It’s been around five years since I first put pen to paper and wrote a blog piece for a university assignment on how the world’s most elusive street artist, Bansky, might in fact be ‘artists’ that somehow ended up on the TIME website.
With the further idea that such a collective had as its chief operator Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack, given the fact so many of the famous stencils appeared in cities around the time where the trip-hop pioneers played shows there.
Since then I’ve occasionally dipped my toes again in the phenomenon and wrote some more stuff, making some further interesting discoveries since 2016, not least by taking a further look at Banksy’s footprint in Glasgow – which led me to stumble upon two stencils that had been lying untouched for years hidden by bushes near a busy road.
Stencils that have now, since I wrote about them and the fact they were painted over not too long after during a renovation – have been removed and restored professionally and are now, I’m told, sitting framed in a London gallery with a potential (if authenticated) to fetch millions at auction.
Lowkey bitterness at their removal aside, I thought I might take this opportunity to pull together a recap of sorts on some further stuff I’ve written along with what I’ve been told by certain random people who appear to have known a lot more than me and who have told me as such in response to the original article.
To steal a song title/line from the best slept-on band in the universe, Glasgow’s finest Current Affairs, Buckle Up!…
‘BANKSY’ IS (NOW) A COLLECTIVE
‘Banksy’ was originally a persona adopted by one person but, motivated by a desire not to get caught, it then became a collective of street artists so that the responsibility for the works could be split between them. That person of course was Robin Gunningham, who got involved in the Bristol street art scene in the late 80s/early 90s ‘for whatever reasons’.
Gunningham is the man seen in the photos in the car park in Jamaica back in 2004 with the stencil on the ground and is also the man seen obscuring his face in former agent Steve Lazarides’s book ‘Banksy Captured’.
And he is also the man with the glasses you can see in the video taken during the Sotheby’s stunt back in 2018 pointing at the self-destructing painting (a classic decoy tactic) – and possibly also the dude in the van in Reading.
YOU WON’T FIND ‘ROBIN GUNNINGHAM’ IN THE UK PHONEBOOK
Obviously key to the Banksy mystique is the continuing uncertainty and lack of (current) information surrounding Robin Gunningham or ‘Rob’ as Goldie labelled him in that infamous radio show moment slip-up back in June of 2017.
Names that have been floated that have been used by Gunningham include ‘Bruce Coker’ and also ‘Dave Jones’ (after his mother’s name).
The rumours are that he spent time living in Penzance or Chard an hour south of Bristol but that he has been living in Los Angeles for the past few years – with ‘Dismaland’ being his ode to the UK.
‘BANKSY’ EQUALS CASH MONEY $$$$
As we all know just by the regular media reports around how much one of the works sells for at auction to folk with more money than sense it seems, Banksy stencils robbed of their original (and proper) intention to have impermanent lifespans to be ripped off walls to then sit frozen in time forever in frames is a real money-making cash cow.
When you consider ‘Banksy’ means ‘bank the money’ or ‘cash it’ rather than refer to a nickname of any sort and was dreamt up by Lazarides and Robin Gunningham, then it seems they were fully aware of the potential that existed for them to successfully hold the art establishment to ransom – at the same time as promoting the Banksy M.O. to encourage change as they see it while fulfilling the intention of graffifi as Del Naja sees it as ‘redressing the balance’ in public spaces filled with advertising and signs, orders and instructions.
‘BANKSY’ ‘MIRRORS A GRASSROOTS ORGANISATION’
Gunningham was heavily influenced by the likes of Bristol social worker John Nation and artist Jamie Reid, who he collaborated with in one of his first major exhibitions, Peace Is Tough, at The Arches in Glasgow back in 2001. While painting in Bristol in the late 80s and early 90s, Gunningham became familiar with a lot of talented youngsters in the city who had found themselves in vulnerable situations – some of whom who were better at painting or stenciling than him. As such, ‘Banksy’ the bond or collective very much mirrors a ‘grassroots organisation’. Banksy ‘workers’ have also been sourced from places such as within the street art community on the small Norwegian island of Utsira.
ROBERT DEL NAJA IS A (BIG) PART OF ‘BANKSY’
So who is part of this collective alongside Gunningham. Well, Del Naja for one. While it’s possible Del Naja was involved in the stencils on the Massive Attack tour, there’s a few ‘stonewallers’ that look like they were the work of Del Naja rather than Gunningham or anyone else, not least the stencils that appeared all over New Orleans in 2008, the ‘Madonna Con La Pistola’ stencil in Naples in 2004 and the stencils in Bamako in Mali that appeared in early 2007.
Add to that music video collective SHYNOLA calling him ‘Banksy’ in a Twitter thread into their work on the video for UNCLE’s 2001 track ‘An Eye For An Eye’ two further interesting elements in a) the scene in In ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ where Thierry Guetta is watching an elephant being walked out of a truck in Los Angeles where he turns to ‘Banksy’ and says. “3D it’s massive!” and b) the fact that Banksy’s ‘Forgive Us For Trespassing’ artwork, which sold at auction back in October, has ‘3D’ written on the bottom left-hand side of it.
…AND A BUNCH OF OTHER STREET ARTISTS AND ‘WORKERS’ ARE TOOOBVIOUSLY
Others involved or who have been involved in the Banksy collective and employed to do his work on the walls here in the UK and further afield include folk such as Rowan Reynolds, Kingadz, RJ, Rushmore, Hogre, Damian Neary (aka feekertron) and John Doh – some of whom who were labelled as Lazarides’s ‘band of trusted regulars’.
And then there’s James Ame aka Ame72, the guy who was spotted setting up the Banksy exhibition and spraying a wall in Bethlehem in December of 2017 and who may or may no be the same tall guy that spent time in Glasgow in the late 90s and who got chatting to political cartoonist Cinders McLeod (more on her in a second) at a GAP protest and the dude who also appeared as ‘Banksy’ in both a photo accompanying his first proper newspaper interview – published in the Observer on 26, May, 2002, to coincide with the release of his second book, Existencilism – who likes like the same person who appeared in the ‘very rare’ TV interview with ITV in 2003 ahead of the Turf War exhibition.
‘BANKSY’ OWES A HUGE (UNPAID) DEBT TO TWO WOMEN
Some Banksy stencil works have been accused of being copies of works by Spanish street artist Pejac and West Midlands’ based artist Chris ‘Okse’ Oxbury to name few. Most obvious is the unquestionable parallels to be drawn between a whole host of stencils and former Glasgow-based political cartoonist Cinder McLeod’s illustrations for the Glasgow Herald newspaper between 1997 and 2001.
Works such as the ‘Deep Sea Lovers’ stencil, which featured as the album artwork for Britpop act Blur’s 2003 release Think Tank, the ‘Bomb Middle England’ stencil, the ‘Bomb Hugger’ (or ‘Bomb Love’) stencil featuring a girl with a ponytail hugging a bomb and the ‘Every Picture Tells A Lie’ stencil, as well as ‘Di Faced Tenners’, ‘Caveman’, and ‘Armoured Dove’ (which appeared on a wall in Palestine in 2007) to add a few more to the (lengthy) list.
And if that wasn’t enough, it appears that the articles related to word etymology written by famed Scottish etymologist Betty Kirkpatrick, which the illustrations were a part of, were also ‘mined’ by Banksy, not least the ‘Bomb Middle England’ stencil article on the use of the term ‘turf war’ – the name given to Banksy’s first major exhibition in 2003.
Indeed, it could be argued that Banksy’s method of conveying significant political, capitalist and humanist issues under a veil of British humour has as its starting point Betty Kirkpatrick’s wry, dry and erudite writing. Take this quote for example from one of her articles: “Bombs play a fairly major role in the language. They have a right to a place in the dictionary. It’s just a pity they don’t stay there.” Something you’d expect to see next to a stencil or in ‘Wall and Peace’.
THE ONLY PLACE TO GET A FULL ‘BANKSY’ MAKEOVER WAS A SPANISH STRIP CLUB
It seems that walls in the likes of Bristol and London aren’t the only places to have been graced by a Banksy work, with a Spanish strip club in the middle of nowhere also welcoming the spray can. Having received an invite by “some gangsters” to decorate what was essentially a strip bar/complex (and perhaps a brothel) on the site of the – wait for it – infamous failed BBC soap opera El Dorado, Gunningham or one of his pals duly went over to make some cash.
