picture a quiet Friday night in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Most of its 60,000 citizens are unwinding in familiar ways: having a drink with friends, going on a date, playing with their kids, or catching a movie. They’ll gossip, kiss, laugh, or maybe get tipsy before they fall into bed and when they wake up on Saturday life will continue as it always has. Tonight, though, 99 people have set aside their usual end-of-the-week rituals to go to the Comedy & Magic Society’s monthly show at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.


Founded in 2005 the Comedy & Magic Society is the joint project of four hard-working professionals: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood. They have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each of them could (if he weren’t too modest) justifiably claim to be one of the world’s finest magicians. But this is only part of the reason why one Friday of every month 99 people turn up at the Arts Barn, eyes
popping with anticipation.


Many of them have been before because live magic performed at this level is strangely addictive. You get hooked on the thrill of anticipation and the little adrenaline bursts of surprise. It isn’t something you can DVR, download or Google, so people come back – and bring their friends. First time visitors to the sturdy red-brick former stable building enter a little more cautiously. Some are excited, others are skeptical; some of them want to be entertained, others have notebooks tucked in their pockets. All are curious.


The magic begins as the audience mingles and makes its way to the alternating bright purple and lime green seats. Nick DeCuites and George Woo, the Comedy & Magic Society’s resident close-up men, circulate through the theater picking pockets, popping cards or conjuring the unexpected. Grown-ups laugh and gasp. Kids crane their necks to follow the flying fingers but their eyes can’t move fast enough. Then the lights dim, the curtain rises and the Producer arrives on stage. CMS’s four co-producers take it in turn to host and emcee the shows. Tonight let’s say it is Bob Sheets, the avuncular comedian with a grin as big as the Ritz.

If you want to know anything about magic or, indeed, the history of American popular entertainment in the 20th century, Bob is your man. He was born in California, the land of prospectors, dreamers, and professional make-believers. One of these was Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who also patented the first artificial heart. Inspired by Winchell’s TV show, Bob taught himself ventriloquism. But when his dad bought him a magic kit he gave up voice-throwing because, at the ripe old age of 10, he thought it was “kid stuff”. Magic, on the other hand, merited study.


The wisecracking schoolboy (“I always had to have the last word,” he chuckles) used to rush home after class to practice new tricks. Unlike most kids, he didn’t mind getting sent to his room because it meant more time to perfect his craft. Bob joined the San Diego Junior Magic Society. At 13 he was performing at parties and clubs; at 15 he was a seasoned performer – as well as being America’s youngest Fuller Brush Man. Door-to-door sales and magic require many similar skills: you have to engage with strangers, win them over, put them at ease, and convince them you have something they need. Bob, with his effervescent enthusiasm, was darn good at it. Academics were a different matter. “I was a D+ student,” he says. “They only let me graduate because they
knew there was no point in keeping me.”

Photo by Devon Rogers on Unsplash


Bob finished high school in 1968 when the military was snapping up men to send to Vietnam. He joined the Navy but was discharged 17 days later when they found he was allergic to the regulation wool blankets. Instead, he went down a path trod by many legendary entertainers: he joined the circus. Between pounding tent stakes, driving trucks, and packing down, he polished his performance skills in the main ring and his close-up skills as a sideshow act. Working with the circus was more than a chance to perfect tricks. It was Bob’s initiation into a centuries-old fraternity of itinerant entertainers whose heritage runs from medieval minstrels and court jesters to vaudevillians and, of course, illusionists.


All four of the Comedy & Magic Society co-producers are enmeshed in the traditions and history of magic. This enthusiasm shapes and spurs their careers, and is integral to the CMS ethos. Brian Curry, the youngest member (Mark describes him the D’Artengean of their troupe of magic musketeers) began his education at the renowned Denny & Lee Studio in Baltimore, and was tutored by card wizard Peter Galinskis. “He’d make me rehearse one little move over and over,” Brian says. “He wouldn’t let me start a new one till I learned the last one.” Brian was a young teenager at the time, but magic was already more than a hobby. “It helped me break out of my shell,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at talking to people and it was a way for me to communicate.”


The son of an IBM executive, Brian spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and Paris. Moving between countries on a regular basis fostered independence and resilience – traits that stand him in good stead as a professional magician. As soon as he learned his first trick in sixth grade he was hooked, and regularly spent two or three
hours a day practicing. “It was luck,” Brian says of his career. “So much luck.” But, like his co-producers, Brian works ferociously hard for his good luck. When he was 15 he contacted Mark Phillips at a magic convention and asked if he could show him a competition routine. It was a memorable meeting. Mark turned up with a handful of other famous magicians and the youngster promptly bombed. “His act was a disaster,”
Mark laughs. “He had problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” Still, they took
him to dinner afterwards.


