If I start on the word plays, I’ll run out of space before I get to their sound, so this is Spiral Pitfall

(A mighty big thank-you to Dan Holloway for this review on Spiral Pitfall, as Eric & I have been taking some time off, oops, happy New Year, but we’ll be back this week)

I usually write about UK bands I’ve discovered on cold winter evenings as support acts in the seamier venues of South East England. So how did I end up writing about a band I’ve never seen from San Diego? Well, first up, alt/metal band Spiral Pitfall aren’t actually from San Diego. It turns out they’re from an area called Sugar Camp in North Michigan/Wisconsin,and just happen to be hanging out in San Diego right now. OK, that’s till not exactly on my doorstep.

I “met” Ian Sheffer, the band’s vocals/guitarist, when he signed Spiral Pitfall up to Free-e-day back in November. Never one to skip a freebie myself, I listened to the band’s material and was blown away. I wanted to know a bit more about the band, so I sent them some of my usual weirded out questions, mainly about food, and we got talking.

Spiral Pitfall’s first full-length album will be out this spring. It’s taken them a long time to get to this stage from their roots in 1998 Sugar Camp, but as Ian runs me through the band’s history, and I begin to picture myself inside the shoot of Spinal Tap talking to David St Hubbins it becomes clear why the journey has been so long.

Just as the band was getting into its stride in the early Noughties, playing an increasing number of gigs and compiling more and more original material, the central combo in a regularly shifting line up, Ian and drummer Bill Schattner, were split up when Bill headed to college and Ian ended up in Denver. It was only in 2007 that they finally got back together, peddling the 6-song EP Cryptic Poetry that Ian had written during the separation.

Spiral Pitfall’s history explains, I think, a lot more than why it’s taken them 11 years to produce an album. As I listened again to their fabulous “Say What you Mean” after reading the band bio, the indefinable quality of their sound became clearer. There’s a clear metal background to the song (or is there? I always wonder about how we classify music on different sides of the Atlantic – without any cues from the band I’d have called them alt/electro, but more on that later). But over the top are some wonderfully paranoid, disembodied samples of people spouting political er, for want of a better word, bollocks. It reminded me a bit of the sinister matronesque voiceover on The Smiths’ Rubber Ring.

The sample/metal elements sit very well together. It turns out that during his time apart from Bill, Ian recorded a lot of material on his own, playing everything and layering it into a final piece. It’s surely this experience that’s led to the band’s current seamless blending of sounds.

Talking of the band’s influences, Ian mentions the likes of Black Sabbath. It’s clear why they call themselves alt/metal. Which is why I was so surprised I like Spiral Pitfall as much I do. I’ve never been fond of American bands who call themselves something/“metal”. I’ve always found them a bit, well, generic, and decidedly lacking the seedier, industrial edge I like. But Spiral Pitfall aren’t really like any American metal I’ve heard before. They’re much more like the industrial urban electro I love. Which just goes to show you should listen to the music and never go by labels. Further conversation on the topic reveals the band count the likes of Midnight Oil and Radiohead amongst their influences. Now we’re talking.

If I had to pick one band of whom Spiral Pitfall remind me, it would be one of the handful of genuinely exciting bands to burst onto the UK scene this year, The Big Pink. Which is praise indeed.

There are several lessons to take away from my meeting with Ian and Spiral Pitfall. If something new comes into your inbox, give it a listen! Listen before you’ve read any of the stuff people have posted on their myspace, or before you’ve trawled through the e-mail – let the music speak for itself. And finally, make sure you keep your ears to the ground for the release of Spiral Pitfall’s first album – this is a band that’s waited and waited and is now ready to hit the ground running with their hunger and their talent.

Spiral Pitfall’s music is available for free download from www.myspace.com/spiralpitfall

–Dan Holloway, http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com


It’s coming: Free-e-day 2009!

image copyright Dan Holloway

Sorry about last week. Kristin is still taking some time off, though she will be back soon (no one is more excited about this than I am). And while I had intended to keep things running here without interruption, a combination of factors both technical and personal (including, but not limited to, the fact that my laptop keeps dying bit by bit, every time I turn it on) led me to conclude that it was time I took some time off as well, though I’m sure you were all glad to be rid of me for a week anyway. But I am back now, and just in time, because there is something very exciting brewing in the near future, and you need to know about it.