The story goes that gangsters had bought the complex, known in Spain as ‘La Ciudad de Cine’, and wanted the little established artist to jazz up what was undoubtedly a sterile, colourless former film set. The visit was revealed in an interview originally commissioned by Dazed and Confused magazine some time in early 2000, and one that the magazine chose not to print for fear that they may face prosecution for ‘inciting criminality’. Eventually published by Level Magazine, the article served to inspire a short film about the street artist by Channel 4, entitled ‘Boom and Bust’.
A former Glasgow based newspaper political cartoonist has called out famed graffiti artist and social commentator Banksy for possibly ‘pinching’ her illustration work to use as the basis for some of his most well known stencils and murals.
Canadian born Cinders McLeod lived in Glasgow for four years from 1997 until 2001 and worked for The Glasgow Herald newspaper, where her illustrations featured alongside two regular articles entitled ‘Traveller’s Checks’ and ‘Word Of The Week’.
The latter was written by famed etymologist Betty Kikpatrick – who, alongside McLeod, were considered among the only political two woman duo (words and images) in UK newspapers at the time.
She believes that the world renowned graffiti artist was directly inspired by illustrations she drew for the newspaper (and perhaps the articles too) for his own stencil work, many of which feature in his popular Wall And Piece book he published back in 2005 – a book that helped him secure his status as the world’s favourite graffiti artist.
And after researching Mcleod’s politiclly themed illustrations and articles with The Herald and analysing them against Banksy’s portfolio there’s little doubt Banksy did indeed take a lot of inspiration (ie steal his ideas) for his own marriage of political commentary and humorous imagery directly – or indirectly – from them.
In much the same way, perhaps, as he did with his ‘rats’ stencils with the work of Blek Le Rat, or as seems the case concerning the work by West Midlands’ based artist Chris ‘Okse’ Oxbury, whose political commentary on Brexit from June 2016 (see below) is remarkably similar to Banky’s Dover mural from May the following year.
Concerning the work of illustrator Cinders McLeod, Banky’s iconic ‘Deep Sea Lovers’ work, which featured as the album artwork for Britpop act Blur’s 2003 release Think Tank, seems to be directly taken from one of McLeod’s illustrations, published alongside a ‘Traveller’s Checks’ travel piece in The Glasgow Herald on March 15, 1997.
The illustration, of two people in a romantic embrace underwater wearing diving helmets, was drawn by McLeod as a dual reference two of the travel stories in the article about a scuba-diving holiday and a wedding in Greece.
Secondly, Banksy’s ‘Bomb Middle England’ stencil – featuring three grans with bombs instead of bowling balls – bears a remarkable resemblance to an illustration Mcleod drew for the newspaper in an article on the etymology of the word ‘turf’ back in April 14, 1999, entitled’ Anarchic Granny’, which depicted an old lady bowling with a bomb instead of a bowling ball.
Interestingly here, the accompanying article details the use of the term ‘turf war’ and how it went from being an expression that few had heard of to becoming one which enjoyed a high profile in all the newspapers of the land. ‘Turf War’ was the name Banksy chose for his first major exhibition in 2003 at an East London warehouse.
A third illustration by McLeod, ‘Cupid’s Bomb’ – featuring Cupid hugging a bomb decorated with love hearts, appeared in The Herald on June 10, 2000, in a column about the etymology of the word ‘marriage’. This too also bears a remarkable similarity to Banksy’s ‘Bomb Hugger’ (or ‘Bomb Love’) stencil which features a girl with a ponytail hugging a bomb – one which first appeared as a mural in Brighton in 2003.
McLeod also believes that further illustrations (and indeed their accompanying articles within The Herald newspaper) may have inspired subsequent works by Banksy in a more indirect fashion.
Her ‘Hooded Angels’ piece, published in the newspaper on December 5, 1998 in a column about the etymology of the word ‘pester’, is similar to Banksy’s ‘Every Picture Tells A Lie’ mural he created in Berlin in 2003 as part of the Backjumps exhibition in depicting winged persons with smiley faces.
The accompanying article details the origins of the term pester and its relationship to pest and attachment to a person who is considered troublesome and/or destructive. Interestingly, in 2009, Banksy set up a handling service who act on his behalf to answer enquiries about the authenticity of his works under the name ‘Pest Control’ – the ‘pest’ in this case perhaps being the enquirer.
While the Bristol artist’s 2004 work ‘Di Faced Tenners’ – where he replaced the Queen’s head with Diana’s, harks back to McLeod’s illustration featured in The Herald on October 24, 1998 in a column on the etymology of the word ‘recession’, depicting a Scottish five pound note detailing Glasgow’s iconic comedy character Rab C Nesbitt.
Finally we have McLeod’s ‘Evolution Of A Shopper’ illustration, depicting the evolution of primates into ‘yuppies’ and lifestylists’ (clutching money and a mobile phone) which accompanied an article about the etymology of the word ‘lifestyle’ in the Herald on October 11, 1997. One which resembles Banksy’s ‘Caveman’ stencil – of a caveman figure holding a McDonalds tray of food and a bone – which appeared in 2008 in Los Angeles.
And within the article on ‘lifestyle’, mention is made of Princess Diana, who featured in Banksy’s ‘Di Faced Tenners’ work. The mention relates to a letter to the editor, which speaks of Diana’s ‘attempts to break out of her inherited cocoon of unnecessary private wealth’ and how her successes in inspiring the lives of the ‘sick, poor and disabled’ shouldn’t ‘distract from the obscene inequalities and injustices which her “iconic” lifestyle represented. Perhaps a text which (also) inspired Banksy on an artistic level?
The article also finishes with the line, “Rest assured, lifestyle is all around you and will probably soon be ruling the world”, which (albeit very thinly) recalls Banksy’s “Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge” stencil featuring a chimpanzee wearing a sandwich board.
While more concretely, the tone of the article itself marries up alongside Banksy’s ‘Out Of Stock’ graffiti which appeared in London overnight in December 2011.
We also find contained within a ‘Word of the Week’ article from 8 May, 1999, an illustration of a dove in flight wearing a Nato bomb, in reference to the article’s suggestion, against a theme of the word ‘bomb’, that “peace has taken a back seat…and has been replaced by war and violence” as the millennium approached.
The image of a dove clutching an olive branch in its beak is nothing new – it dates back to early Christian art, but that said dove is carrying a bomb on its body is an altogether more potent form of symbolism.
An idea similar to that expressed by Banksy’s ”Armoured Dove’ stencil – which appeared on a wall in Palestine in 2007 – depicting a peace dove in flight (clutching an olive branch in its beak) wearing a bullet proof vest, while a target is trained on it.
McLeod, who returned to her native Toronto in 2001, told Rough Smooth: “The first two are obvious to me. The rest could be argued. For example, it’s nothing new to put another head on another banknote.
“But people who know my work say my style is written all over my cartoons and if Banksy was a regular Herald reader he could have seen, and been inspired by, almost a decade of my regular work,” she said.
There’s more. Another ‘Traveller’s Cheques’ article from Saturday, November 11, 1995, features an illustration by McLeod of Mona Lisa, freed from her frame, enjoying a hot beverage in what looks like a Parisian brasserie.
An image which could well have been the source of inspiration for Banksy’s Mona Lisa mural he left on the wall of The Arches in Glasgow when he held an exhibition there back in 2001, one which depicts Mona Lisa, half out her frame, alongside the words “Every Time I Hear The World Culture I Release The Safety On My 9MM”.
A search of McLeod’s illustrations for The Herald also uncovers a soup can, in a ‘Word Of The Week’ article from December 20, 1997 on the etymology of the word ‘carol’. The illustration depicts dancers leaping out a can of ‘Carols Condensed Soup’, an obvious take on the famous Campbell’s Condensed Soup logo.
The word ‘soup’ was subject to a ‘Word Of The Week’ article by Betty Kirkpatrick, with an alternative illustration by McLeod of a young orphan holding up an empty bowl (below).
Interesting here, rather than the illustrations, are Kirkpatrick’s words, which read how soup “may become a great leveller”, with “both rich and poor may be served soup in the streets – the rich at the soup bar and the poor at the more traditional soup kitchen.”
This dichotomy – and the earlier illustration of the can – between the ‘haves’ and have nots’ might have served as the inspiration behind Banksy’s ‘Discount Soup’ can, featuring a can of Cream-Of-Tomato soup bearing the Tesco label, which he hung in New York’s MOMA in a stunt back in 2005.
The reason McLeod found out about the link between her work and his was thanks to the major (unofficial) exhibition of his work in Toronto, which she attended with her daughter recently. Prior to that, she knew of him, but not a lot about his work.
