Keith Williams: Rock Reflections

Keith Williams Rock Reflections

Sometimes, social media can be useful. Commenting on a Michael Schenker Group gig on Facebook got me into conversation with Keith J. Williams Esq., currently resident in Brisbane, Australia. ‘You should check out my book,’ he said at one point, and so I did. It turns out that, like me, Keith was brought up in Cardiff, South Wales, and has written a book about his experiences as a rock fan. He’s a little bit older than me – not much older but enough for it to count and provide a different perspective on the same music scene. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you Keith Williams and his Rock Reflections.

Hi Keith! Two rock fans from Cardiff, both writing books largely inspired by music from the same era. What can you tell us about Rock Reflections? What’s the main idea of the book? And what were your motivations in writing it?
Yes, we have had a parallel existence haven’t we?  Without ever knowing it! Rock Reflections is basically a tale of a young lad growing up in Wales and getting more and more attracted to and involved in rock music; not just on a listening level, but really getting involved. It is a story of life, experiences, opinions and anecdotes.  I felt I had a story to tell. The more I spoke to people about my experiences, the more I heard them say ‘You should write a book’ – so I did!

You focus very much on gigs and the live music experience – I thought it was great getting the perspective of a fellow fan on some of the gigs, bands and tours I saw in my younger days. Why did gigs matter so much to you? And what is it, for you, that makes a gig so special?
It was also amazing for me to read about your experiences in Words And Music. Quite often at the same gigs but with a totally different perspective; both of us completely unaware that we would one day publish our stories from our own viewpoint. Our books must provide a great insight to fans of rock music who may not have been there at the time. Same gigs, time and places but seen through different eyes.

For me, a gig is special because you are seeing the people who produced the music we love. We are seeing them in the flesh and also seeing how they perform those songs live; not just in an audible sense but also a visual sense. And we are seeing how the crowd responds.  The ingredients of all these things create a unique atmosphere: unpredictable, uncontrolled and therefore exciting. It’s a moment in time and you are there.

If you had to pick a gig or two – oh, alright, I’ll give you three – that meant the most or had the biggest impact on you, which would they be?
That’s a difficult one. Very hard to choose as a lifetime of great gigs provides myriad reasons to put them on a pedestal but I will try. Just 3?  Okay, here goes.

Blizzard Of Ozz, 9Oct 1980, Sophia Gardens Pavilion, Cardiff, Wales. The album provided an insight to a ‘new’ guitar sound and style that we had never heard before, but Randy Rhoads live took everything to the next level. The most exciting live guitarist I have ever seen.

Van Halen, 18Aug 1984, Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock, England. After a few false starts, like O-level exams getting in the way, a cancelled tour etc., I finally saw Van Halen with Diamond David Lee Roth and they didn’t disappoint. They brought the party, we were all invited and we left nothing in the bottom of the barrel. Perfect.

The Struts, 31 January 2019, the Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, Australia. I flew interstate on my own for this one. I loved their first two albums but live they went into another dimension. It was incredible. Their first ever headline gig in Australia announced merely days before; they were kings.

Oh…and any gig when Diamond Head are on stage!

You write very warmly about Smiley’s rock club – a bit too early for me, Bogey’s (or Bogiez) was the place to be seen by the time I was out clubbing. How important were clubs like that to the nurturing of the local scene?
I’m not sure that Smileys did anything to nurture the local scene in terms of bands. They only had a short-lived live music programme which was on Thursdays. I was never aware of any gigs on a Friday or Saturday. What Smileys did offer was a place for us to go where we were in our world. That’s how it felt. Our dress code, our music, our environment and most importantly, our people. It was very much a community. Same faces every week. In that way they did support the local rock scene.

Bogeys/Bogiez were much more into live bands, sometimes local and sometimes touring bands. Unfortunately, for me, some of them weren’t very good – I saw the bands as an interruption to the great music the DJ was playing, so I reluctantly went downstairs to the pool area. What Bogeys/Bogiez did offer was a place to go when Smileys was demolished, but the clientele were different. Only a few of us made the transition.

Record shops were also a significant part of the scene back in the day, and we both, I know, have a lot of affection for Spillers Records. Do you think there’s still a role for knowledgeable, independent record shops these days?
I believe there is a place but unfortunately, good business sense says otherwise. There just isn’t an economic case or demand for it with online shopping. But then you lose the personal touch, the meeting place and the listening opportunity. Sure, there can be niche outlets but not every city has enough rock and rollers to support independent record stores as they were.

You are rather harsh on some of the more ‘local’ bands around in the 1980s, for example Budgie and Persian Risk. I loved Risk back in the day, and I have an enduring respect for Budgie, the masters of the alternative song title! How come they didn’t quite do it for you? Were there any local bands you rated?
I wasn’t really into the local bands. I would travel halfway across the country to see club level bands (Shy, Diamond Head and an early Guns N’ Roses) but none of them were from South Wales. I do love the Lone Star albums, who were local boys, [Lone Star included UFO guitarist Paul Chapman, drummer Dixie Lee and vocalists Kenny Driscoll and John Sloman in their ranks – Ed] but I was too late for them and never saw them live. So their first two albums have had to suffice.