Years later that friendship would help form the Comedy & Magic Society but first Brian had to perfect his craft. Luckily (this time it really was luck) Clyde’s, a local restaurant, booked a magician who also happened to be a conman. The conman/magician got busted and his prison sentence was Brian’s big break. The shy 15-
year-old went to work doing close-up magic for diners waiting to eat. Seventeen years later Brian still works there, delighting Clyde’s hungry customers. He credits the gig with helping pay his way through college – and honing his skills so he’d never have to use his degree.


None of the Comedy & Magic Society men took for granted that they would be successful as professional magicians. Mark Phillips, a corporate magician who spends most of his time performing at industry trade shows and events, holds a degree in microbiology. “My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on,” he explains. By the time Mark went to university, though, he’d already laid the foundation for a future
far from microscopes and laboratories. His father was a career Army officer and Mark was raised in military outposts like Fort Hood, TX; Fort Leavenworth, KS and Fort Huachuca, AZ. As the smallest kid in the class, Mark was a self-professed class clown and discovered that doing magic was a way to get noticed and make people laugh.

Also, you had to make your own entertainment on remote military bases. Fort Huachuca, where they moved when Mark was in eighth grade, is in arid high-plains country 15 miles north of the Mexican border. There isn’t much to do there, or in neighboring Sierra Vista where Mark went to high school. One of his activities was playing trumpet and trombone in the school band, which often performed on base. Mark, ever the over-achiever, would perform magic on stage while the band was taking its break, thus earning his stripes in front of a tough military audience.

Photo by Wayne Low on Unsplash


By the time he earned his degree Mark knew he wanted to pursue magic full-time and moved to New York to make his way as a corporate entertainer. It was the boom years of Wall Street and Mark dove into his profession with the same gusto as the traders and bankers around him. The dizzy world of high finance has long since spun itself out while Mark, by contrast, has honed his craft and career with discipline that must make his dad proud. He attributes his perfectionism to a lifetime of playing classical and orchestral music (he now plays the French horn, which has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to master). “I have very high expectations of skill level,” he says. “A performance has to be well-rehearsed.”


These expectations infuse every Comedy & Magic Society show. Ask any of the coproducers what their biggest challenge is, as a magician, and they’ll tell you it is trying to change an audience’s expectations. Most people’s experience of live magic is limited a performer at a kid’s birthday or a friend showing off card tricks. “People don’t see much good magic so winning them over can be an uphill battle,” Bob says. As a result, CMS is incredibly protective of its audience’s experience: “We don’t lower the bar. Our guests are professional magicians and they have to hit a certain level before we let them in front of our audience,” he adds. The Gaithersburg Arts Barn shows usually feature one or two guest performers, in addition to Mark, Barry, Brian or Bob, and these guests are culled from the co-producers extensive contact books.


“Bob’s been a big name in the magic world for a long time and has a lot of friends,” Mark says. “If anyone is passing through he’ll buttonhole them and say ‘come do our show, it’s a lot of fun’.” Fun is one word to describe the CMS shows. Others are: exciting, social, electric, family-friendly and, above all, funny. Most magic shows are about highlighting the dexterity and skill the magicians. Add comedy, though, and the whole dynamic changes. The relationship between audience and performer shifts. Barriers melt away. As a magician, it is tempting to treat the audience like the enemy: you want to fool them, put them on the wrong foot. Mixing comedy and magic, however, requires a different mind-set. “It’s easier when the audience goes with you willingly,” Mark explains. “You need charm and personality. You need to be a good communicator.”


Communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, though – not even magicians. Barry Wood, the group’s resident actor and improv expert, says he was “kind of a loner at school. Magic was a hobby I could retreat into.” He’d go off to the library and read about the history of magic and the lives of famous performers. “I was fascinated by every aspect of the art,” he recalls. This fascination drew him out of his shell and into Barry Taylor’s legendary magic shop. The elder Barry became his mentor, and Wood credits him with taking an introverted kid and putting him on the path to being a world-class performer. Young Barry learned that communication could help smooth out a less-than-perfect trick. “At first, I was just trying to fool people, but once I learned about presentation the challenge was to weave a story and connect with my audience.”


