Thrift shopping: still cool in 2016?

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 3 June 2016.

The year was 2013. Justin Timberlake, after a long absence from pop music, released his long-awaited comeback single, the high-class ‘Suit and Tie’. It was a smash hit. Or rather, it would have been, had it not been kept off the number one spot by… well, technically by ‘The Harlem Shake’. But also by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ breakthrough hit ‘Thrift Shop’. The two songs formed a mirror image of each other. Both focused on the power of fashion, and were infused with an extremely cocky swagger. But the boys from Seattle won through for two reasons: firstly, they simply had the better song. Where Timberlake’s offering was twinkly and just a bit slow, ‘Thrift Shop’ was catchy and energetic, its main sax riff instantly recognisable. Secondly, they had a sense of humour – where Timberlake banged on about his own attractiveness, Macklemore rapped about the joys of wearing second-hand clothes, so it’s not hard to see which of the two was the more likeable. Thus began a career full of promise.

Their last flash of relevance came in 2015, with the magnificent ‘Downtown’. Once again, this song had an obvious counterpart – namely Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ smash-hit ‘Uptown Funk’. But where ‘Uptown Funk’ was polished, ‘Downtown’ was an odder beast. The verses are slipshod but funny – opening with Macklemore getting ripped off by a moped salesman, the song presents a bizarre odyssey about the coolness of mopeds, with undertones of sixties pop and eighties rap. It’s a self-indulgent joy with a more accessible vision of cool than the exclusive ‘Uptown Funk’, precisely because it is so uncool.

‘Downtown’ shows Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at their best. Melodious, strange, and self-aware enough for the humour to work, it’s unlike anything else. The two deliberately stuck out at an odd angle from the rest of the pop scene, a fresh voice adding a touch of levity to an all-too-ponderous music industry. Following the release of their second album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, I hope they do stick around. But I really can’t think of a better way to go out.

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Public Service Broadcasting – the future of pop?

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 27 May 2016.

Inform – Educate – Entertain. This was the title of London-based archive-funk duo Public Service Broadcasting’s debut album, and it also serves as a kind of mission statement.

The band’s main gimmick is the use of archive clips and famous quotations to form the lyrical content of their pieces, along with live instruments to create a kind of anachronistic EDM/funk sound. It’s a listening experience best equated to simultaneously listening to both Radio 4 and 6 Music, while watching a history documentary. It’s the sort of thing which ought to suffer from the classic problem of being more interesting to read about than to listen to, but the band make it work through the sheer cleverness and skill of their compositions.

But these indie darlings also embody a number of recent trends in the mainstream pop scene, and shows where they might lead – as they put it themselves, they bring “the lessons of the past through the music of the future.” Public Service Broadcasting dispense with singers entirely, instead sampling their songs’ entire vocal content. Singers are by no means gone from the mainstream pop space, but producers are gaining serious ground as stars in their own right. Hell, even for traditional ‘pop stars’ the producer is increasingly visible and important – Justin Bieber’s recent comeback owed far more to Skrillex than it did to Bieber himself. Vocals are becoming just one production aspect among many, and PSB present a pure expression of that sentiment. In the age of streaming and singles, album sales are at an all-time low. The Long Playing record is history. So why not take advantage of that? PSB are not exactly a pop act – number 21 on the album charts is the closest they’ve got – but they represent the best instincts of pop music as it stands today, and for that they deserve to stick to stick around.

“The music came first” – An Interview with Stephen Hyde

Stephen Hyde is one of the best musicians in the Oxford theatre scene. A prolific director and composer, his credits include Yesterday, King Lear, The Marriage of Kim K, and most recently Queueue, all extremely stylish and well-reviewed productions. He was kind enough to talk to me about his creative process, electronic music, and his experience of Oxford theatre.

Let’s start with Queueue – how did that come about?

I originally went to Leo with this idea I’d had for a few years about writing a musical about Alice Through The Looking Glass. Leo had his own concept which he developed following that conversation, about framing it with the internet. As we went on through the process, this new musical came out, which Damon Albarn had done, Wonder.land, and we realised there was a bit of a clash there. So we decided to broaden it out; it became more about the internet, and the characters in contemporary life we’d experienced around Oxford. The idea to stage it in a coffee shop came very late in the day, but by that point we’d spent a lot of time in coffee shops around Oxford, so we had kind of done all our research before that concept was even introduced.