One of the most interesting parts of your book is your speculation regarding the influence of Bon Scott on AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ album. Without giving too much away, can you tell us why that particular topic captured your attention?
I think it was because I lived through it and saw it unfold. AC/DC were one of my favourite bands, particularly due to Bon. So, as interviews began to emerge about Back In Black, combined with the lyrics and other things, my ears and my gander began to pick up. The true story was in there somewhere – you just had to look for it. I hope I have relayed it well in Rock Reflections.

Randy Rhoads portrait

You also clearly have a massive respect for Randy Rhoads – why, do you think, his playing had such an impact on you?
Initially it was the guitar sound on the first Blizzard Of Ozz album. The tone and aggression was exactly what my ears wanted to hear, If I played guitar, that was exactly how I wanted it to sound. I had no idea who Randy Rhoads was, but I liked him instantly. No other guitar player I had heard before sounded like him – searing riffs, dramatic solos and even the riffs behind the solos were compositions. Seeing him live elevated that x10 as his performances were so exciting. Meeting him was such a revelation; so unexpected was the contrast between the man and his incredible stage presence.

One gets the sense from your book that you’re not very impressed with the history of rock music since the Grunge period? Have you continued to follow the older bands? And are there any younger bands around you particularly rate?
I still follow the ‘old’ bands that are still doing it. My last international act I saw before Covid was a stunning double bill of Whitesnake and Scorpions. I had to fly down to Sydney for that one and it was great. No pretence, just 2 bands doing what made them famous and doing it bloody well. In terms of new bands, I only seem to like new bands who sound like the old bands. I recently saw a Sydney band called Wicked Things. At the start of the gig I proclaimed: ‘It’s as if the last 40 years never happened’. By the end of the gig I was wearing their t-shirt and professing my love for them. Also, The Struts have quickly become one of my all-time favourite bands. I believe they were on the verge of becoming huge just as Covid broke out.  I hope they keep the momentum going when they get back out on the road. They are the real deal. Nobody else is really doing it for me.

I’ve got to say that I enjoyed some of the more autobiographical sections of your book – it’s always good to see the connections and continuities between rock music and the rest of people’s lives. Was it difficult deciding how much autobiographical material to leave in?
It was difficult knowing what to include and what to exclude. As Rock Reflections isn’t a commercial venture, and nor do I have a publisher to answer to, I had to make the call on what to include. It was difficult to establish who my potential audience was. Anyone who knew me was going to have an interest because they knew me but anyone reading the book who doesn’t know me may only want to know the rock stuff as that would be common ground. Some of the departures were milestones in my life that I felt needed to be included but they also helped to explain gaps in the rock and roll gig-going timeline. I don’t know if I got it right or not but what I do know is that it was my choice which therefore makes it more authentic and I like that.

As an adult you relocated to Australia. How difficult has it been to pursue your early interest in rock music from the other side of the world?
When I emigrated in 1995, my type of music was well and truly in the doldrums worldwide. At first I didn’t really miss out on too much. Strangely enough, with the demise of hard copy sales and royalties, bands had to tour more and Australia is very much on everyone’s tour schedule. Not only is it home away from home with regards to language and sense of humour – it’s a beautiful, safe place so bands tend to overstay after their tours for holidays. Double header tours here are common. Mr. Big toured with Extreme, Scorpions have toured with Whitesnake and Def Leppard, Billy Idol toured with Cheap Trick, Buckcherry and Steel Panther….the list goes on. I often fly interstate and have occasionally flown back to the UK – I couldn’t miss Ritchie Blackmore reforming Rainbow to rock one last time could I?

Are there any good Aussie bands the rest of the world should know about?
The aforementioned Wicked Things are worth a look. I’m afraid I’m not one to pursue local talent, although I’m sure it is here.

And finally, tell us about a band or artist that have stayed with you over time, and an album, song or lyric that means a lot to you.
One lyric that has stuck with me since the day I heard it is from Rainbow’s 1979 album Down To Earth. The song is ‘Eyes Of The World’.

‘No chain of events can shackle him down’.

It’s a great lyric and I would like to think of it as my personal motto. It’s not a bad one to have and has served me well. I’ve done alright!

Cheers Keith!

‘Rock Reflections’ by Keith Williams is available now!

For further information, and to order your copy, please go to:

http://wewantmore.com.au/buy.htm

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/rockreflectionsbook

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Agent Philby & The Funtans – Half Simpletons, Two Thirds Gods

Agent Philby & The Funtans

If Flight Of The Conchords are correctly described as New Zealand’s fourth most popular ‘guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo’, then Agent Philby & The Funtans are surely the south west of England’s premier ‘dysfunctional pop-rock-indie-seasick-alien-disco-blues’ band.

Like many bands, they have an interesting and at times convoluted history, with tales of previous outfits, an original drummer who’s now a surgeon, the loss of a core member over the decision to focus on original material, a disputed infant school connection, and a succession of past keyboard players called Jon.

