I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to not going to a gig. True, last November I had to wrap my wife up in five layers of blankets and Benilyn to get her to Pendulum, but this night I’d actually started the journey home about 10 times before dragging myself in the front door of the Relentless Garage in North London, and it was only several pints of the sponsor’s strongest keeping my eyes propped open when the place went dark and the theme tune for jaws came on.
I looked up from my drink and there were two guys on stage. One looked a bit like a young Elvis Costello, and the other had a Garth from Wayne’s World thing. They were standing hunched over toy percussion, hitting them with a concentration and precision like they were doing open-heart surgery.
I looked closer. There was a Teddy Bear on the front of the stage, several more dotted around the set, and an inflatable shark sitting at the drum kit. I’d entered the strange, delightful, utterly marvellous, yet really rather sinister world of The Candle Thieves, aka Scott McEwan (Garth) and The Glock (Elvis).
For the next half hour they took us through a set of pure kitsch magic, at once as delightful as a child’s party and as dark as the Montmartre of the fin de siècle (maybe that’s because my wife and I had been to see Le Grand Macabre the weekend before). And everything was done with a sense of wonder and showmanship that had the audience in their thrall. I’ve never seen that kind of connection with an opening act before. From opening a cardboard egg box to extract a shaker to the moment The Glock stood up put his finger to his lips, blew up a balloon and released it over the crowd.
It sounds twee, and, let’s face it, rather awful. And if it had been done with anything less than 100% conviction it probably would have been. But the conviction was there, and the result was a Pythonesque, Willy Wonka, Moulin Rouge of a spectacle. And yet whilst it was very much part of a larger whole, the music never took a back seat to the show. And that, in large part, is thanks to the other side of their persona. The Candle Thieves’ lyrics are like the childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They are a black heart beating in a glitzy body. Their twinkly glockenspiel and keyboard, and folk guitar accompany songs about death and angst and the end of the world. “You can’t be young forever,” they repeat starkly in their current single Sunshine Song, “but you can be young for the rest of your days.” It is, in fact, the exact same message as that with which the cast of Le Grand Macabre left their audience. You’re small. You’re nothing. But what you are is part of the giant carnival of life.
I fell in love with The Candle Thieves like I can’t remember doing with a band in a long long time. They get inside your head, and drag it into their world. Which is a pretty good place to hang out. I wanted to speak to them so much I tweeted them the moment I got home (http://www.twitter.com/candlethieves) and asked them some questions. Here are their answers in full, because that’s the only real way to bring you into their world.
The Candle Thieves – it’s a perfect name for you. It sounds like something from a film, but where DID you get it?
Glock: Hi! Well I play the odd Wedding gig here and there to keep me from living on the streets. The evening guests often used to have those big church candles on their tables. At the end of the night I’d often grab one or two and put them in my bag. When Scott was over mine once he asked what all the candles were about, to which I replied, ‘I’m a bit of a Candle Thief.’ The reason that anecdote was a bit boring is because it’s totally true and that’s how we got our name.
I saw Noah and the Whale headlining this summer, and people in the audience brough along inflatable whales. You have an inflatable shark. That parallelism yet difference with them came across throughout your set (like they’re your cousins who moved to the burbs and became accountants). Would that be fair?
Glock: Well if they put the work in Accounting can pay very well.
Scott: I’ve still to this day never seen Noah & The Whale but I think what they seem to be doing is cool. I think at any scenario where people can bring a long in an inflatable whale to a gig and it be normal is a really cool thing.
If I were going to write a paragraph (which I probably will) about your influences or, if not influences, then all the associations you conjure up, I wouldn’t know where to start (correction, I wouldn’t know where to finish but I’d certainly say there’s Baz Luhrmann, Willy Wonka, The Streets, Elvis Costello,and for some reason I haven’t figured yet They Might be Giants). Where would you start?
Glock: Influences are always difficult to conjure up. I could say all the bands I liked but they’re not necessarily influences. I think the life you lead, things you see and the people you spend time with influence us the most. Certainly for me any way.
Scott: It’s so refreshing to hear influences from not just the music world, thank you! I think if we can take anyone out of the real world for even 10 minutes we’d be really proud.
I’ll come on to the layers within your work in a minute, but in terms of your actual sound, there’s an overwhelming sense of simplicity. It’s like you’ve consciously cut out the nonsense. You use the word intimate in your blurb, which I got. But I also got a kind of naive wonder (that’s part of what I mean by Willy Wonka – there’s a bit of Vince Noir there, too), both in terms of what you were trying to do and how you wanted us to feel, like you cared about each note. Is that way off-beam?