What was it like, trying to capture the internet through music?

The internet is so multi-layered. You’ve got all these different musics, from all these different cultures and time periods, all in one space, and part of the idea behind the music was this sort of magpie approach. But I was also playing with internet-y sounds, little motifs like the iPhone ringtone and stuff, so that was another defining feature. I’ve played a lot with electronic music in some of my compositions, and I wanted to develop that further, as well as bring indie electronic music into the realm of musical theatre, which is something that’s not really been done much at all.

How did you find playing with those sorts of styles?

It was a massive learning curve. I often write some music, then realise it’s gone somewhere quite different from where I wanted it to go, but in quite interesting ways. PC Music is a genre of music which people said they heard coming through in some of the songs, which I didn’t intend at all. I felt like I had a lot of creative freedom; the music got quite whacky in places, and I just found that really, really fun.

How did you match the music to the action? Which came first, the songs or the script?

I think, by and large, the music came first. Leo had sketched the story before most of the music arrived, but quite often I would send him a piece of music, based on what I was listening to at the time, and he would fit it into the story. In terms of the mechanics of writing, the music would almost invariably come first, then Leo would write the lyrics based on that.

The idea of unconscious influence seems to be coming through here; does that happen a lot when you write music?

It really does, yeah. Quite often I’ll write something, and then only realise afterwards where I got that inspiration from. Before writing Queueue I’d been listening to a lot of upbeat music, stuff like Paul Simon and Rusted Root and Vampire Weekend, so a lot of the music had that kind of optimistic vibe. I was occupied with a new composition technique, which was writing bass lines first, then building a song up from there: writing a melody over the bass line, layering up the texture. But again, after I’d used this technique for a while I realised it was because I’d heard a lot of great bass lines from Paul Simon, without ever consciously acknowledging that.

Jumping back a bit, last term you directed The Marriage of Kim K – what was that like? How did it compare to Queueue?

It was quite different. Leo came to me and asked me to direct it, so I didn’t have such a stake in it as a piece of new writing. But there are certainly Leo E. Mercer trends that you see coming up in both of them, especially in his lyrics. He’s very witty, occasionally quite sardonic, so there was some similarity between the two projects. I was attracted to Kim K because it was doing something new, saying something in a new way.

What are the different demands made of you as a director, rather than a composer? Which do you prefer?

That’s an interesting question – I have very seldom directed anything that I haven’t written the music for. I always want to incorporate music into the fabric of any kind of production, really getting a musical language into the drama. So to say which one I prefer would be extremely difficult. Right now, I’m really enjoying my composition, but I really want to marry the two together.

Last year you composed and directed Yesterday at the BT – could you tell us a bit about that? Do you write music differently for the BT than for the O’Reilly or Modern Art Oxford?

Absolutely – it’s all space-dependent. With Yesterday it was more of a throwback, in terms of some of the musical influences I had, drawing from Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. The setup there was a chamber ensemble, with just a cello, piano, and drums, and a three-woman cast. So the space determined the ensemble, and the ensemble determined the style of music we were writing. Drums were really at the heart of that – we had a continuous drumming underlay for the whole show, and the BT as a space suited that really well.

You’ve also written a lot of music for Shakespeare productions – what’s it like working with material that well-known?

It’s a great chance to prove how diverse Shakespeare can be. For King Lear we were doing a very filmic, neo-noir multimedia production, so we had a lot of electronic, ethereal soundscapes. Then for some of the other Shakespeares I’ve been doing, for outdoor touring productions, it’s a chance to indulge in my love of folk music, and seeing what sorts of different things you can apply to Shakespeare. I’ve written some songs for a production of As You Like It I’m doing at the moment, and it’s really interesting how music can inform the characters and scenario, how adaptable and diverse Shakespeare is. Music was such a big part of performing Shakespeare when he was alive, and it can still be a big part of it today. As You Like It is full of songs, it’s practically a musical.

Could you tell us about this production?