“Banksy didn’t get famous until after I left Britain but, being a political cartoonist, I was aware of him. I should have seen the Blur album cover but I didn’t, I long gave up being current in the arts and music scene after my two children were born in 1993 and 1996, when my focus switched to providing for them.
“I bought tickets to the Toronto Banksy exhibition to go with my daughter. And the night before I saw an exhibition snippet on TV and thought – oh – that looks like my ‘Anarchic Granny’. And after I did some research and saw the Blur CD cover I went from being flattered that we thought alike to feeling un-credited,” she affirmed.
The link between Banksy’s work and that of Cinders Mcleod entertains the possibility that Banksy himself lived for a time in Glasgow or at least visited often – for example, as mentioned he hosted one of his first ever exhibitions at The Arches back in 2001.
The artist also left many stencils in the city, such as one still visible outside the Midland Street entrance to the venue, depicting an armed chimpanzee.
“I would guess Banksy lived in Glasgow for a while between 1997 and 2001 or visited regularly, or had a Scottish lover of went to a Scottish university, “ McLeod confirmed.
“My Deep Sea Lovers illustration has never been published online as far as I know, so if Banksy was to have seen my work in question, he would have seen it in newsprint.”
And McLeod feels that the lack of acknowledgement from Banksy as to finding his own artistic inspiration from her work is disrespectful to women cartoonists, adding to the already gross inequity of pay and recognition. Had she received it, she feels her future as a political cartoonist may have been different.
“The Blur album cover was a commercial enterprise and my drawing was its inspiration. I’m all for sharing ideas, but it’s one thing to steal from dead, wealthy, male artists, and another to steal from living and struggling, political women and mother artists, and not give them credit. I could have done with it back in Glasgow, then maybe I wouldn’t have had to leave the city or the work I loved,” McLeod finished.
Who knows, with that in mind, there may be other illustrations to be found in old Glasgow newspapers which have served to influence the murals and stencils we have all come to know today as bring the work of the elusive artist.
One who, on the basis of the evidence, isn’t the (artistic) messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy. And a rich one at that given the recent news that his MPs as chimpanees painting has sold for £9.9 million at auction.
This coming a day after the graffiti artist unveiled a pop-up installation in Croydon, London entitled ‘Gross Domestic Product’, which critiques global society’s major issues of forced human migration, animal exploitation, and the surveillance state.
A name which, funnily enough, was also used in a (political) illustration by McLeod some years ago. Funny that.
Tell us about your memories of playing Primavera Sound in 2014
“I think it was between our third and fourth record we went over for the first time. We always knew Scottish bands go down really well over there, Like I remember [Teenage] Fan Club going down really well in Spain and Mogwai and groups like that.
“And then I think the first time we got asked to play in Spain was Primavera in 2013 or 2014. And that was just like ‘wow’ folk here knew who the fuck we are but I’m not sure if half of Glasgow was there as well (laughs).
“Do you know it was a really strange…because it was the day after our main headline gig. That headline gig for us was a pretty big thing for us and..we’d never played the festival before, which for me is one of the most prestigious festivals out there and the gig itself went really well and I got food poisoning after the gig and we nearly had to pull out the next day and it was raining as well at some point and this big dark cloud came over and then you saw the setting and were like wow this is amazing.
“It was so silent when we played and there were so many people there and it was my wife put a ‘throwback’ picture on Instagram and I saw a picture of it and it just reminded me and I was like ‘wow’, man, that was amazing and I remember a lot of people coming up to me and going like, ‘that was really special ’ I did read a lot of people say that was one of their favourite moments. It wasn’t even in the festival!
“It’s one that stands out, to play in the centre of a town and have so many people captivated with what was just a voice and a guitar. It was special. Those kind of moments spur you on, if you ever have one of those down days when you think nobody gives a fuck you just go like, do you know what, it was one of those moments when i was like ill remember this, so that was. And the sun came out. I don’t know what i believe in terms of higher powers but it’s nice to think that sometimes someone is watching over you – when those kind of nice things happen.
“They could look over me at other points but fuck it.”
And then you had Primavera 2018…
“It was another one of those things where a lot of things went wrong on stage. All our new gear broke about 10 minutes before we went on. Emotions were running pretty high. There was a lot of nerves then we just got out there. I don’t genuinely know how well we played i’m just glad we kind of got through it. Obviously we played ‘Keep Yourself Warm’ for the first time at that and that was a real, that’s something I won’t ever forget.
“Primavera seems to have had those moments that will stick with me forever and that was one of them and it was another one of those ones where it was like, should we be doing this, should we not be doing this, we are doing it now and you just saw what it meant to people that was quite a special thing to see. I knew how much it meant to me, I didn’t know how much it would mean to everybody else. And I did see and said like we are playing this from now on .can forever, it was just like that’s it we can’t not play this anymore.
“It was just nice to get through it – i don’t mean get through it but that was just one of those gigs you kind of get through – being away so long. We had a new drummer as well, [Sebastian] playing with us for the first time. A lot of pressure on him and he did amazing – it was just nice to get to the end of it and think ‘We are a band again’.
“It’s always like you know that people who go to that festival are big music fans they aren’t just going on a jolly to get smashed out their faces, they are there because they love music and they want to see us so you’ve got to make a good impression on them, there’s a lot more pressure on you and it’s just nice to go somewhere and be accepted within that kind of community as well. It’s one of those ones that if the offer comes through we’ll bite the hand off every time.”
You also played Mad Cool in Madrid this summer, and from the reports I saw out of Spain it seems the response was great and the crowd was huge. Did you enjoy it?
“We did. People were spilling out of the tent. Which was pretty, I’ve never had that happen to us. It was quite a stressful set. Again on stage we were not sure what as going out was sounding any good. The reaction was amazing. I don’t know if its it was – that was at some points quite a more pop oriented festival although it actually felt they balanced it really well. There was a lot of bands like us and Mogwai then they had some heavier bands and some pop kind of artists, i thought they catered for everybody so i wasn’t sure how many people would come to see us but once again it was great. It was brilliant. Then to watch Mogwai and go watch The Cure after it again young James would be fucking pinching himself constantly. I love going and playing in different countries. And I’ve loved my time in Spain. We haven’t done too many headline shows.”
It seems to be the case that the band is getting a lot of mileage in Europe in recent months and years. Does it surprise you especially given that you sing with a very strong Scottish accent?
“I mean i look at it the way i looked at a band like Sigur Ros, like i had no idea what they were speaking about our singing about but you felt the emotion coming through and the vocals even if you couldn’t understand them and I think that’s what transcends with our music when people from different countries who don’t understand what I’m saying. Even England probably don’t understand us (laughs). Actually see to be honest my wife doesn’t understand half the stuff I’m singing, she’s like whats that your saying. ‘Bread?’ I’m like no it’s not.
“But then I think that’s the thing, you might not know exactly what I’m singing about buying the emotion transcends through that. I mean that sounds really wanky as i say to be honest but there’s no other explanation for me. I don’t know. Obviously the style of music really has an effect on it as well but i think people who relate to the vocals i think its a genuine – they can feel it come through. My only comparison as I said is someone like Sigur Ros or someone like a Serge Gainsbourg or something like that.
“And now I’ve realised that you have to write it down for people so they can go and translate and stuff like that, because I want them to be able to understand what I’m singing about and there are also so many lyric sights on the internet which are absolute fucking wrong and I’m like that’s worse than the actual lyrics! It’s quite nice to be able to go somewhere and play to people who have grown up in a completely different country and a different culture and we can relate through this medium.
“I used to listen to Sigur Ros soundscapes like Mogwai that can transport you to a different place. Like even a lot of music you listen to from countries you’ve never been to, you listen to that it makes you feel like, it makes you crave to go there but at the same time makes you feel like you’re there sometimes. Although I don’t think many people would want to be transported to Kilsyth to be honest! I mean, we didn’t mean it but we sound how we sound because where we are from. Like if we grew up in Hawaii i’m pretty sure we’d sounds we do. I think obviously it’s a subconscious thing that comes through and that’s cool. It’s a pretty cool feeling to turn up somewhere you’ve never been before and someone tells you how much you mean to them.”
Tell us what it is like working with pals Mogwai on their record label Rock Action?
“Everything we’ve asked can we do this, they have said yes. And it’s all realistic, like we’ve never been on a major label or anything like that where money is of no option but also but for us i can see how they worked and how they’ve progressed through their career and how much care and open they were to other artists ideas so i was like i want that. And I’m not saying Fat Cat weren’t like that but like a lot of things, things just come to an end. Our contract finished and it was like, do you know what, it’s time for something new. Stuart [Braithwaite] had said to me since the second record. And then we joked about it loads of times. It was kind of like a given, not to mean i take it for granted but it was one of those things as soon as the deal finished we were like yes cool.