Glock: Not at all, and thank you for looking at us in that way. We certainly wanted to keep our songwriting simple. I tend to complicate things and Scott’s simplicitly I’m sure has levelled me out. When I joined the band it was to escape a bubble I was trapped in so suddenly it felt like I was allowed to express myself in a different way. If we appear weird or eccentric, in my case it’s probably a product of that. I love our band because it’s not put on, we developed into weirdos organically.
If I had to use one word to sum up your set it would be “showmanship” in the proper PT Barnum sense. I kept thinking of Jim Broadbent in Moulin Rouge. I got the sense you were creating not just music but a whole world for your audience to lose themselves in. How did that aspect of your shows come about?
Glock: Again, thank you! When we started out we were fully aware that we were basically an acoustic duo, and we wanted to make it interesting for ourselves and for the crowds of few watching. We’re also fans of people like Eels & Duke Special who if you ever get to see live, they can really take you outside of yourself. We really aspire to do that too.
And do you think that’s going to make it hard for you to make a go of it as a recorded act?
Glock: Aww I sincerly hope not. Underneath the party poppers and balloons are our songs which are more important to us than anything. The live set it just how we present ourselves.
I love your MySpace. You’ve recreated some of that world from the live show (and I’ve got another association – the first series of Pushing Daisies – while it was still good!). I get the impression part of your future may lie in a world that’s more than just music. Are you trying to create a whole parallel Candle Thieves world, or is that just chance?
Glock: A thousand thank yous! It’s probably a bit of both. I’m not sure why a grown man sitting at a toy piano and blowing up balloons works, but it just feels right.
Scott: We got to do a video for The Sunshine Song with a guy called Richard Cullen from Pixelfing and he helped in creating this world for us to be in within the video, and we loved it so much that eventually the artwork and our myspace became themed on those.
You describe yourselves as a guilty pleasure for deep thinkers. Could you explain?
Glock: Aww who are you kidding? You know me better than I do! If you only look on the surface you might see a couple of boys the wrong side of 20, dressed funny and playing silly sounding songs. Granted that’s what we are but there’s more underneath if you want to dig.
Scott: It’s true, and there’s a side of me that really likes that you might find something deeper, but you have to dig deeper to find it.
There is a streak running through your work that’s almost nihilistic, and that plays wonderfully off the actual sound. It reminded me of some of the parts of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, or the gaudy absinthe-soaked world of fin de siecle Paris. What are you trying to do with that? What do you want your audience to come away feeling?
Glock: Yeah if we can take people outside themselves for a short while and bring them back a little lighter that’s all I can ever hope for.
Scott: There’s a surrealness to Monty Python which is brilliant, and it’s only brilliant because first and foremost it’s very funny. We could have all the stage props in the world but if our song’s aren’t any good and people don’t have a good time then it would be devoid of meaning for us, we’re still learning in both departments but we’re havinga lot of fun doing it. We couldn’t appreciate it more someone coming to our gig, or writing nice things or getting a cd. Means the world to us. Oh and I’m definitely going to put on Monty Python when I get home!
The instruments and props. Do you go looking for things to incorporate into your music, or do you see something and think “how can I use that?” And is that really an egg filled with sand that you took out of the egg box?
Glock: He he yeah it’s just a regular egg shaker. The box was bought separately. No we don’t really go looking. Every now and then on the drive home Scott will will say something weird like ‘It’d be cool to use sparklers in the set.’ Or ‘It’d be cool to call a song Sharks & Bears.’
I can’t imagine your set working on a huge stage. I know you do garden parties and private shows. Part of me thinks that would work as TV, but there’s something almost alchemical about the way you interact with the crowd that wouldn’t work on TV. What do you see yourselves doing if you “make it”?
Glock: Well I’m answering some fine questions to someone that cares about what we’re doing so we’ve already ‘made it’. I think we could get bigger and remain pocket-sized. We want to keep developing so it’d be cool to play will a full line-up sometime. Or a string quartet would be amazing. I think we could adapt to changes.
Anything else you’d like people to know?
Glock: Amongst weller known classics, we’re both extreme fans of the 1st season of ‘Game On’ and it’d be a total dream come true to have lunch with any of the cast.
Scott: It’s true! We’re also very grateful for the interview, many thanks Dan.
Thank you for the interview!