‘We couldn’t find anyone else called Jon who played keyboards,’ says singer Phil, ‘so we’ve been without keys ever since.’

The current line-up has been stable for about 5 years, and includes an artist, a social worker, a GP, a teacher, an NHS Manager and a former UK breakdancing champion. It consists of: Phil Kelley (vocals and melodic), Jim Cumpson (vocals and harmonica), James Nunn (vocals and guitar), Annie Coppola (violin), Charles Plummer (bass) and Darren Stradling (drums).

It is this line-up that recorded the ‘&’ EP and, most recently, the band’s debut album ‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’.

If bassist Charles just about manages to remember the line-up, he finds my question about the band’s style and influences even more challenging: ‘That’s a really tricky one,’ he says, ‘because there’s Jim with his love of American blues and soul, there’s Philby with his modernist interest in very current stuff and very eclectic taste which he always references in his songs, and there’s Annie’s classical background. Then James is into The Smiths, and I’m into the Clash, XTC, and those sorts of influences. Darren is the Topper Headon of the band, in that he knows every style. He’s a really good drummer, a rock drummer at heart, and he holds everything together. And then there are things we all love, like Tom Waits, who I think gets channeled a lot in our stuff, in different ways.’

It all makes for an interesting melting pot. How would I describe them? Well, musically and lyrically Agent Philby & The Funtans are an astonishingly unique amalgam of diverse and educated influences, characters and experiences. They are sophisticated nutty boys (and girl), capable not only of mixing styles but of blending serious reflections on life with quirky and sometimes quite dark humour. With the Funtans, to use the affectionate shortening of the name by which they’re more commonly known, anything is possible and little is as it seems.

Take their name, for example – a conjunction of the way guitarist James saved singer Phil’s number in his phone (after a chance encounter at a party to which James wasn’t invited), and the definition of the term ‘funtan’ offered by Viz character Roger Melly (I’ll leave that to your imagination for now). And then compare these laddish affectations with the origins of the album title – Gustav Mahler’s description of Anton Bruckner, on hearing Bruckner’s Mass No.2 in E Minor, as ‘half simpleton, half god’.  ‘Bruckner was a simple, uncomplicated soul occasionally touched by genius,’ explains James. ‘We really liked this,’ says Charles, ‘but there was disagreement about lifting it wholesale, so we made it not add up.’

Clearly, to crib a line from Bob Dylan’s latest work of genius, the Funtans contain multitudes – multitudes that merit further exploration and a bit of unpacking. In keeping with the times, their debut album has just been released on Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp and a range of other online platforms, so what better way to explore than via a track by track run through of the unusually diverse set of simple, and not so simple, songs that have been subjected to the Funtan treatment, or ‘funtanned’, if you will.

‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’

The Funtans - Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God album coverRecorded and mixed by Chris Turtell over three weekends at Plum Towers, the album boasts 10 tracks, 4 of which were released on the ‘&’ EP (which I reviewed at the time for Über Röck)  but which appear here in slightly remixed forms.

Charles and I discuss the diversity of the material, and I note that some of it, and particularly his own songs, remind me of bands like The Housemartins and the Beautiful South, who feed you sugar-coated pop music that, lyrically, is quite acerbic.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I agree with that. There’s that Tom Waits quotation: ‘I like beautiful melodies, telling me terrible things.’ I think that kind of sums up our approach.’

‘Concrete’

Opener ‘Concrete’ was one of the first songs the Funtans wrote together, building on Phil’s idea and lyrics. Lyrically it attempts to capture what Phil calls ‘a generalised, ambivalent malaise, the stifling relentlessness of white-collar working life and the redemptive effect of love.’

‘I write musically basic songs to explore things that bother me,’ says Phil, ‘and the Funtans turn that into something vaguely listenable.’

‘James often adds a lot of the musicality,’ says Charles, ‘putting in a middle eight, an intro and a breakdown and in this case the wild guitar thing at the end. Rhythmically, ‘Concrete’ just came out as this kind of skippy thing.’

When I reviewed the EP I said it was ‘paradoxically light and fleet of foot, conveying, as it does, something of a quaint Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vibe, with rather fetching violin and split gender vocals (female voice courtesy of Becky Cumpson), and a rousing finale that is again reminiscent of Cool Cymru’s finest.’  I see no reason to revise that description, though Phil notes the coda’s ‘transcendent and climactic’ reinforcement of the redemptive themes of the song’s final verse.

‘Reg’

‘Reg’ is the first of Jim’s songs, and blends a heavy guitar riff (and some great soloing) with a ska rhythm à la Fun Boy Three.

Jim says: ‘It was written a few years ago when I was reminiscing about school days with friends. Reg was an old Polish barber who turned half of his shop into a sweet shop. He not only sold very dodgy sweets but he also sold the local school kids cider in old yogurt pots for 2p, 3p or 5p. He wore thick glasses and had snuff stains all up his sleeve. He was a character and we would always give him a wave when we went past.’

