THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 068
Good day to you, dear subscribers. Another grey wet winter's day here in Portland. The Voice of Energy is here, slopping through the muck once again.
Is anyone skilled at repairing cassette tapes? At the Goodwill Bins yesterday, I found an uncased Maxwell UD C-90 upon which the words "Party Tape" are written on each side in rough ballpoint pen scrawl. I bought it before realizing the actual tape inside has snapped. I'm dying to know what is on this cassette. Any pointers you can provide are much appreciated.
In the interest of transparency regarding my New Year's resolutions, I feel I must admit that I have had some 7-11 taquitos recently and spent $1.29 on Arca's remix of of a Laurie Anderson song. Please respect the privacy of myself and my family during this difficult time.
This week, I have prepared for you an interview with the multi-faceted musician Kev Hopper, perhaps best known for swinging the big bottom for U.K. band Stump, and reviews of two new film releases.
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Kev Hopper is my favorite kind of musician — someone who has been plugging away for years at his art, either in association with a band or on his own, with little concern for the commercial or critical prospects of his efforts. If they connect with folks, fantastic. If not, on to the next one. Hopper already had his moment in the sun, as it were, via his tenure as bassist in the marvelous post-punk combo Stump. In their short lifespan, they were responsible for some of the wiggliest and funniest sounds of the late ’80s, which landed their first EP Quirk Out high upon the UK Indie charts and netted them a major label deal that stalled them out as they tried to move forward. Since Stump's split, Hopper has stayed primarily solo, with an ongoing series of releases that have taken on a cut-and-paste pop aesthetic similar to the Art of Noise, brought about visions of a psychedelic spy movie soundtrack, and explored minimalist instrumentals highlighting the musical saw. As he's gone on, Hopper has also tried out some improvisational electronic music with an ensemble called Ticklish and remade his early stitched together sound with a band called Prescott, which features Rhodri Marsden (Scritti Politti) and Keith Moliné (Pere Ubu). To start off the new year, Hopper is back on his own with Sans Noodles, an album that he says looks back to the sample-heavy sound of his first solo effort, 1990's Stolen Jewels. The songs have a trundling energy, collapsing and rebuilding itself with each step, and being held together by glistening strands of melody and Hopper's elastic bass and guitar work. The record, like all of Hopper's work, is a little treasure that will hopefully bob to the surface amid the tides of new releases hitting our shores of late.
How have you been faring these last couple of years amid the lockdowns?
I found it very boring. All of my favorite things in life were taken away. Gigs. Galleries. Meeting friends down the pub. It all evaporated. My day job got very boring as well, because I couldn't take my disabled clients out to colleges anymore. We had to stay in and everything got very domestic. It was just pretty, pretty damn boring.
That is what you do for a living — working with disabled individuals?
I gave up work in May. I had done it for 30 years. I worked with people with learning disabilities. I got fed up with it, so I wanted to see if I could do make make a living — a sort of living — out of painting.
Let's talk about the new album. In the notes for Sans Noodles, you talk about how you've circled back on the sampling technology that marked your first solo album. And you've always had an interest in using samples for music down to hiring Holger Hiller to produce Stump's A Fierce Pancake. Where did that interest in sampling and that technology come from?
When samplers first arrived, the idea that you could capture a sound from nature, and pitch it on a keyboard was endlessly fascinating to me. Fairlights came out a few years before that, but I was quite conscious of the fact that this was the first time this technology was available to everybody. It was a fantastic moment being able to record something and make an instrument out of it. There were several genres associated with sampling but the first initial one is what fascinated me. That you could go in and bash pots and pans and make instruments out of them.
Have you kept up with the developments in sampling technology? There's a video on your YouTube channel of you messing about with a Palindrome sampler.