“We didn’t even look anywhere else to be honest – i don’t know if anyone else would have wanted us (laughs). Its proven to be great and it’s been really nice to have the success we’ve had with this record with them and for it to.
“The Cure and Mogwai are my favourite bands and to sit on Friday there stand at the side of the stage with Robert Smith right there watching Mogwai play ‘Mogwai fear Satan’ and then him just talking to me saying it was great, I was like, this is mental. But that’s the thing with both of those bands, there’s no ego. I mean of course Robert is Robert, he’s got to be Robert but when you talk to him and your just two pals talking about a band that we love and ultimately when you break everything else down that’s what we all are and for me that was so surreal. Surreal because i thought about it a few times but when I was there I was just talking to a mate. And that mate is Robert fucking Smith.”
Is it still difficult to see Robert Smith as a peer?
“Well, Robert is Robert, and he has to be Robert, but when I talk to him it’s just two pals talking and at the end of it all, that’s what we are. But I still slip into that I still go ‘fuck it’s Robert Smith’ but he makes you feel like everything is normal and the way he asks you to play gigs like ‘I’ve got this gig if you want to it’ and I’m like Robert that’s Madison Square fuckin’ Garden that not just down the 13th Note or something! That’s the way people should be it should just be pals playing music together. I know people pay to see bands as soon as you take that away from it it loses something. I’ve not seen the Mogwai guys like that before, they were nervous, and I was like so was I. It was good to have those moments – none of those would have dreamt that that would happen.”
Having toured so extensively with The Cure would it right to suggest that doing so influenced the sound of the latest record, even at a subconscious level?
“Of course. They have always been one of our favourite bands, I could check our previous catalogue and say that ‘it is ripped from that song of The Cure’, and ‘that it is ripped from another. But then you play with them and see them many times and it doesn’t matter if we had thought about it unconsciously, those things get stuck, even the way the song structures went and the way the audience reacted to that and those things.
“I didn’t think about that when I wrote a song, but it was in my head. Melodically I can see the structure of these songs [from The Cure]. Once you get the idea of what the song is about and you get the important melodies, we understand it but then you have to step back and look at it and voila, but how are you going to make this piece of music? In all the rough melodies and lyrics, you have the hooks or the main inspiration statement behind what that song is and then you go, how can I turn this into a song, can’t you just mix everything? Then, after watching The Cure play three hours every night, you see how you make a song.
“We were also sending the demos to Robert and he told us, well he never told us anything, he actually said ‘try this and try this and try this and try this’. He never said to do this. He said go and try that. He rated them all as 10, I think the lowest was a 7 that could be a 9, they were all emails in capital letters. But most were 8’s could be 9’s and ‘this could be a 10’. And then it was ‘if you could try this and try this’ and we did it. We went and tried everything he asked us and I would say that 80 percent of what he asked us to do is on that record. If you have one of the best composers of all time on the other side of the phone or email to say “what do you think” you will not miss that. Because the idea was there, so it would never change. I sent him all my lyrics and he said they were great, I live them, but I was never going to comment because they are mine, and my experiences, but he even said that “I did have to do it, I will not do it because they are great.” The album definitely had a bit of The Cure and I think that was natural for us. ”
One thing I love about the band is how you are really hard to pin down genre-wise, having touched on so many over the course of your albums. Is that something you take satisfaction in?
“I think that’s why we are still here. I love the fact, people ask me like a taxi driver usually ‘so where you been, what kind of stuff is it’ and i’m like eh … then you’re trying to go…guitar…noise…Scottish…folk…post-punk…I’m like I can’t put my finger on it. But it also shows that we are pushing ourselves and trying new things while keeping it…I mean that thing that’s us will always be in every…If we do a reggae album you’ll still get that bit that’s definitely us.
“I’m really proud of that. We could have replicated that first record over and over and over again and maybe that might have made us more popular quicker i don’t know but we didn’t and that’s why we are still here – i genuinely think that. Trying new things and still be scared. I wouldn’t be talking to you write now if we did the same thing. I wouldn’t be in a band i think the fact we pushed ourselves. You have to make mistakes. I’m proud of every single record – the mistakes sometimes are the best things about them. It’s not like a film like mistakes within films and stuff like that. Film and music are very similar but they are also very different in their creation mistakes within music, can be the best thing about it.
“It’s like a documentation. I never write a song like mind that thing that happened to me 10 years ago, it’s what is happening to me now who am i right now. When I sing old songs it takes me back to who I was at that point sometimes that can be a good thing sometimes that can be a really bad thing. It’s a reminder of how far you’ve come or how not. Like I’m still fuckin’ singing this song. For me anyway that’s what it is. I want to be able to look back at my life at some point and even though it will probably be quite hard to look at it through how sad a lot of the stuff is it’s still who i was at that point and it’s something to be really proud of to go that’s how I felt and I put it down and I can look at it now in retrospect. You know what I mean. And a lot of stuff i’m still going through that I’ve done in the first record. I don’t seem to learn a lot of lessons. It’s a nice manner of who I am and who I used to be and who I’m striving to be at the same time.”
As for future records…
“There’s plenty of shit for me to write about yet there’s plenty more to come. It’s a wild one. What am I 35 now. I have a wife and wee boy and those are the best things that have ever happened to my life but as you get older a lot of shit things happen and in this moment in time a lot of really shit things are happening i’m not talking about how shit the world is that’s also something that everybody is going through but I’ve got some stuff that’s just fucking shite just now and its just like my only way to go through that is to write music.
“I really don’t know what I would do without it.
“Saying that I’ve realised that i need it but also at the same time I find being in the band really hard sometimes. Because of what we are talking about, because I’m having to go through all of this in public at the same time. That’s my choice you know but at the same time that’s not comfortable every day when you are doing a two month tour and you’re singing that every night and talking about it every day. It’s starting to take its toll. I mean things that were happening to me when i was younger that i was going through and I was singing those songs i was still young going out and getting steaming and saying its fine whereas now I’m like fuck man this really starting to take its toll on me yet I fucking love it. It’s the double-edged sword you know.
“It’s gotta come from somewhere. I’m saying oh he doesn’t want to be in a band but when you put personal-should-be-private-stuff I mean it’s still kind of hard because nobody really knows what I’m talking about but i know what I’m talking about and i’m having to go through that every night and it’s just like fuck ‘is this good for me?’. I do know it is because the greatest things in my life have come from this but sometimes you just need to take a wee step away from it now and again. But ill constantly be drawn back to it to it i know i’ll be constantly drawn back to it.
“The fight between ‘is this good for me’ or ‘is this bad for me’ shows you that it’s not about making money or it’s basically I’ve realised that its a nice way of showing by the way I feel like this and i’m pretty sure loads of people feel the way I feel and it’s nice to know that you’re not just going through that alone. And at the same time there’s a selfish reason because I need to put food on the table but I love playing gigs. I love playing small gigs and Friday night [with The Cure at Bellahouston] I loved doing that as well.
“I look at a lot of bands these days and it seems to be that everything is rushed. ‘I’ll put this out picture out i’ll out this performance out I’ll put his video out of me playing an acoustic guitar so I can get more followers’ add more people will see what i’m doing more people will like this and put this rough kind of thing out. It’s like no, concentrate on what you’re doing because it’s worth more than that. If your truly feel that what your writing down and expressing through your music means something to you it’s not about putting your phone on a stand and playing an acoustic guitar and people listening to it.
“Take your time and make something out of it. Once the songs are done and album’s written. Of course go and do your gigs. A lot of people seem to be doing it to get noticed. If it’s good enough people will stand up and take notice. Don’t sell yourself short. Cause a lot of people we are talking about are talented people and amazing people but it’s the way the world is working right now if you don’t keep giving them stuff people will stop paying attention. Fuck that if it’s good enough and if it’s worth anything, take you time and care about yourself and what your putting out there.
“It’s easy to get stuck in that. It needs to matter.”
This interview originally appeared (in translated form) in Mondo Sonoro.
Like all careers of note, there’s always a starting point. An apprenticeship of sorts learning the tools of their chosen trade, far away from the bright lights and big bank balances that come later on as a byproduct of fame.
And in the art world, that can mean years developing their craft, one where talent is honed and experimentation undertaken to find out the direction necessary to take to achieve success and gain a foothold in popular culture.