Absolutely! Right now I’m working on Macbeth and As You Like It. I’m writing the music for both, but I’m also directing Macbeth, which has been really good fun. We’re a group of five acting musicians, and we’re doing a tour of the UK; it’s all about storytelling through musical instruments, and we assign instruments to different characters. Banquo is associated with a mandolin, Macbeth with a drum, Lady Macbeth with a recorder, and they’re used to create soundscapes, but also as physical extensions of that character, or ways that character can express themselves, so that’s been really interesting to work with. The tour starts in Glamis Castle in Scotland, and then we finish in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’re performing in an RSC venue, which is really exciting. That’ll be my last project for a little while – after that I’m going to need a break!

Stephen Hyde will be on tour with the Three Inch Fools Theatre Company until 1 August. Tickets are available here. You can also find Stephen’s music on his Soundcloud page.

A Beginner’s Guide to The Mechanisms

Photo: Nicole Williams

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 22 April 2016. This was part of a new feature designed to introduce readers to obscure bands they might not otherwise have heard of, so naturally I chose my own personal indie darlings, the Mechanisms.

The Mechanisms are utterly unique. Each of their albums feature sci-fi re-imaginings of classic folklore, from Grimm’s fairy tales to Arthurian myth, perfectly capturing the nerdy passion of Oxford at its best. Most of their songs consist of folk standards, re-written to suit a plotline, making them a sturdy base line from which to work, and the performers sell their roles (of bloodthirsty space pirates with a penchant for storytelling) with arresting conviction.

Recorded in 2012, their debut album Once Upon a Time (in Space) tells the story of a brutal interplanetary dictator and the rebellion led against him. It is probably The Mechanisms’ most accessible album. There are rookie errors – the voice acting, for example, is rather weak – but there’s an absolutely mesmerising story at its core, along with some of the band’s catchiest tunes. Their second album, Ulysses Dies at Dawn, contains an even headier combination of styles and images, this time creating a grim cyberpunk version of Greek mythology. While a bit less accessible, the final image is absolute genius. Their recent EP, Frankenstein, is strong, with a lean and disturbing tale of a rogue AI, even if the underlying composition feels fairly workmanlike.

The Mechanisms still play Oxford occasionally (you may remember their appearance at the Bullingdon in January), and are currently working on a new full-length album. For fans of folklore or folk-music, this is not a band to be missed, and the fact that it’s right on our doorstep gives us even less of an excuse.

FFS: Pulling off a Supergroup Collaboration

This article was published in the Hilary 2016 issue of Phaser Magazine, and went online on 11 February 2016. For those unfamiliar, Phaser is an Oxford-based music and fashion zine, and they only publish one issue a term, so it was a real honour to have my article chosen. You can check out the rest of their stuff here. And FFS is a group I still find myself fascinated by, and I do hope they put out a second album together. 

It’s the question to which every TV critic wants to know the answer: why is The Apprentice still on air? Because the general public loves to see big egos in collision with one another. The same logic can be applied to the music industry: the reason so many great (and not so great) musicians are drawn to collaborative efforts, despite the distinctly patchy track record of such endeavours, is because there’s something darkly alluring about the spectacle of artistic competition. Success or failure, collaborations are tempting to musicians because they can essentially be a shortcut to legendary status, whether it’s with scandalous stories of missed deadlines and heated arguments or simply the marvel of two singular and monolithic presences being forced to share the same stage. Forcing two artists who demand to be read on their own terms to share such a confined space as a single track, or even an album, is an act of almost gleeful perversity. The results, whilst frequently disastrous, only serve to further highlight collaboration as a feature of totemic power, be it a final meeting of all-conquering cultural icons or a last-ditch effort of two bands struggling for commercial relevance.

Of course, it’s also possible for a collaboration to be a thoroughly bland, box- ticking affair, as many of the more recent efforts to grace the charts have been. Often it comes from a mismatch in musical talent or style – Iggy Azalea on her own is irritating, but pairing her with Charlie XCX creates an infuriating sense of wasted potential. The same goes for Jessie J and Ariana Grande respectively (although Nicki Minaj is pretty good value whoever she’s paired with). Both Grande and Azalea love to collaborate with others for chart-topping singles, but the result often feels less exciting than the sum of its parts. Only the brief appearance of another artist is necessary to validate the collaboration. Which is why ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’, by the supergroup formation of Sparks and Franz Ferdinand, is the best song of 2015, and a product of the single greatest collaborative effort in musical history. Okay, well, perhaps not quite. But it is certainly a deeply interesting comment on the nature of collaboration in today’s music industry.