Yeah, I did. I couldn't get on with it. It's one of those things where you buy a big piece of software, and you think this is great. And then all of a sudden, you think, actually, it's quite limited. And I don't like it. No, I haven't kept up and the reason is because when the hardware sample has disappeared, and it went over to the computer side of things. Some of the pro programs were very conducive to immediate sampling. The original hardware samplers were difficult enough. In fact, they were infuriating. But the software design came out, it wasn't particularly easy either. It's just in the last few years that it's been kind of a bit easy. You could just press go and you're off with a new instrument.
Where are the sounds and samples on Sans Noodles sourced from?
A lot of things I've had for a long time on on my computer hard disk. Things that I've just collected. And then some of them are free sounds. Things that you can just pick up. So, I haven't done much, you know, blowing water through a straw and recording it. I have got some things like that that I did and I've got some segments of music I've made in the past that I've retained. It all goes in into the mix somehow. With a bit of fine crafting, you can get a nice instrument. Something that's playable.
As you're developing this material, is it the samples and the instruments you're creating with them that inspires the song? Or do you already have a framework for a tune that you search for the right sounds to flesh out?
The first record I had, the point of inspiration was the sample itself. I'd have a section of sound that I would try to incorporate into the music. Nowadays, 30 years later, it's the other way around. I have a chord structure and some melodies, then I look for sounds. I try and get the sounds to adhere to the whole construction. So it's flipped.
I was interested in your decision to cover "Theme For Young Lovers" on this record. Where did that idea come from?
I like twangy guitar tunes. I'm a big fan of Hank Marvin and that kind of heroic twang. I think it's an enduring kind of thing. I like it a lot. Hence the album is full of twangy tunes played on guitar.
You close the album with "Fruit Flies," a lovely ballad sung by Sharron Fortnam. Was that important for you to end the record on that little grace note?
Not really. I do like songwriting, but the problem is, I'm not much of a singer. I have sung in the past, but it's not something that comes naturally. I had to try and limit the amount of songs on the record, so I'd rather concentrate on instrumental music. Sharron has been singing on some of my stuff for a few years. I thought it was ideal to close the record. It's at the end of the record because it doesn't really sound like the other bit of the record.
Does it take a while for you to call an individual song or an album complete? Do you fret over things or are you a really good self editor?
I usually have probably 30 or 40 pieces and bits on my computer at any one time. Little sketches that I've done and just not developed. So when it comes time to making a record, I revisit them and get my head down, get them into shape, and try and do all the hard work that you need to do to have structures that make sense. There are lots of ideas scattered around on the computer at one time. It's just a matter of putting them together.
Do you bounce ideas and songs off of other people to get feedback or are you pretty confident in what you're putting together?
No, I don't. It's usually me. Sometimes I play them to my partner who is a composer and musician of a different style. I don't usually go around asking for feedback because I think that leads to trouble. I know what I'm doing with music. With painting, with visual arts, I'm less confident. I sometimes need to ask advice.
You've worked in bands in the past like Stump and Ticklish, and you've got your project Prescott. Is it important for you to have an outlet as a collaborator, to have more give and take in the process?
Well, Stump were very collaborative. It was four people who were like four legs of a table. If one went, the whole thing would just collapse. Ticklish was an improvisational kind of thing. Before a gig, we'd agree on the area we'd like to be in. Prescott was me writing all the stuff and then giving the material to the band. There's not much movement for improvisation but there were pockets of that.
Are you pretty deliberate when giving the music to your Prescott bandmates about what you want to hear and how you want it to sound?
Yeah. It was the only way that kind of music could work because it's a very fiddly music. Slightly minimal with holes in it. The instruments were arpeggiated so you'd get a bass note at the start of the bar, the guitar's playing something in the middle, and the keyboard player playing something at the end. It was an odd way of segmenting everything. It had these very odd, discordant riffs. If it had been given to the band to improvise... You know how things are — they lose that quality that you're aiming for.
Putting that band together then, were you looking for particular players or were these just folks that you knew and knew you'd be comfortable working with?