I mention that the two tracks on the album with the heaviest guitar riffs both take the same unexpected rhythmic turns, and that the conjunction of heavy rock guitar and ska rhythms is quite unusual.

‘Yeah it is,’ says Charles, and I think it’s because we’re quite conscious of not wanting to have songs that just carry on in the same way. There’s got to be light and shade. It’s something we’ve learned as we’ve evolved, that we’re not really a rock band and so we try to build contrast, light and shade, into every song.’

‘Dogs/Bones’

‘Dogs/Bones’ is perhaps the first track on the album where you get that sugar-coated pop thing really happening, though even the band’s sweetest and poppier-sounding songs sometimes build to an unexpectedly raucous or cacophonous climax.

The Funtans rehearsing‘‘Dogs/Bones’ is probably my favourite track on the album,’ says Charles. ‘I think it’s just beautiful and it’s got so many contrasting bits in it. It’s got lovely melodies and it’s also got the vocal breakdown bit which was my fucking idea [an ‘accepted and well known’ fact, apparently, and not the controversial claim the expletive might have one suspect – Ed]. It was chugging along at the same pitch and tempo and I thought let’s have a vocal breakdown with intertwining vocal/choral bits. I wanted it to be bigger than it is, but we didn’t have much time and Pippa Weaver came in and just did this beautiful vocal’.

Lyrically, the terms ‘sweet’ and ‘beautiful’ probably don’t apply. It’s described by its writer, James, as being ‘a song of reckless perfidiousness, the subsequent disappointment and the diminishing returns of libidinous conquest’. It is described by Charles as ‘pure filth’.

‘Velodrome’

‘Velodrome’ is classy, meaningful pop and one of my own favourites on the album. Another reference point, for those who may not yet know the song, is the Difford and Tilbrook type feel to the melodies.

Charles is pleased with the comparison, though again, there is serious lyrical intent behind the catchy and accessible tune:

‘I wrote this as a commentary on the rise of anti-semitism on the Left, having Jewish family, and becoming aware that those who you thought would defend and protect you can’t be relied upon. Relatives warned to always keep a bag packed in case you had to make a quick escape. This nightmare came closer to reality when Jeremy Corbyn nearly became PM.  The song examines ‘the horseshoe effect’, when you go so far to the Left, you nearly join up with the Right, and they end up being indistinguishable. Losing friends who couldn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, or indulged in casual anti-semitism themselves, is the hardest part. The title is an oblique reference to the Nazis holding rallies in the Berlin Velodrome, and there’s another reference to ‘peddling for our lives’.’

‘Musically, the chords are simple, but Annie’s violin – especially the solo verse/chorus section at the end, gives it a musicality that I never dreamed of. It’s a dark topic but my dark topics always get turned into three-minute pop songs once they get the Funtan treatment. By this point it had become a bit of a band joke that this happens, and hence the pseudo-Beach Boys type outro. We’re playing it, and they’re looking at me with my very cross face just laughing their heads off.’

‘The News Where You Are’

‘The News Where You Are’ is an intense, heart-rending, countrified track that wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s ‘Self-Portrait’ album. Once again, the pathos of the violin adds so much, and it’s another of those tracks which builds to a wall-of-sound like ending.

The Funtans - Phil singingIt’s one of Phil’s songs, which he describes as ‘a song about not facing up to your responsibility, hiding behind various fronts and excuses, and not having the courage to speak authentically with your own voice before finally mustering the necessary strength to do the right thing.’

‘Musically, it’s really, really simple,’ says Charles, ‘so we have to work with light and shade again, and having a big build-up that just falls away at the end has become a bit of a feature of the way we do things. I think Annie’s classical background has brought that in, the dynamics. Music’s not just about notes, pitch and rhythm; it’s also about ‘piano’ and ‘forte’.’

Lyrically, it’s peppered with references to a range of other songs and influences, including Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan (again), Country Joe & the Fish, and even Rebel MC – hours of reference-spotting fun for all the family.

‘Haircut For Texas’

‘Haircut For Texas’ undoubtedly is my favourite Funtans track. When I reviewed the EP, I said it ‘oscillates confidently between the artistic fineries of Dylan and Waits’ as it ‘broods along in edgy and convincing fashion.’

I mention to Charles that it was the first time I heard a really strong Tom Waits influence on their music. ‘Well, it comes from Jim’s American roots sensibilities,’ he says, ‘and his vocal style is not dissimilar. He has that growl. And the subject matter is also something that could be off ‘Swordfish Trombones’’.

Jim explains: ‘Haircut For Texas’ was actually written in Texas. I was driving across the USA on a road trip in 2014 with some friends and spent quite a few days criss-crossing the State. The background to the song is that of a Mexican farmer making his way in Texas and coming across gunslingers terrorising local towns. When said gunslingers killed the townsfolk they would dress them up in their open coffins – with new haircuts and ‘limes on their eyes’ – and parade them in town as a warning to others. The music was a collaboration with James.’

‘I always argue that we should start with it when we play live,’ says Charles. ‘Just hit them with it. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant song. And the way it just kind of waltzes along. I love it. Love it!’