Throughout FFS’s eponymous debut, there is a sense of two bands in competition – constantly striving to outdo each other, and elaborately performing the drama of a passionate, angsty collaboration. This approach comes to a head on ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’. The stereotypical arguments which one might expect from a collaboration are pantomimed gloriously, as Alex Kapronos of Franz Ferdinand and Russell Mael of Sparks scream at each other: “I don’t need your patronising!/ I don’t need your agonising!/ I don’t need your navel gazing!/ I don’t get your way of phrasing!” The whole thing is an elaborate performance; a self-mocking image of two bands at war.

This is, of course, a powerful indication of two bands working in perfect tandem. Such a meta-collaborative partnership has to be extremely functional in order to appear so dysfunctional.

What’s also striking is the brazen self-indulgence of the track; the song lasts six minutes and switches capriciously between different tempos, styles and subjects, creating a sense of freewheeling chaos which wonderfully parodies the supposed purposelessness of many rock collaborations. What’s important about this self-indulgent little song is the fact that, whilst performative and mocking, it gets away with its flourishes because of its inherent honesty. This is a song which admits the dirty little secret of most collaborations – that they are almost always the result of self-interest.

In the age of studio hacks and the ubiquity of the “feat.” label, two artists partnering up is almost always a result of one artist attempting to piggy-back on the success of another, more commercially successful one. Hence Ariana Grande’s endless parade of B-list guest artists. FFS can, of course, be viewed in similar terms: the critically acclaimed but commercially nameless Sparks pairing up with the waning but marketable lads of Franz Ferdinand. This is something that FFS recognises, and so they deliberately take this approach to its logical and most absurd extreme. If you’re partnering up for the money, you may as well be up-front about your own self-interest. The entire song is a delicately-tied knot of irony, melodrama and self-awareness, and the results are captivating. This is a song which knows what it is, and perhaps more importantly, knows that you know. The song openly, brazenly admits its own ridiculousness, and simply asks you to join in the glorious spectacle of a bunch of B-listers stomping around like rock gods.

The trick works, marvellously. It’s hard not to admire the sheer arrogance involved in deciding that your first collaborative effort is going to be a deliberately disjointed, meditated mess that vilifies the thing it practices. The fact that the end result is fantastic is perhaps less relevant when compared to the sheer gall needed to try it in the first place. So how does one go about creating a musical collaboration? Well, if FFS is to be believed, you start from the premise that any collaboration is doomed to be an artistic malfunction. And then you get on and do it anyway.

I’m a Blackstar: the fashion of Bowie’s farewell

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 22 January 2016. This was easily the most difficult article I’d ever had to write, particularly given that this was for the Fashion section rather than Music, and I’m extremely proud of how it came out – this might be my favourite of all the articles I’ve done. It was difficult to find something to say about Bowie which didn’t feel obvious or overly sentimental, and I was pleased with the conclusion I eventually came up with.

It speaks to the particular genius of David Bowie that he approached his death as, first and foremost, an artistic opportunity. The man who created, adopted, and eventually outgrew Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke – icons that have spoken to generations of music lovers and fashion followers alike – found himself tasked with adopting one last persona, the mask he would wear for his final curtain call. His performance in his last two videos forms a kind of apotheosis; infused with a raw, seething energy, grinning maniacally, belting out lyrics whose full meaning only became clear in hindsight; “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again”. The Bowie of these videos is melancholy and introspective, but brimming with the energy of a mad trickster god. It’s an image that has gone relatively unremarked-upon in the media coverage of his death; most obituaries carried photos of his younger days, generally photos from his glam rock ‘heydey’. Few of the recent Bowie tributes have highlighted the artist that actually presented himself to us in his final moments; a fashion icon with as much style and charisma as any number of sparkling starmen or malnourished aristocrats, deserving of a tribute of his own.

Given what we know in retrospect, it’s surprising how alive the video for ‘Blackstar’ feels. At the centre of it all is Bowie himself; or rather, three of him. Bowie moves from priest to heretic to nightmarish scarecrow, the instability of his identity reflecting the oddness of the lyrics. We never get a proper look at any of these characters; they’re shot at odd angles, cut between frequently enough that we are never allowed to get comfortable. But the most intriguing of Bowie’s characters is the one we first meet; nicknamed “Button-eyes” by the director, the character wears the same worn and shabby-looking suit as the others, accessorised with a white blindfold with, well, buttons instead of eyes. Lovingly ripped off from Coraline, it’s a look of almost poignant simplicity; after decades of radical image-changes, Bowie’s final character is created out of scraps. But it’s a look that implies, not blindness, but a different kind of sight; he knows something we don’t know.

