OTHER WAYS OF SKINNING THE CAT
Proudfoot albums have a direct lineage traceable from the highly-mobile New Wave Pop of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, or Difford & Tilbrook – the reliable craft of songwriting and solid playing, combined with coherent narrative lyrics.
An interview of 2,750 words (approx.)
The first of the bouquet of twelve fine tracks on ‘Flower Of London’ (2016 CD) by Proudfoot – claims that ‘safe is not an option’, but on this CD you’ll find the reliable craft of songwriting and solid playing, combined with coherent narrative lyrics. It feels almost like an audiobook of narrative vignettes and short stories, very literary and word-centric. And, as a wordsmith myself, I mean that in a good way…!
Band fulcrum Michael Proudfoot sets the tone. ‘I’ve got into the habit of leaving a guitar out in the kitchen and between making porridge in the morning and trying not to burn it, I’ll have a strum… 98% of the time nothing happens and I sing a cover, but sometimes the germ of a tune arrives. My day job is making documentary films for all sorts of people, some telly stuff (including BBC4’s 2013 ‘The Enigma Of Nic Jones: Return Of Britain’s Lost Hero’), and by the time I’ve got on my bike and cycled all the way to the office in Clerkenwell I might have a verse. As others have said before, it’s a habit and then an obsession – once you’ve started it’s difficult to ignore the glimmer of something that might be a song.’
‘One of the things that got me about Country music – now Americana, way back was the idea of stories within the words – so people like Guy Clark, John Prine and Gram Parsons have never been far away from the deck. And as with films, you can collect the images and re-arrange them until it feels like it works. Most of the songs on the CD have a starting point in a true story that I’ve improvised on, either because I don’t know the outcome and have had to imagine it, or I don’t know the details so have had to ‘novelise’ something to get an ‘ending’. Random thoughts put down in one year can suddenly become relevant in another… I was looking through my old notebooks the other day and I noticed that germs of ideas in these songs were around for a few years. The nice thing about words is they’re nice and portable.’
Yes, I see how that works. That’s very much a literary approach, rather than the musical thing of devising a catchy riff and building a hook and a lyric around it. ‘Funnily enough I think this CD was written with the tunes, or the ideas for them first. As a quiz – one of them was written after listening to Boz Scaggs singing “Love TKO” by Teddy Prendergrass… see if you can spot it (answers on a postcard please)!’
Lined up together by photographer Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones like stylish gangsters against graffiti-splashed walls and a gasworks backdrop, Proudfoot have a collective track record. Michael is from the prairies of the East Midlands. He began with a group called the Highbury Hotdogs. But ‘there’s one vital element here and his name is Duncan Kerr’ Michael insists. ‘There was a great band at the Imperial Hotel in Nottingham called Plummet Airlines and Duncan was the guitar player… I thought if ever I have a band he’s the man… it took forty years but here he is!’ With pub-rockers Plummet Airlines Duncan did two Peel Sessions and plays on their single “Silver Shirt” which graced the Stiff label (BUY 8, 1976), before he graduated into power-pop favourites, the Favourites. He then joined the reformed psych-punks the Brainiac Five.
I remember Plummet Airlines with affection. ‘The nice thing about working with Duncan, bassist, Wayne Worrell and the exceptional drummer that is Joe Malone is that we begin to see other possibilities, other ways of skinning the cat.’ The debut Proudfoot album – 2009s ‘Lincolnshire’, wears stylish Nashville boots for “Jane In A Cornfield” and “Old Fashioned Girl”. It was produced by BJ Cole, with all his characteristically authentic touches. ‘But if the ‘Flower of London’ CD is good, it’s because between Duncan, Wayne, Joe – and Kenny Jones at Alchemy studios, they were able to take the acoustic demos made in my basement forward to something that exceeds our expectations.’
‘Duncan has been coming around to my house on a Monday evenings for the last six years… and I’ve been pitching him songs. He’s the most wonderful collaborator because he’s always positive and can always help with a chord or a middle eight. I’m sure you know what it’s like trying ideas out on people – it’s terrifying, so you have to have people around that you trust, and in whose skills you trust. Duncan, apart from being a great guitar player, has really great ears for the big picture.’