‘Life Of Crime’

‘Life Of Crime’ is another of Charles’s songs: ‘Lyrically, it was inspired by a care-leaver I worked with as a social worker. I made many trips to various Young Offender Institutions around the country to see him before he eventually ‘settled down’. He told me the incredible story of how his dad – a career house burglar – would take him and his younger brother house-breaking at night from the age of six, because they were small enough to be passed through open windows.’

The Funtans - Darren‘Musically, this was one of my first songs written with The Funtans – hence the slightly unevolved post-punk vibe. It was a musically raw, three chord sequence and it was James who had the ideas to develop it. During the recording, we researched weird offences for Jim’s voiceover bits, like ‘Operating on a cow while intoxicated’ and ‘Entering Parliament in a suit of armour’.’

Personally, I love the dirty, heavy riff and frantic rock of this track and the lapses into the ska rhythms of the chorus. It’s also proved to be the perfect jogging track! (Which probably tells you more than you need to know about the way I run.)

‘42’

I must confess, ‘42’ always stops me in my tracks, and I don’t really know what to make of it. I love the bass intro and the violin but overall find it both compelling and unsettling. It’s one of Phil’s songs and it has the most incredibly personal and intimate lyric. You can hear the emotion in his vocal delivery. You can’t hear it and not react. You can’t just let it wash over you. You have to form some kind of relationship with it.

Charles, however, is in no doubt. ‘It’s my second favourite track on the album,’ he says. ‘It had a difficult musical birth until Darren and I found the rhythm, and the bass line that repeats like a train on the tracks. I think this song is carried by the violin. I think it’s so beautiful. It’s probably one of the sparsest songs on the album, and I really like that. It moves me to tears.’

‘I wrote ‘42’ in 2014,’ says Phil, ‘as I was going through a horrible redundancy-cum-sacking at work, 42 being the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’s absurd answer to the ultimate question of ‘life, the universe and everything’, and the age I was when I wrote it. It originally emerged from an attempt to play Bowie’s ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’, hence the lyrical nod to ‘time smoking’, but I couldn’t work out the right chords. It originally had the same 3/4 rhythm, but in rehearsal Charles and Darren spontaneously hit a different 4/4 time and that stuck.’

In keeping with Phil’s general songwriting style, there are a wealth of allusions to other lyrical influences, including a reference to metaphysical poet John Donne.

I comment that when you start unravelling the Funtans songs, it’s often pretty cerebral stuff.

‘Yes,’ says Charles, ‘it is cerebral. I think that because we’re the age we are, and because we’re reasonably educated, that’s just what comes out. We joke about being a mid-life crisis sort of band, and I think that’s who we appeal to, if we appeal to anyone other than ourselves! [Laughs]  There’s lots of stuff in our songs about how our lives have turned out, and kids, and I think that’s alright. Why does rock music always have to be angry? I mean, there is a lot of anger in there, but why does it always have to be about the anger of youth? It’s ours too.’

‘The varied frames of reference in the songs, from real life, from literature and from the last 40 or 50 years of popular culture, are inevitable,’ says James, ‘if you throw together curious, reasonably well-educated people with, between them, a very broad experience of life. As with everyone, there’s personal triumph and tragedy along with the inevitable accumulation of interests and knowledge. Because of the stage of life we’re all at, it’s not surprising that our songs take on subjects like the long haul of relationships, parenthood, lost youth, love and the ghosts of our pasts.’

I remember once reading a description of heavy rock as being ‘music made by middle-aged men for young boys’ and joke, somewhat mischievously, that in contrast the Funtans are essentially (with apologies to Annie) middle-aged men making music for middle-aged men.

‘Yeah, though I wouldn’t say just men,’ says Charles earnestly but to much laughter. ‘Lyrically, I think our music would appeal to all people who get the references and understand them.’

‘The King Of Nothing’

‘The King Of Nothing’ is the last of Charles’s songs, and, perhaps, the exemplar par excellence of that poppy but acerbic Housemartins vibe – it’s jaunty ‘dysfunctional pop’!

Charles - bass player with the Funtans‘It’s a celebration of mediocrity,’ says Charles, ‘a celebration of comfortable underachievement, you know, I’m not going to set the world alight but I’ve done alright. That’s where it’s coming from. But unlike, James, Phil, or Jim I can’t quite break out of the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus structure in my songwriting.  This is fatal!  James and Phil contributed the ‘Hey, Hey’ interludes, and the guitar solo that sounds disturbingly like the theme from Rainbow, the children’s TV programme – and when the backing vocals were added – whadaya know – we had turned my high-minded Dylan-esque paeon to mediocrity into another pop tune.’

I’m intrigued by this recurring theme in Charles’s songwriting. He knows when he’s been funtanned! I ask him whether he ever puts his foot down.