And for the phenomenon that is Banksy, the path taken to the current status quo of almost saturation of his work was one far removed from the political symbolism that speaks to millions across the globe that we see today.
For Banksy, apart from his beginnings of painting the walls of his native Bristol and London, his talent also graced the not so glorious surroundings of a Spanish lap dancing club (and perhaps also brothel) in the middle of nowhere – yet on a site familiar to millions of Britons.
As far a cry as humanly possible from his most recent work, the Brexit mural that appeared in Dover on Saturday morning. Depicting a metal worker who is seen chipping away at a star on the flag – which themselves signify unity – in what is his first artistic commentary concerning the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
The Devon mural coming off the back of Banksy’s ‘The Walled Off Hotel’ venture in March, a dystopian themed hotel which he labelled “a three story cure for fanaticism” – one built metres from the barrier wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories.
Again an inherently political motive, it was opened to foster both a better understanding and greater dialogue about the region, symbolic in that the opening was dated to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration which helped to establish Israel.
A region first visited by the artist back in 2005 when he stencilled the Palestinian side of Israel’s West Bank wall to highlight what he viewed as a structure which turned Palestine into “the world’s largest open prison”.
The surprising fact is to be found within an interview originally commissioned by Dazed and Confused magazine some time in early 2000, and one that the magazine chose not to print for fear that they may face prosecution for ‘inciting criminality’. Eventually published by Level Magazine, the article served to inspire a short film about the street artist by Channel 4, entitled ‘Boom and Bust’.
In it Banksy, then described as Bristol’s ‘most maverick painter and decorator’, denotes how he got into stencilling due to the need to get his work completed in the shortest time possible – a necessity he credits to the rise in more people being on the streets as a result of 24 hour supermarkets and “boozers open round the clock”.
The interview also charts how the man – who got into graffiti through designing a flyer – got lost after spray painting the Tate Modern gallery in London and somehow ended up in front of Buckingham Palace (‘the most heavily policed part of Britain) with his full arsenal of spray cans and stencils one night at 4am.
But most interesting is his jaunt abroad to mainland Spain, years before he hit the streets of places like San Francisco, Melbourne and New Orleans to leave his iconic marks on such cities.
After also being flown out to New York to paint the rooms of a hotel, Banksy was invited out by “some gangsters” to decorate what was essentially a strip bar/complex (and perhaps a brothel) on the site of the – wait for it – infamous failed BBC soap opera El Dorado.
The gangsters had bought the complex, known in Spain as ‘La Ciudad de Cine’, and wanted the little established artist to jazz up what was undoubtedly a sterile, colourless former film set. And, gangsters being gangsters, even tried to make Banksy himself pay towards his work.
“True to form they tried to make me pay for it by buying the paint upfront. I’m not a remarkably clever bloke, but I understood the rip-off that was going off, and instead spent the week with this stripper going to work around various different bars. It was interesting”, he says in the interview.
No photographic evidence exists of Banksy’s work there, nor indications of what happened to the strip club he lent his artistic talents too.
The site, in the small town of Coin near Malaga, was last home to a nightclub and restaurant, while the nearby El Dorado film set was bought over by a Spanish production company to film two successive (and highly popular) TV shows.
Bizarrely, a UK born artist who lives in the town of Coin claimed, in an interview with A English speaking local newspaper in 2015, that he himself is the original Banksy and that his ideas were stolen by none other than Damien Hirst.
Michael Shurman also claims to be behind the iconic alien saucers painted in Bristol in 2004. The 55 year old attended Goldsmiths College in London before working with MAD magazine and as an illustrator for the satirical TV programme Spitting Image.
He claims he created the Banksy persona, that it was stolen from him, and then continued by ‘wealthy and powerful members of Britain’s art circle.’ Shurman also claims that he invented the ‘Banksy’ idea while living in Glastonbury.
Conspiracies and smoke and mirrors aside, it’s interesting to note the subtle connection that exists between one of the artist’s earliest ‘paid’ commissions and his most recent work in Devon.
One which, if we take out everything in between, boils down to Banksy (through European freedom of movement legislation) going to another European country to take on an ’employment’ opportunity. The same Banksy who, many years later, comments on an impending political manoeuvre that will see those from Europe who wish to do the same in the UK impeded due to future legislation, thanks to Britain’s exit from the EU.
An exit that, in destroying the European ideal of free movement of people (one set in statute by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993) will set the tone in the coming years concerning our relationship with the continent.
Perhaps then, with Banksy’s potent (political) message as strong as ever, it’s worth remembering how he himself benefited from what Brexit will subsequently hinder.
In October 2016 the question I’d posed myself on return from a 5 year stint living and working in Spain was answered with one listen of the song Ghost Dance by Tijuana Bibles off their EP Ghost/Dance/Movement.
Was there a Glasgow band that i felt could really make waves over in Spain and shake up the scene a bit over there with their music? And for me listening to that track, I felt I found exactly that with the boys from Coatbridge.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of them, in fact a few years earlier they played their first ever show (in Stereo ?) opening for my pals Sonic Hearts Foundation, as memory serves me. And since then I’d heard tracks such as Toledo, Wild River and Crucifixion.
But having been holed up in the north of Spain on a teaching gig from September 2010 until late 2015, my knowledge of what was going on back in the Glasgow music scene was lacking somewhat, a price paid for getting stuck into everything Spanish indie to help me with the language.
As I noted in a review of the EP, it was a sound that transported the boys from the Time Capsule to the True Detective-esque tumbleweed strewn backwaters of Louisiana. A beefy, mature sound catapulted by frontman Tony Costello’s stunning vocal ability and lyrics. A group where similarities could be drawn towards the likes of Queens Of The Stone Age, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and even Arctic Monkeys at their heaviest.
It wasn’t just bog-standard indie rock. It was layered, textured and at times dark as hell. Gasoline stained, full throttle tales of desert sacrifice cloaked in dirty leather and smelling of cheap liquor. And I loved it. And after having developed a decent knowledge of the music scene and tastes of the Spanish music loving public over there, to me it was a band who had real potential to do something over there and break into a market few groups dared enter.
Cut to less than a year later and here I was, on a plane over to Barcelona with the band as they embarked on their first ever Spanish tour, one put together after receiving a healthy dose of radio play by esteemed channel Radio 3, support from well known presenter Virginia Diaz and an interview in Spain’s top music site/mag, Mondo Sonoro to boot (see below).
I spent the time on the plane at 30 000 ft trying to acclimatise myself to the reality that – with their guitars and pedal boards in the hold – this was actually happening, that the boys and their manager Allan had put their faith in me to set this up. To book the shows (and support acts), drive the car and accommodation. And maybe the odd bit of translating where need be.
5 dates spread across 8 nights and 4 cities across a large portion of the country in cities such as San Sebastian and Oviedo in the north alongside Madrid and Valencia. Or in driving speak, 2000 km.
Our first stop on landing and just about squeezing all the gear into the van, which turned out to be a large motor, was San Sebastian, a drive which turned out to be a lot longer than expected on the drive through Catalonia and the regions of Aragon and Navarre.
An unscheduled overnight stop in Huesca treated us to majestic morning views over the surrounding mountains and lakes which felt more Swiss alpine lodge than Benidorm high rise hotel view most of us were used to as kids. That alongside passing sights such as the incredible and peculiar looking Monsterrat mountain range outside of Barcelona too.
The first show was as part of the launch party for the ‘hidden stage’ of the well known Kutxa Kultur Festibala music festival in San Sebastian in the Basque country, sandwiched between the French border 25km to the east and Bilbao 100 km to the west. The sixth edition of the festival, this year it was presented in the new location of the San Sebastian Hippodrome, and featured a bill with the likes of The Drums, Divine Comedy, Floating Points, The Hives and East Kilbride’s own The Jesus and Mary Chain as headliners.
And not a better place to kick off the tour, in the actual crypt of a former convent – gloriously renamed ‘Convent Garden’ – a stone’s throw from one of the finest city beaches in Europe, La Concha. A beach where Queen Isabella II was sent to by her medic to bathe at in 1845 to soothe her skin problems. Fit for a queen with scabs and fit for the Bibles.
Sharing the bill with the boys was Lukiek, the new outfit from Josu Ximun of Spanish indie band Belako (who are coming to Glasgow in December), a band who have gained massive popularity in the last few years in Spain – even opening the Heineken stage at this year’s Primavera Sound in Barcelona – with the prize of Best Emerging Artist at the Spanish Independent Music Awards catapulting them onto the biggest of stages in their homeland.