Remember Dan Holloway, our reliable and, more importantly, brilliant guest contributor? Well, when we first introduced you to him, I believe we also mentioned that he was the organizer of the upcoming Free-e-day festival. After months of work, it’s about to blow up — next Tuesday, 1 December, to be precise.

What is Free-e-day? It’s a celebration of everything that is good (and FREE!) about indie culture the world over. In a genre that becomes increasingly hard to define as a result of it’s diversity, one thing remains consistent: the love of creating for the sake of creating. And on Tuesday, gathered in one place and for one purpose, you will have an opportunity to explore these labors of love from the comfort of your own desk chair or bed or toilet (the internet is a magical place). For 48 hours you will have access, free of charge, to some of the best emerging artists, writers, poets, and musicians in the world. Check the Free-e-day blog for more details.

Some highlights:

Sarah E. Melville, a brilliant artist and writer, will be giving away her poetry collection Improper Love Poems About Fruits. I was only introduced to Sarah’s work last week via the Year Zero Writers page and fell instantly in love. If you are not completely ravished by her work, you are probably a robot or a Thomas Kinkade enthusiast.

Musical contributions from our friends InLight and To The Moon.

Year Zero Writers will be offering their collection of 13 short stories entitled Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair. They are a collective who produce some excruciatingly gorgeous writing. If you’ve never read any, now would be a good time start.

And, of course, our dear friend Dan Holloway will be offering a pdf of his novel Songs From the Other Side of the Wall. Dan will also be taking part in a live event in Oxford that evening (that’s England, not Ohio or Mississippi) which will also feature the music of Mol Hodge, Nikki Loy, and The Joker and the Thief.

Excited yet?

I expect to see you there.

The lights went on and there was Garth from Wayne’s World and Elvis Costello playing Fisher Price percussion

CT1By Dan Holloway

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!

“He was a steampunk jeweller called Pete, and the spit of a pre-pubescent Andy Warhol…”

September 10th was a big night when two of my favourite places, the music world and the twitterverse, collided. A few miles down the road at London Bridge, the London Twestival, headlined by no less than The Hours, was opening its doors. But I was at a far more important gig, at The Good Ship in Kilburn, the first ever #twittergig (to make sure you don’t miss future ones, keep checking the twittergig hashtag), organised and hosted by, and headlining, To The Moon.

No other band more personifies the eccentric, creative, interactive and, let’s face it, slightly bonkers world of twitter. The two-man alt-electronica combo of mJ and Dennis advertise themselves as “preparing for the worst by evacuating earth and heading To The Moon”. They greet each new follower on twitter with salutes, and regularly report in on their mission status. They make Muse look like Internet amateurs. Which is the reason I was there rather than down the road (er, the fact The Hours were headlining admittedly played its part, after I’d stood through their self-important twaddle when they supported Kasabian’s recent UK tour) at a do that had, from what I could see, about 8 corporate sponsors. Yes, Twestival was for charity, and I hope it was a success, but it’s not very twitter!

It’s not the first time I’d met the musical side of twitter – the previous Thursday about 10 of us had swapped usernames at an InLight concert. But it’s the first time I’d met a band I’d come across there, and what I discovered just reinforced my opinions of the twitterverse. I’d interviewed mJ and Dennis a couple of months ago for my regular blog column, and they were (there WILL be puns) out of this world, on another planet even. So I was delighted to be told, on arrival, having flashed my twitter boarding pass for a pound off, that I could find mJ “up there, trying on his space suit”.

Dennis, against a backdrop of a 1950s rocket console, was opening the evening with a DJ set that was perfectly spacey and trippy, with the occasional whir and roar that sounded like an engine launching. mJ, meanwhile, was on the balcony with his girlfriend, sewing felt and calico and bits of tubing together. It looked like his girlfriend’s mate was on the stage, doing some kind of performance ritual. It transpired she was trying to fit a fluorescent lighting strip to the floor to make the stage look even more like a spaceship.