Charles - bass player with the Funtans‘Yes,’ he says, ‘We don’t play ‘King Of Nothing’ live. Hardly ever. Cos ‘you’ve ruined my song; I’m not playing that anymore’. [Laughs.] It’s become a joke. Most people I speak to who’ve listened to the album think it’s the best track on there, because it’s got that pop appeal and I think it stands out like a sore thumb from the rest. It’s a good song. It’s just not where I wanted it to go. I look upon it like an errant child. You know, didn’t quite turn out how I expected: ‘That’s not how I brought you up!’’

I mention a comment of Jim’s, that his role in the band is ‘to bring the deep dark sounds on the harmonica that can take any happy jolly song to the darkest of places,’ and suggest to Charles that he should write with Jim more.

‘Yes, I should,’ he says, ‘but, you know, we have done a Christmas version of ‘King of Nothing’ with different lyrics, and I think it could be a massive Christmas hit!’ This is probably utter fantasy but we could have a massive Christmas hit with that and then retire. [Laughs].  Hmm … but then I’d have to disown it. I’d have to sell it to someone else. Someone else could record it. I don’t want to be remembered for ‘King of Nothing’.’ [Laughs.]

‘I’m Off’

Album closer ‘I’m Off’ was one of the quartet on the EP, and it’s one of James’s songs.

‘‘I’m Off’ was a tune that I made up and played to the kids and used to make up stupid words about our family to make them laugh,’ says James. ‘Later I wrote the lyrics because I was missing London and, well, missing being younger. It comes across as a rejection of the city in favour of clean green country life, but the opposite is true. The final lyric about finding ‘somewhere that’s good to bury a dream/because I can’t remember what it was and the air here is so clean’ is supposed to be spat out in self-disgust. The refrain, ‘you know what I mean’ is something my oldest friend and I used to say to each other at school when we couldn’t say what we really thought. It was Jim who came up with the simple accompaniment on the harmonica in the chorus, and that’s what he and Annie build on throughout the song. Also this is my favourite bit of Darren’s drumming. The fill before the third verse is sick.’

James’s lyrics, though grounded in existential dilemmas, often tickle me, and I point out to Charles that James has a 100% track record on the album of including the word ‘whore’ in his songs.

‘So he has,’ says Charles, ‘that hadn’t occurred to me. He just writes filth anyway. It’s all smut, his songs. It’s shocking’.

Which brings us back nicely to the part Viz-inspired band name (in the fine ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ tradition) and Roger Melly (‘The man on the telly’)’s definition of ‘funtan’ as: ‘a short-lived healthy glow in the face of a gentleman following a spot of self-discipline’.

I tell Charles that I put a ‘now playing’ post on Facebook recently with a picture of the Funtans album cover. One long-time friend, John, a guitarist, responded: ‘What a great album title!’ Another friend, Joe, a drummer who used to play in a band with John and who has subsequently become a vicar, commented: ‘And what a great band name!’

How familiar Joe the Vicar is with Viz, I’m not sure! However, I do know that he is still smarting from the rejection of his suggestion that his and John’s band should be called ‘Cliff Rescue and the Helicopters’. It was the 1980s, and we all wore CND badges and worried endlessly about nuclear war. It wasn’t what the band were looking for. In the end they called themselves Four Minute Warning.

Charles grimaces at the ‘Cliff Rescue’ suggestion. ‘I’m getting a wedding band sort of vibe there. That’s what I worry about with our name. It gets shortened to The Funtans, which is okay, but I’m not sure it’s in keeping with what we’re really about.’ [Laughs]

Funtans on stage

‘The Joy Of Six’

For The Funtans, as everyone else, the pandemic lockdown has meant virtually zero live music and, with people preoccupied with other matters, less space for creativity. ‘But before that happened we’d been working on lots of new songs,’ says Charles. ‘We’ve got a long list and we’ve been talking recently about booking a weekend, recording four songs and eventually working things up into another album.’

‘There’s ‘Homebird’,’ he says, ‘which is a very early Funtans song which we did record for the album but weren’t happy with. Then we’ve got four of James’s songs, five counting ‘Homebird’, two of mine, two of Phil’s and one of Jim’s. And then there’s one Darren has written about a bingo caller.’

It’s drummer Darren, indeed, who was the former UK breakdancing champion with ‘The Fresh Rock Crew’. He was also a holiday camp worker in his youth, and his song ‘Shake Your Balls Up, Dougie’ is about a bingo caller who Darren frequently had to sober up or cover for.

‘The Fall did a song about a bingo caller, ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’,’ says Charles, ‘so it’s a theme, it’s an acceptable subject.’ [Laughs] Darren’s song is actually number 2 on our list of songs to record, after ‘Homebird’.’

I ask if the songs are stylistically similar to those on the first album.

‘Yes, I’d say so,’ says Charles. ‘Obviously I don’t know how it’s going to sound when we do it, but I think lyrically, structurally, musically, it’s all coming from the same place. You know, no one’s got into synth pop or anything. Our recording plans are currently vague, though, due to ‘the rule of six’ and the new lockdown restrictions.  In fact ‘The Joy of Six’ is the working title for the album.’

The working title? I ask, amused but a bit surprised.