Duncan also works with Darts, whose James Compton adds guest keyboard and the subtle dancing string arrangements to “Superstar”, the blossoming ugly duckling story enlivened by Kerr’s looping Knopfler-alike guitar interlude, and its country setting expanded with cosmic imagery. “Vivenne” is maybe a slyly-beguiling sax-stitched reference to Westwood, who ‘cut the cloth and created love’, with Beth Frost whispering of the ‘special occasion’ her peach creation denotes. Is there a vague melodic memory of Bob Dylan’s “Precious Angel”, or is that just me? And in this era of ‘X-Factor’ exaggerated over-dramatics and high-octane contortions, Michael’s voice flows refreshingly naturally smooth. “Lorraine” with soul-organ, hyperactive glittering guitar and Rock-punchy velcro chorus spins like a Rockpile 45rpm on a rare cult Indie label. I knew ‘La-La-La-Lou-Rayne’ when she used to Rock ‘n’ Roll!’ “Come On Come On” is also an echoey handclap-driven Rocker with sing-along countdown chorus, ‘light the fuse, pull the wire, step into the blue…’ The new Jesus of Cool? Well – maybe not, but you get the picture.
But favourite track so far is “Queen Of Bohemia” with that Ska-accented lilt to it embroidered by Beth Frost’s sugar-sweet backing voice, and the lyric about ‘she loved the smell of turpentine, she loved his vagabond ways, she loved the way he threw that paint…’ Are there real people in there?
Michael pauses, then continues. ‘Er… yes there are real, specific, people in mind, people who I knew. When I was at Art College in the late seventies there was a lot of politics, a lot of anger but also a lot of optimism, there was a belief that you could be heard and make a difference. And with things like Greenham Common, people, women were heard and at the time the press took the piss but actually those women were change-makers, they drew attention to something that many of us were not at all comfortable with. So the song has a personal resonance for me, but it is about a lost era of radicalism that I think after recent events might be due a revival. It’s also a kind of love song in retrospect… ‘she was right’ – keep your fucking chattels and your diamonds and your pearls – I’m off to do what I think is right!’
There was music in the cafés at night. And revolution in the air…? ‘It was a fairly volatile time, Punk was happening but I always thought the Clash were revved up Country, probably not a popular view.’
The Press release mentions the influence of the Beatles ‘I love country music and early Rock ‘n’ Roll’ it says, ‘but I am essentially a child of the sixties. I can still vividly remember the moment the Beatles came into my world via ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’. We lived, literally, in the middle of nowhere surrounded by potato and wheat fields, the Beatles sound made it seem as if anything were possible and I fell for it hook line and sinker. Music has been in my life ever since.’ But, accepting that everything has been vaguely touched by the Moptops, I don’t hear that on ‘Flower Of London’…
‘Well they were definitely an inspiration from an early age – to be honest, anyone holding a guitar was an inspiration, and at the age of about seven I was wondering how you could actually make a musical sound out of that thing, that lovely looking thing that seemed to be able to mesmerise and encapsulate so much? The pre-sexual me saw something he didn’t understand but definitely wanted to be a part of. I can still watch a bad Elvis movie just because he’s holding a guitar – sorry if this sounds a bit bonkers! When I was at a very ‘league division two’ boarding school in Nottinghamshire someone finally taught me three chords. From there I went to the local Folk Club and did floor spots – the school thought it was a nice healthy club rather than a room above a great pub called ‘The Boundery Inn’. The stage had a red flag above it and my audience were miners from the local colliery – they were very nice to me and put up with my ‘cowboy’ music. I saw some great people there, people like Nic Jones who I made the BBC4 film about, a few years ago. Listening to him I could hear how Englishness could swing in a bluesy way – that there was a link between the Country of the USA and its origins here in the UK. I also learnt to try and surprise the audience and not play what everyone else was playing. So maybe there’s a folky thing in there, but I also like ACDC and Motown and Cat Power and Steve Earle and The Band and Josh Rouse, love Chuck Prophet and so forth…’
You don’t have to apologize for the Elvis reference. Me too. My first book was called ‘I Was Elvis Presley’s Bastard Love Child’ (Headpress/ Critical Vision, 2001)!
‘I went to Graceland a couple of years ago’ Michael admits, ‘it was strange because I felt I had been there before and dear old Elvis was somehow still present. By his grave and those of his parents there’s a little memorial to his twin brother (Jessie) who died at birth – behind the showbiz, a family story of love and some tragedy. The people of Memphis hold him up as their favourite son and rightly so… he’s kind of up there with Picasso, better not quote me on that!’
But the Proudfoot albums have a more direct lineage traceable from the highly-mobile New Wave Pop of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, or Difford & Tilbrook. The wailing harmonica etching the title track, one of the few Pop songs to include the word ‘nonchalance’, while opening up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of flowery-powered sixties Carnaby Street paisley-patterned trendiness. And “Seven Ages” gliding on slide-guitars sweeter than very sweet indeed, and teasing most blueswailing harp references to ‘when you still walked the line.’ The lycanthropic “Wolf” prowling between rips of martial drums and guitar glinting like moonlight on a turning blade, the ‘sins of the father’ in the cold blood-pulse of cuckoo-spit and crawling spiders. “Victim Of Your Past” with its gauzy Paul Desmond-style horn, Spanish guitar and warm swaying samba beat. Or the weary-gruff “Down The Line” – ‘life is a conundrum when it’s all been said’, stripped-down to a shuffle-rhythm and curling guitar licks. They’ve got a tale to tell, and they tell it well.