As venue’s go it had a real Oran Mor feel to it, a place I caught the Bibles in when they launched their last EP, with even confession booths for those ready to share their sins at the back of the venue. And show-wise, they really brought their A game, with the gathered crowd – who picked up tickets free in the local FNAC store – properly buying into their meaty and potent rock and roll exhibition.
So loud in fact was it that the folk upstairs in the still existing church part of the complex called the police to complain about the noise levels; levels which has surpassed the agreed limit for shows on their decibel meter. Some way to make your Spanish bow! Doing so did knock Lukiek’s time slot on the head a little to their frustrations with the venue, but none of which got away from the fact that the Bibles had arrived and in style to Spain, and had won over new fans at first blood.
I half wished I could have bottled up the feeling in my bones when the boys struck the first chords of ‘Apogee’ as they started their set. As I watched from the merch stand at the back of the room I wondered if I really was watching the Bibles in Spain playing to a Spanish crowd. And thinking that something I’d long dreamed of making happening was unfolding right in front of me. I could have shed a daft tear right there and then. And to think I had 4 more nights like this.
The gig also served to ease in guitarist Rory Boyle, of Glasgow band Dead Coyotes, into proceedings. Rory was on the tour filling in for guitarist James Brannigan who couldn’t make the tour due to illness. Shoes that Rory grew into and filled more than admirably over the course of the week.
With Josu and the Lukiek boys a new friendship was born our of mutual respect for each others music and a whole lot of whisky, beers and local tipple Kalimotxo (red wine and coke), and we celebrated the night out on the tiles in San Sebastian where we attended a Nice & Sleazy’s like dive bar and then a local neighbourhood’s street party – complete with an accordion super group singing, as Lukiek themselves do, in Basque as opposed to Spanish.
A late night that for a few of us turned into the next day, those of us that managed to lift our heads off the pillow took a wander along the 2 mile beach and into the narrow, bar choked streets of the old town to sample some local Pintxos and neck down a few hair of the dogs (or in drummer Mikey’s case, make a beeline for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe which doubles as Dragonstone in Game of Thrones), before stumbling upon a Hitchcock retrospective at the Museo San Telmo.
One that you’d think would manifest a million fold the hangover fear of someone the wrong side of 30, I couldn’t believe our luck in encountering the biggest ever Spanish exhibition into the director’s work, one which paid homage to Hitchcock’s visit to the city in 1958 for the world premiere of Vertigo at the iconic – and still so – San Sebastian Film Festival.
Mind’s suitably frazzled thanks to ‘Psycho’ loops in an actual tiled bathroom and Rear Window voyeuristic set pieces a well earned rest shifted the boys back into top gear for show number 2 at the festival proper, with a standard Spanish set time of 2 am to deal with.
That meant a midnight dinner on arrival at the festival that offered us a chance to rub shoulders with the other talent there such as Depedro, an acclaimed Spanish singer/songwriter who tours and plays with Tex-Mex indie rock band Calexico. A man who we found out was also, like the Bibles, familiar with playing a gig up Sauchiehall St, as he did in January as part of Celtic Connections.
The damp weather meant the ‘hidden’ stage was transferred from the outdoor stables area to a section underneath the main stand of the Hippodrome, not far from the main access point out into the main stage area, a move that worked heavily in the boys’ favour. Not for shelter but for the sheer unique ‘guerrilla’ feel to it, with the Bibles and Lukiek playing on flat concrete under the imposing green painted supports of the stand.
That, coupled with the 2am slot (which actually clashed with The Mary Chain) felt like an aligning of the planets, with the gig itself a full throttle collision course between a band with ‘ganas’ (desire) to puncture ears and throats and a boozed-up crowd baying for sharp teethed rock and roll.
Rarely have I ever can I remember being so swept up by a band and crowd at a gig (and I was sober as designated driver), with the setting playing perfect to a raw, gritty sound that bounced off the concrete and attracted folk in their droves looking to lose their shit, thanks to rip roaring versions of 6-12, Ominous, Pariah and a barnstorming cover of Pixies’ ‘Cactus’. Like a skeletal Barras in this small under-stand space in northern Spain, beers were flying, fists were pumping the air and bottles of rum being poured down necks by frontman Tony, whose vocal sounded like it was fed through a grinder to add to the raw feel of the whole shebang.
If the first night’s gig was a fist banged on a Spanish table, this was a bulldozer to a building. The Lukiek boys, after playing their own set prior to the Bibles, were front and centre loving every minute of the tunes they had only heard for the first time the night previously in the crypt.
And as the clock ticked away into the night we made our way back into town to rest up for an early rise for the drive to Oviedo, a drive to the capital of the region of Asturias past Bilbao and through Santander and the region of Cantabria.
With heavy hearts we said our goodbyes to San Sebastian and its stunning architecture, beach and food as we headed west out of the Basque Country through deep green mountainous forests alongside the sparkling waters of the Cantabrian sea, home to places like Laredo and the remarkable 30 beach town of Llanes – a favourite with Madrid locals escaping the city, as we moved from the region of Cantabria into Asturias, a place I called home for five years.
With every kilometre of coast line along the North the views and weather felt more Scottish by the second, a world away from the postcard Spanish typical tourist friendly sights of bullrings, Sangria and apartment blocks. This was the real Spain now.
The place of the Battle of Covadonga and heartland of King Pelayo, founder of the Kingdom of Asturias in 718 and lighter of the touch paper that became the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors that ended in 1492 with the fall of the last Islamic state in Granada.
The gig in Oviedo was part of the city’s yearly San Mateo fiestas; a two week annual city celebration (like the Glasgow Fair or Edinburgh Fringe mixed with Glastonbury) choc full of gigs, theatre performances and film screenings, and one that brings in hundreds of thousands of people from all over the region and further afield.
This year on music alone the local council spent 1.25 million euros attracting the biggest names in Spanish acts and other international groups like Coatbridge’s finest Tijuana Bibles, who were headlining the ‘rock’ stage in the Plaza de Feijoo square as invited guests on the first Saturday night of the festival. What more could you ask for?
The only potential spanner in the works for a thoroughly successful show involved keeping the boys from overdoing it on the typical Asturian tipple of ‘sidra’ (cider), which, to the unbaptised, can blow your nut off such is its strength.
Following a centuries old tradition and by far the most popular drink in the region, Asturian natural cider is made by fermenting apples pressed using a process called ‘mayar’ after summer for a period of around 5 months with the resultant liquid bottled in characteristic green bottles.
It is then poured from a height into a glass to allow the beverage to be oxygenated and therefore take on the characteristics of a fizzy drink, one which is then drank straight away (usually a glass three fingers full). One that, given its freshness, can really oil up your gears, especially if mixed in with beers or spirits.
Luckily the hearty local food on offer on the famed ‘Cider Boulevard’ of Calle Gascona, a stone’s throw from the rock stage, kept the boys on a firm footing, with some cracking octopus cooked in olive oil and paprika, squid, mince dipped in cave matured Cabrales blue cheese and last but not least the famous Cachopo – breaded veal fillets with ham and cheese – enough to have us with our boots well and truly filled prior to another late 12.30 am Spanish stage time.
In a change from the previous night’s guerrilla gig setting, the Plaza de Feijoo square is an enclave with a stage tucked in against the historical surroundings of Oviedo University’s Psychology faculty building, the Archaeological Museum of Asturias and the marvellous 16th century Santa María Real de la Corte baroque church.
The setting made for an interesting sound check experience, with the band told that under no circumstances could noise be made before mass finished at 8pm. From one church experience to another, at least this time there wasn’t a decibel reader in sight.
Supporting the band were a handful of local rock outfits who were competing in a battle of the bands type competition to win a recording contract, with each night s special invited national or international guest on headline duties.
And the Bibles did not disappoint, looking as comfortable on the grand stage in front of somewhere in the region of between 600 – 900 people as they had done the night previously under the horse track stand. Frontman Tony’s vocals soared across the square bringing in people from streets around while Rory, Mikey and bass player Danny careered through the set which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a major festival stage back home in the UK.
Sounding both polished in size and scope while bursting with raw grit and drive against a 6 metre v 3 backdrop of the bands logo, it was little wonder the notoriously hard to please Oviedo folk in attendance were in raptures as the Bibles brought a slice of pure unadulterated rock and roll to a little known historical part of Spain. Another mega success.