I've known Rhodri for a long time. He plays with Scritti Politti and lots of other people. As a friend, I'd always said to him, "If we get a band together, I always had this idea of playing funny little riffs and just presenting riffs." I never really got it together and then, a few years ago, I said, "I'm ready to do that thing now if you want to join me." He said, "Yeah, okay." Then there was a matter of finding a drummer, and Frank was a local lad in South London. I'd seen him play at Charles Hayward's 60th birthday party and thought, "Oh, he's good." I went and asked him if he'd come for a play and he said, "Yeah." And then Keith joined later on.
I didn't want to spend too much time talking about Stump as you have written extensively about the band's past and there are other stories covering your history out there. But you and your bandmates did get back together in 2006 for Mick Lynch's 50th birthday. Is that where the video on your YouTube channel, "Looking For Mick Lynch," came from?
No, that was from 2014. There was talk about getting the band together and seeing if we could do it again. Nervous talk. [laughs] I think we were all in agreement, but Mick was very hard to find and pink down. He had no computer. No phone. Or if he had a phone then that number wouldn't work anymore. It got to the stage where people were passing on messages and knocking on his front door, but he was never there. He was down at the pub. It was very difficult to get him to focus on the whole thing. That might have been the beginning of talking to him about whether he'd do it again. I can't remember the chronology.
You did play one more gig with Stump.
Just the one. At a place called Fred Zeppelins in Cork City.
How was it to revisit the music with them?
It was very fun. It hadn't been an easy rehearsal. We worked for a week. It was only me and Rob [McKahey, drummer] that knew the stuff. The other two boys didn't really learn it. In fact, Mick had forgotten all the words. It was a difficult rehearsal and I wasn't sure how it was going to go. Then on the eve of the gig, Mick suddenly came to the door with his old haircut back. He'd adopted that old Mick Lynch personality. The gig was great. There were bits of it that were like the old feeling of invincibility, when you're in your mid 20s and you know exactly what you're doing. The energy around the audience was hilarious. There were a lot of middle-aged women screaming ironically and taking the piss a bit with their daughters and sons going, "What in the hell is this?" It was fun. We were really relieved it came off. It just about came off. There were things that weren't quite right but I expected that.
It must have been great to have that moment with Mick before his death.
Yeah I'm glad we did it before he passed away. Mick was very weak. His health was very poor. I was worried about him from that point of view. He didn't laugh as much. He wasn't as sparky as I remember him.
One of my favorite recent releases of yours was Corbyn Sceptic Club, which was built from these pub discussions about the state of politics in the U.K. How are you feeling about the political landscape in England these days, especially during this very fraught time?
I think everybody on the Left has given up. The Brexit thing was a disaster and appalling to see ordinary people snarling and foaming at the mouth, calling Remainers "traitors." It was like Nazi Germany. It was horrible. Maybe it's comparable to the Trump thing. It was just absolutely crazy. Then with that disaster going on, the Labour Party with Corbyn was very half-heartedly supporting the "IN" campaign. He really didn't give a shit which way it went. He was an absolute disaster for the Labour Party. An absolutely appalling choice to install him and hope that he could ever come near office. Everyone's gone quiet, including the Labour Party. I don't think there'll be another Labour government. Numerically, it's pretty impossible for it to happen. More so than during the Thatcher years.
Your output as a musician has been so varied and you've gone in so many different directions. Is that a fair reflection of your listening habits?
Yeah. Primarily what I am for is a fusion of melodic songwriting with other sounds, to blend them in. I've made a few extreme records that are just electronica. But in general, that's not my aim. It's that hybrid thing. That's where I see myself as an artist. Combining things. Blending things.
What comes next for you? Any musical projects on the horizon?
Not really. I've moved house recently and we're renting somewhere in Whitstable, in Kent. A seaside town. My partner is doing an MA in fine art in Canterbury. To be honest, I'm really trying to concentrating on painting for the time being. Having said that, I spent the morning work on a new track. I'm always fiddling with stuff. There's always guitars around. As I said before, I just sketch something and forget about it and do it like that. I can't stop doing it. I don't have a band on the go. I think, for the time being and the pandemic allowing, it's just going to be small improvising experimental music gigs.
