Standing with Charlie

You all know that kid—the one who feels he (or she—we’re equal opportunity outcasts around here) belongs to a different era. For that matter, a lot of you probably were that kid. I was. And as much as hipsters idolize and idealize it, you know as well as I that it was never fun being out of step with the pace of pop culture. But something occurred to me while watching some live footage of The Smiths a few nights ago—and I’m speaking purely from a musical perspective here—while the look and sound of cool is in a state of continual flux, the only constant in popular culture is the small handful who aren’t buying it and who won’t buy into it.

In the 80s, while MTV was doing unholy things with synthesizers, they were chanting ‘Hang the DJ!’ along with Morrissey. And in the 90s, out of sync with the Backstreet Boys, they treated their disillusionment with regular doses of Tigermilk. But things are looking particularly bleak these days. With another tween sensation rolling off the ARK Music Factory assembly line every hour on the hour, I’m starting to think Morrissey’s focus in meting out musical vengeance was a little too narrow. And, apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. Charlie Atlantic has had enough.

I know it’s been a while (it was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea), but you might remember Charlie from the band InLight. He’s back, all on his own, and out to reclaim music for the musicians, the poets, and people who in general just can’t be bothered with headset microphones. With the release of his new Lost Generation EP approaching, he is out this week with a new song (‘Dido and Aeneas’) and An Open Letter to Everyone Who Still Likes Music.

Of course, we’re not the only lost generation, but a lot has changed since that first one. Back then, ‘the biggest difference in the world [was] between the amateur and the professional in the arts’. Presumably, in the days of Save The Last Waltz, professionals like the author (whose 111st birthday is in July and, yes, I will be throwing a party) spent years toiling away at their craft. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t just buy The Great Gatsby the way Rebecca Black’s mother bought ‘Friday’. So, I guess somewhere along the way, we inverted the issue. These days, I suppose, it’s the amateurs who slave away in dive bars, honing their craft while the so-called professionals get stupid haircuts and try to get their homework after soundcheck for their arena tour.

And, yes, I know there is some kind of unspoken agreement that we as a generation are intent on reclaiming the ‘slacker’ moniker from Gen X and many people recently have gone out of their way to explain how uncool it is to summon anything but contempt for everything. But I, for one, am glad that someone like Charlie is willing to take a stand, as so many of you have and do. And I’ll continue to stand with him.

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.

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.

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.

USA! USA! USA!

Even for a pathological depressive like me, today has been a good day. The United States have crushed Spain in the Confederations Cup (that right there is a week’s worth of good news); I have spent most of the day listening to God Help the Girl, Belle & Sebastian, and Bjork; I found an article on frontal lobe development co-authored by Natalie Portman online; and I read Hamlet during my lunch break. All of these things and more have combined to blot most of the negative aspects of young-adulthood from my cosciousness, even the corrupt and shallow FHM 100 sexiest women list released today, which unfairly favors women with long hair (OK, so maybe I’m still bitter about some things). But I am content enough to at least make an attempt at a #faibw post today.

Alright, let’s see. Here’s a nice one for you. Sun Airway, from Philadelphia. Very chill (an adjective I hate to use, because it is not an adjective) and I like that. All of their music that I have heard today has a distinct air of familiarity and I cannot figure out why. I am pretty sure I’ve never actually heard any of this before. I suppose it sort of reminds me of the Postal Service (Oh, no! Was that a Death Cab reference?), but with better vocals and (upon first listening, I would say) slightly more rhythmical complexity. You should really check this out. Also, you can download their EP, Oh, Naoko here. (Coincidentally, I have a little bit of a crush on Naoko Mori and an even bigger crush on her character from Torchwood.)

I can’t believe we haven’t had a Swiss band on here yet (I don’t think). Well, we do now. According to their MySpace, CHOO CHOO are from Bern. They have an organist in their band and she is a girl. Two points! (A friend of mine who is an organist visited me at work today, another good thing about today.) I love their fusion of 60s rock and contemporary garage, aaaaand they list The Monkees amongst the bands they listen to, and where would we be without Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith’s mother? (For starters, we’d be short two Pirates movies and about a billion gallons of Liquid Paper.) So give them a listen, I am really digging “Safe & Warm” [see video below].

Inlight have the sort of sound that I’m pretty sure can only come from Britain. You know, that pop/rock quality that lands just to the left of epic, but in a good way. There’s a slight thread of Pink Floydiness that runs through these songs, many of which can be downloaded for free under the “audio” tab on their website, and great relentless, non-annoying drumming persists through “Icarus” (one of two tracks making titular allusions to classical mythology, which is awesome). Also, they’ve opened for Alphabeat, and, yes, I love Alphabeat. One thing I don’t like about Inlight: they are now band number 472 on the list of “Bands I Am Not Likely To See Live Any Time Soon Because They Live In Places I Am Too Poor To Visit”. (My BIANLTSLATSBTLIPIATPTV list is getting really long and that is beginning to cloud my positive opinion of today’s events.)