Yet we’re immersed in a weird phase of music caught up in cultural and technological transition, with opportunities – like the internet, and drawbacks like the need to shout that much louder to make our presence felt within a mass of product. ‘I’m probably lucky in that I don’t have to make a living out of music – we do it because we like it and to see if we can make something good. Frankly if you’ve enjoyed listening to it on your iPod while walking the dog, its been worth it… it cost about the same as golf club membership to make, and what the fuck is the point of that… apologies to golfers!’
I like that attitude. I operate on the same principle (and I also paid a visit to Graceland a couple of years back!). But, keeping on track, is there a story about one of the songs that you feel like particularly sharing…? ‘“Pathfinders” is about my Mother’s first fiancé – she’d had quite a troubled upbringing, born illegitimate she was paired with another orphan child and raised as her sister in a marriage of convenience. It wasn’t until the day she joined the WAAFs at eighteen that she realised that her Mother wasn’t her Mother, her sister wasn’t her sister. Her real Mother had actually died of what they called ‘gumma of the brain’, which was syphilis, I only found this out recently. So in a way the WAAF’s was a page one moment for her, she didn’t know who she really was so she set out to find herself… she had a nervous breakdown I think. But she did fall in love with this guy who was pathfinder pilot or observer… they dropped flares on the targets for the bombers to follow. She told me that the WAAFs would wait up to hear the engines of the planes coming back and count them in. To amuse herself she smoked a lot of Camel cigarettes and painted pink elephants on the windows of beer jugs.’
That’s a hell of a story. ‘She told me that when she realised her Mother wasn’t her Mother a whole range of memories of what people had said to her as a child came flooding back… suddenly, who she thought she was, wasn’t who she thought she was. All her life she was haunted by not knowing who her real Mum was. I don’t think she ever really got over this – the Pathfinder pilot didn’t come back from a mission either, and that was that. One day as a teenager we were standing in our back garden in Lincolnshire where the last Lancaster bomber was kept, and when it flew overhead she burst into tears… the engines, the sound of the engines did it and she told me all this. So it’s a very short version of her story.’
Yes, the airplane-sound samples provide atmosphere and give the lyric context, ‘the sound of the future, she would never own’. A world war of guitar interplay, and a closely-observed character-sketch shot through with empathy and the awareness of impending tragedy. Is he happy with that stuff appearing in print…? ‘I don’t see why not – she was maybe a bit ashamed of all this but she shouldn’t have been – maybe some talking therapy would have helped. I’ve been thinking about a music video for this number but every idea I think about gets more involved and potentially expensive… maybe I’ll do it.’ Maybe he has photos…? A sequence of merging period photos would illustrate the story visually very effectively…
Maybe I should confirm again, is all this personal history for publication…? I don’t want to trespass…! ‘Yes I think so, I don’t think it was an uncommon story… my wife’s Mother had a similar kind of scenario… being illegitimate then was a real stigma.’
I guess we all have complex family histories, and as creative people, it feeds into what we do. Pete Townshend used that as the basis for ‘Tommy’… his parent’s wartime trauma… ‘Well my Mum was a big part of what I’ve turned into. She took me to my first play in Lincoln and I was transfixed. She encouraged me to paint and write… it set me off to where I am today – so she might not have known her Mum but she certainly put her stamp on me.’
Elsewhere Michael’s said that ‘the good thing about songwriting is that you can make a single statement about a lot of things, or a statement about a single moment. It seems to me the things that affect us most are like that, they are global and big – like politics and war, or tiny moments in the macro when someone says or does something you love or hate… that’s what this record is about.’
‘From the first session we felt good about this album and every time we went into Alchemy something special happened. I think also from making this CD we can begin to see what we might do next…’
And meanwhile, “Pathfinders” – the first of the bouquet of twelve excellent tracks on Proudfoot’s ‘Flower Of London’, is a powerful song. I’ll listen to it again with fresh insight now. I grew up in Humberside, which is as equally at the ends of the Earth as Lincolnshire…
‘Actually, I always liked Hull…’ Michael adds sympathetically.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
‘Flowers Of London’ is a CD by Proudfoot
(Reckless CD103, September 2016)
Brief elements of this interview previously appeared in ‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ (Vol.2 Issue 60, November 2016)