One celebrated by hitting the town to take in all the chiringuito ‘popup’ bars set up in every nook and cranny in the old town to serve what felt like a million young folk out on the randan. A sight that really put the feelers on the guys as they soaked up the post gig high in an area the size of the Merchant City that had a population of young, good looking drunk Spanish folk in it that could fill to bursting about 5 Buchanan Streets, and that’s a conservative estimate.
One that deserves to be experienced once in a lifetime and makes Madrid and Oviedo seem like sleepy Highland towns by comparison.
A day off the next day afforded the boys the luxury of going full at it after three gigs in three nights, but we were up and ready to go the next day to appreciate the invite from Spanish second tier side Real Oviedo to visit their stadium to take in a league game against Cadiz.
A team who were once La Liga mainstayers, they have slowly but surely clawed their way back up the leagues after financial problems say them relegated to the fourth tier of Spanish football. Terrible for a team that call home a stadium that’s fit to host a Champions League final. Oviedo ran out 1-0 winners in a game bereft of any decent football, with the fans the real stars of the 90 minutes thanks to their non stop chanting and support for the home side.
A quieter night in Oviedo, with the rain making attendance at the outdoor concerts and pubs scarce, helped us ease into the drive through the mountains and up onto the Spanish plain as we headed for the Spanish capital for the upcoming show a day later at Costello Club.
A night in Madrid gave us the chance to soak up the buzz and atmosphere of the city, one that mirrored a Saturday night in Glasgow, even on a Monday night. A quick look at the main square and a wander into the Mercado de San Miguel led us to La Latina and a few wee beers – or cañas – before we headed up to Malasaña and hit the capital’s most iconic bar, La Via Lactea.
An old glory of the Madrid nightlife scene, one of the few remaining bars of La Movida counter-cultural period in the 80’s that ran through the city in the early post-Franco days, one that spoke of innovation, liberation that broke from the shackles of tradition imposed in the dictatorship. Its written on the walls of the place and I was glad to step inside with the boys for the first time to soak it up.
I’ve been in Madrid about a hundred times before but I’d never been in, partly because at the weekends there’s always a big queue waiting to cross the door. Thankfully, being a Monday night, it wasn’t as stoud as normal. Not that I remember much after the first (massive) rum and coke went down the throat.
Alcohol aside, what I cant forget to mention is how crucial a place El Tigre played for us during our stay in Madrid, on Calle Hortaleza along from our hostel in Chueca in terms of filling our bellies. Proper tapas that doesn’t cost you a penny when you buy a beer, so it goes without saying we spent more time in there than outside on the street in the city. A must visit if you are in Madrid.
The gig the next night was in the Costello Club, a cool wee venue a stones throw from Gran Via metro station down a wee side street. Like a mini, fancier Cavern Club, its curved brick ceiling had the feel of a classy wartime Anderson shelter with a bar built into it, and the perfect location for the boys to make their Madrid bow. And not just for the fact that the venue shared a name with both singer Tony and bass player Danny’s last name. Written in the stars perhaps.
Support on the night was from local lads The Ramblings, who were causing a bit a stir on the scene after winning a local radio competition that came with it a ticket to perform at Sziget Festival in Budapest – where they tell me they managed to sneak into Mac De Marco’s dressing room and share some booze with him.
Their singer had went a bit OTT at a recent festival in Madrid and broke his leg jumping off the stage (apparently he forgot how high up it was), so opted for a chair to sit on while playing and singing for the most part – or just hop around on one leg. Going one better than Dave Grohl.
A decent wee crowd there meant a good up for it feel washed over the place as the Bibles carried on the momentum from The Ramblings support slot, Tony again on top form that helped transform the air inside the warlike shelter space into one of aggression and purpose – they weren’t here just to get pissed and see the sights. New fans were there for the taking (see review below).
And like Lukiek did in San Sebastian, the boys from The Ramblings really took to the Bibles as they powered through tunes like Crucifixion, Leather and Wild River. A rare sight it was to see your man, the Ramblings singer, working up a sweat bouncing about on one leg with his crutch in the air. The raw, pounding locomotive that was the Bibles had transformed the wee man into some sort of deranged Long John Silver in search of loot. And fair play to him and his pals. And also the lassie from Kilwinning who showed up as well, the niece of Sammy from Crash Club.
As in awe I was of the Bibles once again taking the bull by the horns so to speak on gig number 4, I could sum up the rest of the gathered crowds welcome reaction to the show via the abuse I got off a few lassies there during the set when, I started, as per usual, arguing with my brother. Well, more like telling him where to go after he arrived late to the show.
Maybe the one and only time I’ll put on a gig in Madrid and he can’t make the start of it. The lassies that involved in the gig that they weren’t wanting a pair of daft Scottish guys shouting at each other block their enjoyment, telling me to politely ‘Shut the f*ck up’ while I’m at it. That was me told.
The only other (minor) hiccup of the night having to drive across the city after the show to return a borrowed bass amp to the lockup of The Ramblings boys and while there somehow reversing into massive skip, denting the back of the car in the process – lesser said about that the better.
A return to El Tigre (where else) to celebrate the show for a few beers and some scran after sorted us out before we set our minds on the last stop of the tour, a leisurely 3 and a bit hour drive down to Valencia – a city I’d only visited once before some 13 years ago.
And as we rolled up in the car into the city centre, I cursed myself many a time for having left it so long, as we drove past the Torres de Serranos gate and up the Carrer De La Pau street towards the unbelievable sight of the Torre de Santa Catalina and El Micalet (the cathedral tower), something I honestly will never forget, as we parked right underneath the cathedral.
It was almost too much food for the eyes set against the blue afternoon sky, so thank god we dipped into a bog standard underground carpark to give us some respite from the sheer beauty of the place. And queue the heat as we stepped out the motor, 29 bloddy degrees. Summer had truly returned as we made our way up back out onto street in search of our Airbnb.
I used to teach a Valencian girl English in Glasgow either at the Mitchell Library or at her place on Victoria Road, Rosa, an art critic for one of Valencia’s biggest newspapers. I couldn’t help but think of how she managed to justify an existence in Govanhill having left what for me was the most beautiful place I’d ever set foot in. Talk about extremes.
She’d put me in touch with an artist who she’d became pals with after reviewing an exhibition of his work. And going down that road instead of going into a hostel meant we came up trumps, with Jorge’s place slap bang in the centre of the old town in a traditional old building, filled to the brim with his own eclectic, surreal Dali-esque art work. A reward for the endless climb on the staircase that felt like an Everest summit attempt carrying all the guitars and gear.
Unlike in Madrid we were a little stuck for time so we made a direct beeline for the real beating heart of the whole city, the mammoth Mercat Central. Being siesta time, the market hall itself was shut, but we found a wee stall outside that rustled up some traditional paella in small, hearty dishes with a beer for a fiver, with the guy behind the stall scraping every last bit of rice out the pan to serve us up some traditional Valencian paella with rabbit, chicken, butter beans, tomatoes and flavoured with saffron, paprika and rosemary. As unreal as it sounds. Delicious.
I even felt like offering the guy to wash his massive pan I was so grateful for what I’d just wolfed down my throat, and in what surroundings too. I made a point of trying to go back inside before we left Valencia.
From there it was soundcheck time, and we made the short walk with the gear round to the Loco Club venue, one I’d heard great things about from people both back in Glasgow and in Spain. My pal Blair manages The Wellgreen, a band from Clydebank who have been making in-roads in Spain ever since they released an LP with Pretty Olivia Records. He told me the venue was a total gem to play at, which the boys had done last year while on tour in the country with Spanish boys Star Trip.
And a gem it sure was, a smaller King Tuts with a massive bar, DJ booth and semi circle shaped stage, with the walls full of cool gig artwork of previous bands who had visited – the biggest poster reserved for a certain Teenage Fanclub, we were in good company.
I’d been recommended a local band to support, Doctor Lobo, a band who sat at a distance musically from the Bibles with a soaring melodic and broody output (exemplified by tunes such as ‘Laura’) but nonetheless made for a great band and show, and the boys themselves seemed genuinely honoured to be able to open up in their hometown for a visiting British band. Guess it doesn’t happen that often.
Unlike back in Glasgow, Valencia crowds are tough to tap into, and if they don’t know you, they are less willing to take a punt on an overseas band, and more so midweek with folk working. Even with a local support to boot. But the boys soldiered through and showed their professionals in spades with another sterling performance to see our time in Spain out in the best and most fitting way possible (see photos below).
A show that was especially good in the eyes of the gathered local press and photographers in attendance as we found out to our advantage the next day. Credit also to Doctor Lobo who warmed up the crowd perfectly and served the Bibles up to really go at it with the same energy witnessed from day 1 over on the Spanish main.