‘Well, admittedly it’s a very recent development,’ says Charles, ‘the law only came in yesterday!’

The Funtans performing

Agent Philby And The Funtans: ‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’ is now available on a wide range of online platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp.

‘It’s even available in Russia,’ Charles tells me. ‘It’s freely available in the former Soviet Union, which is very exciting’.

For more information on the Funtans, go to: http://www.funtans.co.uk or check their Facebook page.

Many thanks to Charles, Phil, James, Jim, Anne and Darren.

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Twelfth Night – Fact And Fiction (Definitive Edition)

Cover image for Fact and Fiction Definitive Edition albumThe 3 disc definitive edition of Twelfth Night’s Fact And Fiction is now available. Lovingly curated by drummer Brian Devoil, it’s an exceptional package that more than does justice to the album’s status an one of the Prog Magazine’s ‘Albums That Saved Prog’.

It was an honour and a privilege to have extracts from Words and Music used in the album’s sleeve notes. It is, after all, one of my desert island discs, and an album that has meant a lot to me over the years.

There is, of course, far more on Twelfth Night, Fact And Fiction and the lyrical preoccupations of vocalist Geoff Mann in the book itself (chapter five, if I remember correctly). You can also read an interview I once did with Geoff over in the Q&A Series.

More information on the new definitive edition of Fact and Fiction (including track listings, guest performers and purchase information) can be found on the official Twelfth Night website.

Mikko von Hertzen (Von Hertzen Brothers)

Von Hertzen Brothers live at The Fleece, Bristol

I’ve been much taken with the music of the Von Hertzen Brothers, ever since seeing them at the first High Voltage Festival at Victoria Park in London back in 2010. Three brothers (Kie, Mikko and Jonne von Hertzen), two others (Mikko Kaakkuriniemi – drums, and Juha Kuoppala – keyboards), as they say.

Back in Finland they play huge festivals and their albums routinely shoot to the top of the charts, but here in the UK, they remain something of a well kept secret. It’s a fate, perhaps, to which original, genre-spanning bands are more prone, with no one quite sure what to do with them or how best to introduce them to a new market. They rock too hard for some proggers, while their albums contain too many progressive rock diversions and left-field influences for a mainstream rock audience. But talent, and good songs, will always out, and it’s great to see their UK audience building.  If you don’t know this band, what on earth are you waiting for? You’ve got some catching up to do!

I recently saw the band at both the HRH Prog Festival in Pwllheli, and in Bristol on their March 2016 UK headline tour and caught up with middle brother, vocalist and guitarist Mikko. I was delighted when he kindly agreed not only to a long awaited Über Röck interview but to the following Words and Music Q&A session. So, with only minimal duplication, here goes …

Hi Mikko! Is it possible to say what rock music means to you?
It means everything; it’s the love of my life.

Who was the first artist to make an impression on you?
Elvis.

Tell us about an album, song or lyric that means a lot to you?
I would say the Beatles albums: ‘Abbey Road’, ‘The White Album’, and ‘Sgt. Peppers’.

Mikko von Hertzen live at The Fleece, BristolWe were talking earlier (pre-interview) about the 1970s influences on the Von Hertzen Brothers’ music, but you’re going back beyond that in the answers you’re giving.
When I think about the pivotal moments that sealed our destiny, it must have been our father bringing home, when we were small kids, all these LPs. He was a businessman, and he was bringing home Lynyrd Skynyrd from the States, the Eagles from the States, and then from England the Beatles albums and a Queen box set with 16 LPs in it. It was like heaven for us.

So the three of you shared tastes right from the start?
Oh yeah, though of course we had our own favourites. My big brother Kie was a guitar player so he was into Ritchie Blackmore and Brian May and all that. I was more into drumming, so I was more, like, ‘Bonzo is my god’ [laughs], and my little brother, Jonne, was into pop.

Is there an artist who has stayed with you over time?
I would say Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd has had, for me, personally, the longest influence. Since hearing the first Pink Floyd album that my father brought – I think it was ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ – up to the later ones like the live album ‘Pulse’, it has had a huge effect on me.

There was a famous book written by a psychiatrist called Eric Berne called ‘What Do You Say After You Say Hello?’ I like to ask people what do you say to a ‘rock star’ after you say hello?
If I met a rock star? [laughs] I would say “Hello, I’m a really huge fan and I just want to express my appreciation for what you are doing.”