The best magic is about making connections and a gifted performer with enough tricks up his or her sleeve can weave a spell anywhere. After an apprenticeship that included working weekends at Barry Taylor’s shop, Barry Wood filled in for a friend doing magic at a pizza restaurant. He left his first paying gig “on cloud nine,” with a bellyful of pizza and cash in his pocket. The die was cast. Barry went to college and majored in marketing but he funded his degree by performing magic. “I always enjoyed giving class presentations – maybe in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do magic,” he recalls. Still, the penny didn’t drop until Barry began looking for a marketing job after graduation. When interviewers found out he did magic they were intrigued; they wanted to talk about shows they’d seen, or tricks they knew. Many asked why he wasn’t
doing magic, since it was clearly his passion. “I thought, ‘maybe they’re right.’” To his relief his parents were supportive, and Barry began his professional career in earnest.


One of his formative experiences was working with Bob Sheets at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, a restaurant/magic haunt in Maryland run by Bob Sheets and partner Steve Spills. At first, Bob and Barry seem like polar opposites: Bob is the bluff, ebullient journeyman firmly rooted in the great American tradition of life on the road. Barry is reserved, thoughtful and precise; he likes bookstores and wineries with nice views. But they have a lot in common when it comes to magic. Both cite street magic as the ultimate challenge. “If people don’t like you, they walk away,” says Bob. “It doesn’t get any tougher, or more honest, than that.” Barry, who taught himself fire-juggling to avoid dead time while doing street performances at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, agrees. Always eager to develop his skills, Barry began to study acting and improv. He joined an improv group then helped found comedy sketch troupe Dropping The Cow.


“Barry can do anything,” Brian says. “You would never pick him out in a crowd as a professional entertainer. He’s so quiet and humble. Then he gets on stage and destroys. It’s awesome.” Brian jokes that he’d like for Barry to suck at something “because it would make me feel better” but they are more alike than different. Both have a passion for working with kids – which is probably only slightly less demanding than street performing. Brian does school assembly shows, including a magical mathematics review and a book club, while Barry works with a professional counselor doing an anti-bullying show that tours schools in the greater Washington DC region. He is also a long-standing member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. To Barry, cheering up sick children is the apotheosis of his magical art: “I’ve found an audience for all the skills I learned that were inner-focused, that I learned for myself. I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but now I have an opportunity to use my abilities in a positive way, whether it’s helping school kids dealing with tough situations, or making a child laugh in his hospital bed and seeing the relief on his parents’ faces. I’m lucky to be able to use my abilities in a positive way.”


Ask any of Barry’s colleagues and you’ll hear similar sentiments, in different terms. Brian, along with Mark and Bob, does regular gigs on cruise ships, and delights in the way magic transcends culture and nationality, helping him unify a room full of strangers who don’t even speak the same language. Mark gets a buzz out of magic’s ability to transform the ordinary: “When an audience sees magic, they think about things they don’t usually think about. They have a chance to think about the everyday things they take for granted.”

Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash


This passion for making the impossible real fuels all of the Comedy & Magic Society members. Make no mistake: magic is hard work. They travel a lot and pulling together their beloved Arts Barn shows requires commitment and sacrifice. “We work so much we’re rarely in town at the same time,” Bob says. “But when we are it’s a killer show.” In addition to long stints on the road they face the physical and mental rigor of regular performance. One of Mark’s corporate trade-shows, for example, involves eight-hour days of repeat performances to an ice-cold audience that has to be won over; over and over again. And anyone who knows kids can imagine how tough it is to convince school kids to take an interest in math.


In addition to the challenges of the work itself, is the challenge of finding or creating work. “You have to be really self-motivated,” says Brian. “There is no manual telling you how to make a living. You have to constantly evaluate how you run your business, your show, your website….” They each have their own way of thriving: Mark taught himself German so he could work trade shows there; Brian has a crop of entrepreneurial side projects; Bob spent 15 years mixing drinks and conjuring surprises as a bar-tending magician; Barry does everything from one-man shows, to toddler’s birthdays to Presidential inaugurations.


To some it might seem like a hard way to earn a living but Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. That is what lends the air inside the Arts Barn its sprinkle of magic dust one Friday a
month. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realizes it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.”


Children and adults alike leave the Arts Barn wide-eyed and flushed with laughter not just because of the flawless routines and peerless patter, but because Brian, Bob, Barry and Mark are walking, talking, juggling proof that you can fulfill your dreams and that the world is alive with possibilities. “Magic reminds us there are a lot of things in the world we take for granted,” Mark says. “If we experience a moment of magic and
wonder in a performance we start paying attention to the wonder in other parts of our lives.”

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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.