Dennis’ set merged seamlessly into Rabid Gravy’s. I must confess, I was actually rather nervous about meeting someone who calls himself Rabid Gravy (I just couldn’t get school dinners out of my head!), and whose avatar is a dog with red eyeballs munching on a syringe. More worryingly still, Mr Gravy (no relation to Woodstock’s Wavy, I believe) bore more than a passing resemblance to the dog in question. It was hard to tell which of them had been cooked up in a Photoshop session. Which is probably appropriate for a cybergig.

Once I got over the sample of nails scratching an electronic blackboard, Rabid Gravy’s music blew me away. It was quite clear this was something different. Something very serious (he even, albeit in a DM, used the word prog when I tweeted him the next day). And VERY good. He played two sequences of about 15 minutes each. The first was, on the surface, light, built around an electro-glockenspiel sound that had elements of the music from Heidi, and felt decidedly Alpine throughout (I’m sure at times it was mimicking the sound of human yodelling). The second was an altogether different beast, like a Steve Reich take on an East Berlin Stasi torture brothel. It was dark, distant, full of screams rising from oubliettes and interrupted noises, shot through with decadent Salon Kitty eroticism. Taken together, it felt like Gravy had taken us on a musical tour of the dark side of 20th century Europe.

Needing some air, I went out to chat with mJ and Dennis before their set. I asked them why Twittergig was, in their opinion, better than the Twestival. “Well,” said mJ, “they won’t be beset by technical difficulties! And they won’t be fighting on through challenging hair!”

When we went back inside, I asked to be introduced to a guy who’d been intriguing me. He was about 6 foot, dressed in a black polo neck with a shock of white hair, clearly intended to make him look (with uncanny success) like a pre-pubescent Andy Warhol. He turned out to be a steampunk jeweller called Pete.

By now it was time for the star (er, planet, er, spheroid lunar body) turn. The whole place felt like the inside of a spaceship, or a substance-distorted encounter with a Rocky Horror troupe on a dark night in, again, East Berlin. Hmm, there’s a theme emerging. To the Moon emerged garbed in lab-coat and space-suit respectively, and launched (damnit with the puns!) into a set that was, in its way, as experimental as anything from Mr Gravy. The interstellar theme permeates the lyrics and electronic but it’s suffused with enough cross-genre references (yes, that IS Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds at the start of A Halo, although he denied it when I asked him!) to keep anyone satisfied. Combine it with a trippy filmic backdrop and the effect is enough to wrap every one of your senses in a gigtacular spacepod and allow you, for one night only, to transcend the dull confines of your usual events.

Back to why twittergig 9/10 outshines any twestival, and in mJ’s words, “it’s like a gig, only there’s not a guitar amp or a drum kit in the building!” No, but there IS a spaceship, a bunch of buggered lighting, and a steampunk jeweler called Pete.

Postcards from the UK

Another wonderful post from our dear friend Dan Holloway.  Do enjoy.

From the Merlot monologues to his online reinvention of the surrealist gameshow Mornington Crescent, Charlie Cooke, aka @charlieatlantic, is the funniest man on twitter. He’s also the frontman of InLight (with guitarist Mike, bass Johnny, and drums Pete) “the best unsigned band in Britain” (according to the leading Indie site This Reality Podcast). So I was delighted when he spared an evening to chat to me in the idyllic environs of Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House.

The oldest coffee shop in this historic university city might seem like an unlikely place to hang out with one of the bright young things of the Indie music scene, but with his molasses smooth voice and cheeky humour, Charlie fits both worlds perfectly. As does InLight’s music. Which is why it makes sense that the band’s music is about to hit a wider audience courtesy of the film adaptation of Oxford author Phillip “His Dark Materials” Pulman’s novel The Butterfly Tattoo. The band’s song “Bridges” features not only in the film but on the soundtrack. “We saw an advert on MySpace for tracks that might suit the film,” Charlie explains. “We sent the producers Bridges, and they said yes.”