Von Hertzen Brothers live at The Fleece, Bristol

Your best encounter with an artist as a fan? There are so many. Like when I met Jónsi from Sigur Rós. It was one of those moments. I remember being in North India and sitting on a hill – not on top of a mountain, but just there meditating – and I put on a Sigur Rós album, the second one, and you know … how it felt. And when I met Jónsi, I tried to describe to him what it actually meant to me, and that was a beautiful moment because, you know, there was no bullshit. There was no ‘you’ and ‘me’.  It was just, like, the music has its role. So that’s one thing that I really remember. That’s one of the most precious interactions with somebody else who writes. And then meeting Steven Wilson for the first time, telling him how much I appreciate what he is doing. And also, I am a huge fan of the Cardigans, the Swedish pop band, a huge fan. So Nina [Nina Persson, lead singer] was one of the girls I was always in love with, always. And when I met her, and I could say this aloud to her, that was beautiful. [Laughs]

How did she react?
Well, she was like her usual self: “Oh thank you, that’s so sweet of you.” Can I have a photo? “Well, ok.” [Laughs]

Your strangest encounter with a fan as an artist?
Wow! My strangest? Well, I have to say, we were playing in the States at a prog festival of sorts, called RoSfest. We played a 90 minute set. The next morning I was just walking in the hotel area, outdoors, to the restaurant to have my breakfast, and I was all drowsy, I’d just woken up, and we’d had a bit of a party, and there was this huge pick-up truck coming behind me, like really roaring, and this massive guy, who must have weighed 300lbs, shouted out right into my ear “You guys fucking rock!” [Laughs] And it scared the shit out of me. I was in a panic. I thought someone was attacking me. But he just wanted to show his appreciation. That’s the one that just came to my mind now, but there are so many weird happenings with the fans, you know, some telling you their life stories, and thinking that I’m next to God and all that stuff, you know. But that one was funny.

What would you say makes a rock gig special?
The audience. It’s the audience that always makes a gig special. If there’s a good audience that’s what makes a rock show for me.

Mikko and fan

Do you have a particularly memorable gig, or gig moment, either as a fan or as a musician?
Well, as a fan, I remember when AC/DC were touring ‘For Those About To Rock’, and they had the big canons. I was about 12. I went to the Ice Hall, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever! “For those about to rock …” and then the loud bang!

And as an artist?
As an artist, we were playing this famous Finnish festival, Pori Jazz, maybe five or six years ago. And it’s a festival where people are out on an island, with an outdoor stage, and there’s all this cool jazz going on the whole day. And then, on the way back to the city, we were playing in a tent that took maybe 3,000 people. So everybody had been outdoors for the whole day, picnicking and listening to jazz, and all these people then jammed into the tent, and the sun is setting and coming from beneath the roof of the tent and lighting everybody with a golden colour. We were playing ‘Kiss a Wish’ or something, you know, one of the instrumental things, and I just remember that moment. That was beautiful because everybody was sick of hearing something very sweet, and they wanted to rock out, and they all wanted to come to the gig, and it was the best gig ever. It was such an amazingly, beautiful, Finnish sunset. You know, Finland can be beautiful too. There are a few months of the year when it’s exceptionally beautiful.

Yes, I am wary of telling a Fin how beautiful parts of Wales are.
Oh yeah, yeah. We drove to the HRH Prog festival last weekend, and it was absolutely stunning. Really, really stunning. But the thing that we have which is very special is the archipelago. There are tons of islands, beautiful, beautiful islands. So in the summertime people go sailing there. It’s so beautiful. But yeah, nothing compared to Wales [laughs].

Last question: sex, drugs and rock ʾn’ roll – jaded stereotype or the meaning of life?
Well, you know, maybe when you’re a kid, all those things mean a lot. But when you get older and you do this more, for me, like I said, the love of my life is not cocaine or sex. I tend to be more towards the rock ʾn’ roll side of things. [Laughs] So, in moderation, everything. I don’t do drugs. I never did. But I did have … um … I got laid a few times, let’s put it that way! [Laughs]

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
No, I’m just grateful to those reading this and I think people should give us a chance. We’re a good band and we do it with a big heart. Von Hertzen is German and it means ‘from the heart’. And we always try to remind ourselves that as long as we do this from the heart, without any pretence, just being true to ourselves, it’s the most beautiful thing that we do and offer to the world.

Mikko von Hertzen

 

Cheers Mikko!

Live photography courtesy of Mike Evans. See more at Mike’s blog.

More on the Von Hertzen Brothers on their official website and Facebook page.

Check out the band’s ‘New Day Rising’ video on You Tube

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Martijn Westerholt (Delain)

Delain

 

Fans of Delain expecting a new album in the wake of recent successful tours might well have been surprised by the appearance instead of the new ‘Lunar Prelude’ EP.

I had the pleasure of interviewing founding member and keyboard player Martijn Westerholt for Fireworks Magazine. He was great fun to chat to, and more than happy to give me the low down on the EP, album plans and forthcoming live work. He also had some interesting things to say about cultural differences between audiences in different parts of the world, and even in different parts of Germany!

The interview has recently been published on the Fireworks/Rocktopia website and can be read in full here:

http://www.rocktopia.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7616:fireworks-magazine-online-74-interview-with-delain&catid=903:fireworksmagazine&Itemid=474

I’ve been really impressed with the band’s recent output and, as you’ll see from the interview, their live show. They’ve recently expanded their line-up and now benefit from the skills of ‘second’ guitarist Merel Bechtold.

If you don’t know the band, or even if you do, check out the video for the new single ‘Suckerpunch’. It augers well for the forthcoming album, which, Martijn assured me, is on the way!

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