Single Review: Foxgluvv, ‘Not Cute’ 

Remember when I used to write about music? Well, too bad, because today I’m reviewing the new single from Foxgluvv, an up-and-coming indie pop singer combining slick electronica with lyrics of personal alienation. She’s been knocking about the indie scene for around a year, with previous singles ‘crush’, a woozy reflection on a drunken fling, and ‘nothing’, a more upbeat take on a wastrel would-be partner. Her sound feels wistfully retro in a way befitting the reflective lyrics, and it probably belongs to some school of prefix-wave I’m just not hip enough to recognise.

Her latest single, ‘Not Cute‘, feels like a natural culmination of the themes of her previous two. Where ‘crush’ and ‘nothing’ were about brief romance and frustration at the lack of it, ‘Not Cute’ sees the narrator being phoned up out of the blue by her not-quite-ex, and gives way to a reflection on their mutual incompatibility. As the chorus goes: “We could have fallen in love, yeah maybe that’s true/ But you’re not cool enough for me/ And I’m not cute enough for you.”

Foxgluvv’s delivery is quiet and regretful, acknowledging mutual blame for the relationship’s failure, even as she refuses to entertain the other person’s bullshit. The lyrics effectively convey her sense of frustration, partly via intelligent use of vocal distortion, as well as some judiciously-chosen details (one particularly deft moment stands out from the first verse: “But you, made me wanna do/ Stupid things when I was with you,/ You made me wanna be/ A stupid girl when you were with me”).

The whole thing is backed by a shiny, yet leisurely beat, cementing the mood of long-buried angst, an almost-breakup old enough it has ceased to hurt, though young enough for the memory to carry its own sting. All told, ‘Not Cute’ is a melancholy and affective piece of indie pop, a third hit for Foxgluvv, and a suggestion of even more exciting things to come.

‘Not Cute’ is available now to stream on Spotify

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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.

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.

Review: Queueue: A Coffee-Shop Musical

Yes, I know this is terribly late. But then a thing happened and then another thing, and then there was a referendum which you might have heard about. So here it is, a month late, my review of Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical. I also wrote about it here and here, and later this week I’ll be interviewing the composer, Stephen Hyde. So that’s something to look forward to.

From the title onwards, Queueue is a play that messes with your expectations. Staged in the large but cramped cafe at Modern Art Oxford, this promised to be ‘The Greatest Musical Since Hamilton’, detailing the lives of the various digital citizens who flock daily to the artisan coffee shops of the land. Writer Leo Mercer set out with the task of ‘adapting the internet’, and he imbues Queueue with the chaotic, free-associative quality of casual surfing, bolstered by imaginative direction and a versatile score. As is often the case with Mercer’s shows, Queueue is freewheeling, clever, and massively indisciplined, but with a production team as talented as this, there’s only one major place where that indiscipline is a problem.

The plot consists of a series of vignettes set in the titular coffee shop, centred on the various people sitting inside it on their laptops and smartphones. There’s Alice, our nominal heroine, a young professional trawling the net for business opportunities. Then there’s Zoe, a wannabe YouTube star in the making, and Cody, a bank clerk/L33t Haxor who gets bored and starts causing trouble. All of them are watched over by the cafe’s owner, Jazz, who also acts as omniscient narrator. The action unfolds at, between, and around the cafe’s tables and chairs, an interesting theatrical decision which further implicates the audience in the troubles of the digital petty bourgeois.

This kind of staging is tricky to pull off, and requires a very good cast to get it right. Queueue can thus count itself extremely lucky. Jemimah Taylor is brilliant as Alice, conveying emotional depth with a character written as a bit of a cipher, and Ben Christopher is good fun as Jazz, displaying a bit less range but an equal amount of charm. Jess Bollands is similarly good as Zoe, displaying all the charisma and vulnerability of the YouTube star, and hitting the high notes like no-one else in the cast. Finally, there’s Charles Styles as Cody, whose sleazy persona and slick fashion sense perfectly complement his shady hacking and inept socialising, a performance as gloriously hammy as it is occasionally creepy.

All this is aided by a slick score from composer Stephen Hyde. The sound is all synth-heavy contemporary pop, shifting effortlessly from the quietly atmospheric to the intense and emotionally charged. Particular highlights include the rousing intro ‘Young Blood’, the psychedelic ‘Coffee Shop On The Moon’, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber riff ‘Queen of the Cats’, which accompanies a wonderfully bonkers descent into the dark web, an underworld populated with feral LOLcats. Scott Bolohan’s direction helps keep things nice and dynamic, even if the blocking feels a bit awkward as the actors constantly shift to avoid tripping over table-legs. Mercer credits The Lego Movie as a source of inspiration, and Queueue‘s playfully appropriative style does a good job capturing the mad, self-referential nature of life on the web.