Exactly why InLight’s music has such a wide appeal is clear when I push Charlie on their influences. I ask him about “Disappear”, the track the band has just been working on, a song whose haunting lyrics and compelling hook remind me strangely of the writing of Haruki Murakami; a song I love so much I made it the star of a chapter in my current novel. “It probably doesn’t make any sense,” says Charlie, with his self-effacing charm, “but I was listening to Chopin, and I thought ‘I wonder how this would sound if it was done discobeat’.” It actually makes perfect sense, and it’s that range of influences that makes InLight’s music so interesting.

Charlie advertises himself on his twitter profile (he is so obsessed with the microblogging site the band has taken to teasing him about it during their sets) as a Beatles maniac. And that certainly comes through in our conversation (we talk for a while about what constitutes a band’s voice and he enthuses about the differences and similarities between Sergeant Pepper and Rubber soul; we talk about playing festivals by day or pubs by night and he exclaims it’s impossible to imagine Eleanor Rigby played live in the daylight).

But what also comes through is the depth of the influence on his songwriting. Charlie’s grandfather, and his great grandfather were both concert pianists. “I grew up with that kind of music, so I’ve always been interested in music that’s about melody and orchestration.” That’s what explains the richness of the band’s sound, the repeated listening it stands up to. I point out this shows in their gigs, that he’s more at home playing keyboard than guitar. “You noticed,” he smiles, elaborating, “I play guitar because I’m in a band. I play keyboard because I love it.”

I first came across InLight when they supported The Boxer Rebellion at Oxford’s Bullingdon Arms. I loved their music, but I also loved their approach. “If you buy our CD,” they said, “we’ll draw you a customised cover for it.” What a wonderful idea, I thought, especially as I’d just started writing a book about iconic images and modern art. So I ordered a copy of their postcards CD (which they will happily ship, with hand-drawn cover, to the US), which duly arrived with a hand-drawn cover based on my book’s central image. What made them come up with such a great idea? Is one of the band an artist “We didn’t really know what to put on the cover,” Charlie laughs, “So Mike said why not draw them as the orders come in. Besides, it’s cheaper than getting a load printed.” Strange how romantic ideas can have such prosaic origins.

Eventually I broach the big question. The UK’s best unsigned band. Indie gods. Would InLight ever consider a label if the opportunity arose? I wait for the agonising and the despair at giving away freedom for the sake of paying the rent. “I’d love to be on Parlophone,” Charlie answers in a flash. “No, it’s more than that. I’ve always dreamed of being on Parlophone. The first record I ever played was one of my dad’s. I remember watching the Parlophone logo spinning round and round, and thinking one day…”

It’s a refreshing honesty. “Going it alone suits some bands,” he says. “But I think our sound suits the studio production values you get with a label.” It’s the same honesty he has about the band’s music. The breadth of influence, the classical overtones, and the fact I’d spent the afternoon listening to Pure Reason Revolution, lead me to ask the inevitable. Has the band ever thought about doing something a bit proggy? “Well I like Pink Floyd,” says Charlie. But that’s as far as it goes. “Our music’s commercial. It’s what suits us, and what we do best.”

And that sums up InLight more than anything else. This is a band that knows what it wants to do, and is happy doing it. And as long as they keep knocking out beautifully crafted, brilliantly orchestrated 4 minute masterpieces like Icarus and Disappear, it can’t be too long till the telephone rings.

“There’s a man covered in mud trying to hump an inflatable whale”

Dan Holloway reports from Y Not the UK’s Indie-est festival

I am not a fan of Noah and The Whale. I just want to make that clear. They’re not all that bad live, but neither are they good enough to convert me. Or induce me to make bad puns about their fate in 5 years’ time. And the fact they were headlining certainly wasn’t the reason my wife and I ended up in a mud-drenched field in the Derbyshire hills for the UK’s Indie-est festival, Y Not.

The main thing we knew about Y Not as we pitched up in the mist and mud was that it had been nominated for best toilets on last year’s festival circuit. There are worse reasons for picking a micro-festival (4,000 capacity) to attend. Especially when you want some reassurance that the inch-thick brown swill on the plastic floor really is mud.