Button-eyes appears again in ‘Lazarus’, the last video Bowie ever recorded. He’s lying in a hospital bed, his black buttons standing out against the whiteness of the sheets. This contrast forms the main motif of the video; once we see Bowie with his blindfold off he’s wearing a monochrome jumpsuit, jerking awkwardly as if trying to remember how to dance. What initially look like shafts of weak daylight are actually thin stripes of white, reminiscent of the outfit from his 1975 photoshoot with legendary photographer Steve Schapiro. But that sense of introspection is tempered with a fierce strain of modernity; the camerawork feels straight out of Christopher Nolan, and the aspect ratio is reminiscent of a smartphone’s vertical video, Bowie’s face filling the screen in the manner of a selfie. Bowie was a trend-setter, but he was also, always, a trend-follower. One of the first rock stars to embrace the internet, Bowie demonstrated a constant awareness and appreciation of modern technology. ‘Lazarus’ could only come from a man who completely understands the culture into which he is releasing his final statement.

‘Lazarus’ ends with Bowie retreating into the dark, literally making his final wardrobe change. The consummate performer, walking off the stage. Of the many epithets tossed around regarding Bowie, “style icon” is one of the most common. This is almost, but not quite, completely inaccurate; Bowie was not one icon, but several; undefeated David, inscrutable to the last. And while the fashion world is poorer for his loss, it’s important to keep the future in mind. Because while Blackstar is a self-eulogy, it’s one which emphatically insists upon life. This is the Bowie style; keep changing, keep moving, keep finding new things to do, even in death. It’s the means by which he becomes more than human, and he makes a point of bringing us along. Even as he departs, the door’s left ajar.

Weird Kitties Review: Frankenstein by The Mechanisms

Last year, Philip Sandifer announced a project called the Weird Kitties, where he solicited short reviews from his readers of SF works they considered Hugo Award-worthy, so people could take them into consideration when voting for the 2015 Hugos. The project sadly didn’t last very long, but I managed to get in there with three reviews of SF stories I loved last year, the first of which was this. I had gotten really into The Mechanisms after reviewing them a month of so earlier, so I was keen to share that love in this review of their latest song. I’m quite proud of these reviews, and it was an honour to have my writing on such a brilliant site as Eruditorum Press. This article first appeared there on 13 September 2015.

If you’ve ever thought that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been better as a prog rock ballad, this new song from the UK-based steampunk folk band The Mechanisms looks to have you covered. Retelling the classic gothic tale as a ten-minute song about a rogue AI, Frankenstein, while perhaps the least grandiose of the Mechanisms’ projects to date, is still a wonderful piece of work, and crackles with the same energy as their lengthier albums.

The story is told in one long song, with linking narration putting one in mind of a geekier version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The tale concerns a far-future world where a scientist named Victoria Frankenstein creates a revolutionary AI, and… honestly, you know how the story goes from there.

Initially it might seem a bit of a disappointment, after three albums of giddy textual play in established musical genres and mythical traditions, to see the Mechanisms doing a straight pastiche of a specific text. But the band, to their credit, seem to realise the dangers of this approach, and turn them to their advantage. At ten minutes long the song is tight and focused, avoiding the slightly slipshod nature of their longer and more complex albums, and dialling back a bit on the usual self-indulgence. There’s also a genuinely clever twist at the end, which manages to convey a sense of shock as well as ironic inevitability.

But what really sells it is the technical side of things, which is excellent. The singing and instrumentation are both top-notch, with the shifts in tone handled deftly by the introduction of new musical techniques as the song goes on. As ever, the Mechanisms manage to turn what could easily have been a one-gag premise into magnificent entertainment by sheer skill and chutzpah.

This is a song which has clearly had a lot of thought put into it, as well as an awful lot of effort and talent And it’s that sense of passion which makes this song such a worthwhile piece of storytelling. These a clearly a group of people who care deeply about what they do, and long may they continue to do it.