Having said that, Queueue does make one major slip-up in its depiction of the internet. There’s a sequence in which Zoe is viciously trolled, demonstrating the harm that internet harassers can cause, but the play’s one self-confessed troll is ultimately rewarded with a relationship with Zoe at the end. Trolling is presented as, at best, impolite, and at worst is actively rewarded, a dangerously cavalier attitude towards the material the show seeks to adapt. But that’s only the start of the problems with the ending. Having climaxed on a massive downer, with pretty much every character in the play alienated from everyone else, the ending features every character simultaneously deciding that the events of the last two hours don’t really matter, and then pairing off in romantic bliss. On its own merits it’s quite a good sequence, featuring a witty song parody of the clickbait listicle by way of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’. But in terms of the play overall it’s a disaster. Setting aside the dubious gender politics, to see such a subversive, imaginative show collapse into the most cliché, heteronormative ending possible is deeply disappointing.

But while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, Queueue is still a landmark bit of student theatre, and represents a risk worth taking. The best analogy is a prog rock album; this is a show of bold, striking ideas and skilled performances, rather than narrative clarity or coherence. As the title implies, Queueue is a bit too strange and a bit too long. But it’s also self-aware, and it uses that excess to its advantage.

Plus it contains the single best use of ‘Charlie bit my finger’ in theatre history.

“My job is to adapt the internet” – An Interview with Leo Mercer

Leo Mercer is perhaps the most experimental playwright in the Oxford theatre scene. His latest effort, Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical, looks to be shaking things up even more than usual. Set to be staged in the Modern Art Oxford Cafe, Mercer and director Scott Bolohan have created an exciting, experimental show, which I previewed for the OxStu here. Leo was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss immersive theatre, internet culture and The Lego Movie.

Could you start by just telling us what Queueue is and what it’s about?

So it’s a musical set in a coffee shop, staged in a coffee shop. It’s about the people in that coffee shop, and the small but very beautiful interactions that they have. It lets the audience sit actually inside the cafe as it’s happening, so it’s very intimate, and it’s very real. We’re not going for a massive, overblown musical, with big things on stage, far away. It’s entirely the opposite; it’s pure contemporary life, with contemporary music.

So where did the idea for this show come from?

It’s a funny story. It began as an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, with the notion of ‘let’s go from a very normal space to a very weird space’. That was Stephen’s idea, who wrote the music, and then I thought, cool, I like the internet, and the internet is kind of its own wonderland, so let’s try and merge the two. We gradually lost the Alice in Wonderland frame as we went along – the main character’s still called Alice, as a kind of throwback. But I think in some sense it is still an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Both of those novels took little, normal things, like a mirror, or a garden party, and transformed them into fantastical things. It’s the same with the internet. You can sit there in a cafe, and everyone will be working on laptops, and it’s very real life, but at the same time everyone’s on a computer, they’re linking to everywhere in the world, seeing so many different things. So on the one hand it’s very mundane. and on the other it’s just completely wacky. I guess that’s what Queueue is about, it’s about finding the wackiness in the mundane.

Let’s talk about the music – where did the sound of the show come from?

A really cool thing about coffee shops is that they have their own music, in a way the internet doesn’t. The internet is more of a visual space than an auditory one. A coffee shop, on the other hand, has its own kind of sound, and so it makes sense to begin there when you’re writing the music. So we started with that very familiar sound, and then built outwards. For me, as a writer, my job isn’t to adapt Alice in Wonderland, it’s to adapt the internet. Stephen’s job as a composer is not to write a musical, it’s to write a coffee shop.

Do you feel there’s a natural affinity between coffee shops and the internet?

Definitely. It’s counter-intuitive, because the internet is so virtual, whereas the cafe is such a physical space, and it prides itself on that. But you couldn’t have one without the other. There’s a new breed of human life which is emerging as a result of the internet and coffee shops coming together. Paul Mason has a lovely section in his book, PostCapitalism, talking about Shakespeare’s histories versus his comedies. The histories are these grand stories about bygone types of people, but all the comedies are set in the real world. He’s noticing a new kind of person exists, and Mason says that in future literature it’s going to be the same, that a certain type of entrepreneur/freelancer type person who works away from home, in places like coffee shops is going to emerge and have stories told about them.

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.