It was mud that dominated this year’s festival. London synth-pop performer Esser summed up the feel of the day. After observing “there’s a guy covered in mud trying to hump an inflatable whale” (I knew Noah were there for a reason), he dedicated his appropriately-monikered track “long arms” to “a mud-covered guy wrestling a sailor”. And by his last song he was no longer bothering with lyrics, but had given in and was coaxing more sailors to tackle the troupe of 200+pound mud-men wearing the remnants of tutus.

Fortunately there was music to go with the mud. Spread across two venues, a “main stage”, and the Quarry Tent (which gets its name from the fact the first festival was held in a local quarry when someone’s parents cancelled their holiday and a last minute venue had to be found for a covert house party). The two were rather slickly scheduled so that there would always be music on one whilst the other was changing round. Unfortunately the mud put paid to that piece of planning when several of the acts’ tour buses failed to negotiate narrow lanes strewn with cars abandoned by their frustrated owners.

Some of the music in the smaller venue (which the rain ensured packed as much of a crowd as the main stage – to the dismay of a stallholder selling rather delicate jewellery, alongside what I could swear was a pot of Chuppa Chups) was really rather good. Rugosa Nevada, for example, maintained a distinctive melodic yet grungy sound across a really wide repertoire for such a new band, and Cara Roxanne delivered a delightful (and endearingly nervous) folk rock set.

And on the main stage things were particularly bright. With Jonah and co headlining, and the festival’s home-made approach I’d braced myself for several variations on a folksy theme (and I wasn’t heartened by the Lancashire Hotpots, with their risqué versions of campfire classics), so I was so ecstatic when local band Max Raptor took the stage and hammered out their set, sounding for all the world like the Buzzcocks at their angriest best.

Hammersmith combo Tellison, a slightly lighter shade of guitar band, left us in no doubt who they were (“we’re Tellison” they interjected after every song, clearly as chuffed as a festival-goer getting back to their tent to discover a pack of fresh boxers to be there, going on to remind us several times that they were “touring with Johnny Foreigner in the autumn”). Fortunately their enthusiasm was matched by talent. They need to work on widening their repertoire a little, and sculpting a set, but that will come, and they’ll be a cracking support for Johnny Foreigner.

Before he embarked upon his alternative career as a mud-wrestling MC, Esser showed he actually has quite a flair for music as well. Once you get over the fact he looks like a member of Curiosity Killed the Cat, his music is actually just what you need to brighten a dull afternoon (his appearance even coincide with that of the sun). It’s the kind of breezy, poppy London sound you’d imagine Lily Allen might make if she had a bit more talent, only the layered synth in the background gives it a satisfyingly present but not too intrusive edge.

Bombay Bicycle Club are probably already too big to properly be called Indie. They seem to have been everywhere this year, but it was still a treat to see this London combo in the flesh. Their energy was just what we needed to keep us going as we fidgeted around waiting for the reason we came, The Boxer Rebellion. I won’t repeat what I said about this amazing band last time. They’re the best band in the UK. Full stop.

So what does the UK’s most Indie festival have to offer? Well, it has dancing bananas and inflatable whales (though the latter are probably in shorter supply when there’s a different line-up). It has a fancy dress day, which this year was nautically-themed, and an Indie spirit that meant despite the rain a good quarter of the people we saw had dressed for the occasion (from the far-sighted types who adapted umbrellas to make jellyfish costumes) to the more sunshine-dependent whose cardboard destroyers were, er, destroyed. And I haven’t seen that many mud-wrestling sailors outside of the burlesques of Amsterdam.

It did also, it has to be said, have very nice toilets.

Inside Outside the Box

Dan Holloway talks to Todd Howe of The Boxer Rebellion as the UK’s best Indie band prepares to play North America

I was tired and cold and sopping wet, and the only seat on the Tube was covered with a dog-eared copy of Metro. I put on my gloves, picked it up by the corner with a look of disgust, and caught sight of a small article halfway down the page about a London band. In the few months since then, my wife and I have been to see The Boxer Rebellion four times, and acquired every piece of merch we can lay our hands on. Which, I gathered from guitarist Todd Howe, isn’t unusual for the band’s fans. “Yeah, we’ve had one guy who’s followed us around the country for five years,” he said in his cool Australian drawl when I spoke to him at home, between gigs. “Which is pretty cool.”