[FILMS] Donkeyhead (2022, dir. Agam Darshi) / Definition Please (2020, dir. Sujata Day)
Two films that share a structural and cultural DNA. Both are first time directorial efforts by women who are best known as actors (Sujata Day was Sarah on Insecure; Agam Darshi had roles in Colossal and Zack Snyder's Watchmen). Both gave themselves the lead roles in stories about brilliant South Asians who are self-sabotaging their futures while caring for sick parents. Both are lovely portraits of communities not often seen on films, with Donkeyhead centered on a Sikh family living in Saskatchewan and Definition focused on the Indian diaspora in the Midwestern U.S. Both are being distributed to Netflix today through Ava Duvernay's ARRAY Releasing. But in style and substance, these films couldn't be more different. Donkeyhead is a far more affecting work, balancing light and dark modes with steady hands and a nuanced lead performance by Darshi as Mona, a promising writer hiding under layers of cynicism and the accrued scars of a challenging upbringing even as she looks after her father as he fights cancer. His debilitating stroke brings Mona's three, far-more-successful siblings and the religious leaders of the community to the house, all of it forcing Mona to reckon with her relationships and to look to a possible future. Nothing is neatly resolved. The messiness is the point. That's the reality of life no matter how well off and seemingly well put together these characters purport to be. Definition Please is equally attuned to the disorder of existence but can't get out of the way of its quirky intent. Day plays Monica, a former National Spelling Bee champ who subsists on coaching young spellers and looking after her dying mom. A surprise visit from her brother to celebrate the life of their deceased father and a tantalizing job offer in another city disrupts the calm. A bit. Not much. Monica's fate never really seems in question here, as Day strains to keep things light and frothy. Which, in turn, makes the strange tonal shifts and rough introduction of plot twists feel particularly jarring. Her brother's apparent issues with bipolar disorder come out of nowhere as does these odd moments when, upon seeing a man she desires, Monica's world slows down and a particularly tricky spelling word comes to her mind. Easily dismissed as a rookie stylistic choice by a rookie director but later on in the film the character reveals, apropos of nothing, that this is her actual POV. What insight this film offers into the ways in which young Indian-American strain against the expectations of their more traditional parents is thrown in with little care or consideration. And when it is clear where Monica is headed in life and love and with her family from the start, watching her get there feels like wasted energy. (both films are streaming on Netflix)
[ALBUM] Kids On A Crime Spree: Fall In Love Not In Line (Slumberland)
Like its closest cousin garage rock, noise pop never seems to evolve. The proponents of this genre are in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence, mooning over a certain gal / guy or dealing with an emotional bruise with heavily reverbed vocals and the fuzz and jangle of a guitar leading the way. Sugary sweet with notes of acid and bitter. The reason the needle never seems to move is that the formula still works. Oakland's Kids On A Crime Spree are proof positive. The influence of The Apples In Stereo, The Aislers Set, and early Primal Scream is evident in their every musical move, and it serves them well. Bandleader Mario Hernandez nails the pleading vocal whine that fits perfectly to his desperate sentiments on "When Can I See You Again?" and the resignation he brings to "All Things Fade." He and his band, meanwhile, hew to the template of uptempo blasts that flood the mind's eye with neon colors and the glint of some shiny boots of leather. (Bandcamp)
That's what I got for you. Comments/questions/suggestions/requests? Reply and let me hear 'em. Back on Monday for premium subscribers and on Friday for every last one of y'all. Do no harm. Take no shit.
RIP Elza Soares, Fred Parris, Everett Lee
Artwork for this week is by Muatasim Alkubaisy whose exhibition (t)irony is on display at the Ayyam Gallery in the U.A.E. through March 1.