That original article recounted how the band’s single, Evacuate, had become the first iTunes Single of the Week (the album, Union, making the iTunes top 5 in the UK and the US). All that without a record label (they were dropped by their label in 2005 the week their first album, Exits, a dark, claustrophobic masterpiece that became an underground sensation, was released) or, indeed, a physical recording. Union, in fact (a few special, tour-only CDs, one signed copy of which is a proud possession, aside), isn’t released as a CD until August.

So what is it that makes fans so crazy for what has to be the hottest band in the UK right now, to the extent Evacuate achieved 560,000 downloads in a week? I wonder if it’s something to do with their unique sound. “We started off aiming at something between Massive Attack and Muse,” says Todd. What they ended up with is a sound that’s 100% their own. The combination of frontman Nathan Nicholson’s powerful but haunting vocals (think Richard Ashcroft gone down to the Crossroads) on songs like Silent Movie, the infectious hook of Forces, and the brilliant layering and structure of Semi-Automatic, give their music both instant appeal and the ability to stand endless relistening.

The band also has an incredible stage presence, and their gigs in front of their home London crowds are just electric. “Our London gigs have a family atmosphere,” says Todd. A family like The Sopranos, maybe. The night I saw the band play Scala, they sent the crowd berserk, and Todd ended up playing the guitar meltdown at the end of their signature track Watermelon on his back, on top of someone who later became my twitterbuddy! It helps build the relationship with the fans that they always sell their own merch and have a drink with the fans after the show “Yeah, we can’t afford a merch guy,” Todd laughs, adding, “Sometimes we spend longer selling merch than we do playing the gig.” It’s something the band loves doing, and it enhances the sense of being part of a family – or, given the band’s history, part of a story.

The Boxer Rebellion will be playing The Mercury Lounge, New York on August 6, and The Mod Club Toronto, on August 8, and the three shows they’ve played in the US so far this year – their first US dates – have been sellouts. But the band almost toured America before, supporting The Killers in 2004, when Nicholson was struck down with an illness that took a year to recover from. It clearly means a lot to the band to be playing there at last. “When we finished Flashing Red Light Means Go (the thumping set opener, to which the band – Nathan, Todd, and bassist Adam – make their rock’n’roll entrance – “but you feel like a bit of an idiot if you’re playing to like 10 people,” Todd jokes – whilst drummer Piers builds momentum) in LA the crowd just went mental. It was awesome.” I could sense both the pride, and the relief in his voice.

Between shows, the band is currently writing and recording their third album, which must be a little weird, I suggest, when they haven’t actually released the second one. “We want to make sure we stay ahead of the game,” says Todd, quickly. The band have had it all taken away before, and it’s clear they’re going to do everything they can to avoid it happening a second time.

The Boxer Rebellion embody everything that makes Indie culture great, from their unique sound to their absolute commitment to their fans (“if people are paying that much money, we want to make sure they get a hell of a show,” says Todd when I ask him about their unusually high quality of support acts, which have included the outstanding electro-prog band Pure Reason Revolution, and “the best unsigned band in Britain” according to many, InLight). But what about the clincher. Anything in the pipeline in terms of a label? “We’ve done a licensing deal in Japan and New Zealand,” says Todd, “and we’ve got a great distributor in Europe, so technically I guess we’re no longer unsigned.” Nonetheless, he explains, “we made a collective decision we didn’t need a label. If we were going to change our minds and look at anyone, they’d have to follow the way we wanted to work.” The kings of UK Indie look set to retain that status for some time to come.


Dan Holloway is author of the novel Songs From the Other Side of the Wall, a founder member of the Year Zero Writers collective, and organiser of the Free-e-day Indie download festival. Based in the UK, he will be speaking at the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association in Boston this November.