And with a few more shirts sold, nice word exchanged and promises of bigger and better returns made with fans and fellow musicians alike the boys packed up their gear for the last time on the final day of the cross country adventure that was their first ever Spanish tour. One toasted too with a few beers in the iconic Romanesque surroundings of an outdoor terrace of a cafe on the Plaza de La Virgen in the old town, at midnight still in tshirts, overlooking the Cathedral of Santa Maria , the Basílica de la Virgen de los Desamparados and the imposing Turia fountain depicting Neptune and 8 naked women – an allegoric representation of Valencia’s Turia river and its 8 irrigation channels.
The next morning brought with it some time to have a wander around the old town, paying firstly a visit to the top of Torres de Serranos gate to get a sense of the city – interestingly the birthplace of Spain’s equivalent of ‘I’m on another planet’ (Estoy en la luna de Valencia) which derives from folk who were locked outside the city walls at night and had to sleep under the light of the moon as opposed to under their own roof.
From their we made it into the Mercat Central as planned, and were suitably dumbstruck by the sheer buzz and size of it. Somehow over 300 different commercial dealers squeeze into over 1200 stands under an iron roof that spans over 8000 square metres. It seemed everyone in the city was here for their messages, be it for fish, fruit, spices or meat. I couldn’t leave without picking up some traditional local tinned pimenton paprika to take back with me.
And with that the clock struck for us to get our backsides in gear for the drive up the coast to Barcelona, where the adventure all began and where our flight back to Prestwick marked the end of the tour. Not before a nostalgic drive by Benicassim, scene of plenty of unforgettable festival moments over the years in the sweltering summer heat of the campsite and festival arena, before being brought back down to earth with a bang with the extortionate tolls.
The whole tour felt all over as quickly as it started as we sat on the plane home digesting the places we’d visited, the people we’d meet, the food we’d consumed and the booze we had drank, moments which formed the backdrop to the shows the boys played and really, without a shadow of a doubt, rocked, just as I knew they would.
And i thought back to the moment I listened to Ghost Dance for the first time, and the first time I spoke to Tony on messenger and told him that Spain was there’s for the taking and the first time I heard them play the Bibles on Radio 3, Spain’s biggest and best radio station. And I wondered how I’d managed to put it all together and how it ran near perfect, and how proud I was of the boys for buying into it and just tearing it apart, with myself and them on the same wavelength in thinking that, such was the week and a bit we’d had, it was time to start thinking about the follow up trip.
Scotland’s post-rock titans have drank plentifully from the fountain of musical longevity and output as they continue to churn out slabs of cacophonous minimalism.
Music of the kind of supreme quality that could only bear their name, almost 20 years after the release of debut studio album ‘Mogwai Young Team’.
And the band – fuelled as Stuart Braithwaite says out of “a fear of regular employment” – aren’t one to rest on their laurels, with this past year to date seeing them play ‘Atomic’ score shows to audiences across the UK, Europe, Japan and most recently in January in North America.
This, as well as offering up a collaborative soundtrack in 2016 for climate change film ‘Before The Flood’ with three Oscar winners in the form of Trent Reznor, his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross and Argentine film composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
And with the promise of a new album on the cards – recorded late last year at Tarbox Road Studios in Upstate New York (where, incidentally, 1999’s Come On Die Young was recorded) – it will no doubt serve as a perfect way to whet the appetite prior to their end of year mega-show at The Hydro in December.
Few bands would have the balls to announce a gig almost 11 months in advance. But Mogwai do. Especially a gig of such scale, where, after June 2015’s 2 night assault on the senses at The Barrowlands as part of their 20th anniversary shows, they are going for the Glasgow jugular.
A gig which, if there ever was one, could be baptised with the term ‘Ned Free Zone’, and one which will no doubt represent the ultimate test of the venue’s sound levels potential.
Rarely, if ever, has a band and venue such a Cinderella glass slipper perfect fit as this one does, and it definitely tops the bill of gigs to go see in the city this year.
And with previous concerts offering support in the form of acts such as Sacred Paws (signed to their own Rock Action label), Loop, Prolapse, Pye Corner Audio, The Vaselines, Forest Swords, there’s extra reason to be excited. Indeed, already mooted as possible support have been the likes of Man of Moon and The Twilight Sad for The Hydro.
If you haven’t already, you can get your ticket here:
Actually, West Princes have been on our radar for the best part of 2016 thanks to a handful of great live performances in both Glasgow and Edinburgh throughout the year alongside gigs at festivals such as Electric Fields and Stag and Dagger to boot.
The Glasgow fourpiece – named after the Woodlands street flat they lived in while at the Art School – launched their debut single ‘Wet Bark Is A Slug’ on the Voidoid Archive label (brainchild of artist Jim Lambie) last week, celebrating the release with a short 2 date UK tour of both their native city and London, the first of which was a stellar performance at a packed out The Poetry Club in Finnieston alongside party starters Pleasure Bent.
With a distinct 70s folky vibe full of breezy, playful guitar lines and luscious harmonies, the ‘Wet Bark Is A Slug’ video features the song against the work of Estonian animator Priit Parn’s 1984 film Time Out, resulting in a delightfully charming and captivating marriage of imagery and sound.
The Paul Simon/Vampire Weekend’s ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ vibe is one that will be broadcast to audiences Scotland wide thanks to it being chosen as ‘Single Of The Week’ on BBC Scotland’s The Janice Forsyth Show, and we hope it serves as a platform for greater things in 2017 for the West Princes guys.
Check out the video here.
The man described as the “closest living equivalent to James Brown” by Pitchfork released 3rd album ‘Changes’ back in April, with its title taken from Bradley’s majestic, heart-wrenching cover of the Black Sabbath classic. The whole album is drenched in retro-soul sounds, peppered with post-funk grooves and hip hop elements, forming the perfect background to Bradley’s signature garble. This, for me, a particular highlight of many to be found in the soul star’s best release to date.
Massive Attack feat Tricky – Take It There
Forming part of the band’s Ritual Spirit EP release in January this year, Take It There featured the long awaited return of Adrain ‘Tricky’ Thaws – his first appearance on a Massive Attack record since 1994’s Protection. An intoxicating, trip hop waltz that reaffirms the assertion that Massive Attack are the masters of their own creation.
Minor Victories – A Hundred Ropes
A refreshing addition to the ‘supergroup’ tag, Minor Victories, comprising Rachel Goswell from Slowdive, Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai, Justin Lockey from Editors and James Lockey of Hand Held Cine Club. Their self titled, 10 track debut release arrived in June to much critical acclaim, and the organic, lush synth-pop orchestral sound of first track ‘A Hundred Ropes’ made for a surprising and thoroughly welcome addition to this year’s music scene.
Van Ts – Blood Orange
Glasgow’s premier surf rock exporters The Van Ts – based around twin sisters Hannah and Chloe Van Thompson – have taken the city, and Scotland, by storm in 2016, thanks to their energetic shows, surefire swagger and most importantly, scuzzy, scorching musical output. None more so evident with the chaotic, raw beauty of ‘Blood Orange’, taken from July EP ‘A Coming of Age’. Ones to watch for sure in 2017.
Mitski – How Deep Is Your Love (cover)
2016 has without doubt been the year of Mitski, with her Puberty 2 album appearing in the top 10 of album lists both in the UK and the US. Her fourth release is more a personal statement than album proper, with the Brooklyn singer-songwriter addressing her own views of the world with vigorous lyricism washed over with folk-punk, emo, and even 60s pop hooks. A live favourite, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ takes Calvin Harris’s original and adds a velvety, rich layer with teeth.
Deutsche Ashram – Little Matter (extended version)
Perhaps the best find of 2016, Ajay Saggar’s (King Champion Sounds/The Bent Moustache) new project – a two piece with singer Merinde Verbeek…, released LP ‘Deeper and Deeper’ in November this year. Full of transfixing waves of shoegazey post-punk vibes that cut deep on first listen, Verbeek’s vocals and Saggar’s industrial soundscapes marry perfectly to deliver dark swathes of experiemental dream pop of the highest quality.
Bon Iver – 33 “GOD”
Stark and stirring, Bon Iver returned to our ears with perhaps his most powerful and eclectic music to date in the form of 3rd LP ’22, A Million’. Rich in experimental textures that speak of optimism and melancholy in equal measure, 33 “GOD” features samples from the likes of Paolo Nutini, The Browns, Sharon Van Etten and Lonnie Holley, and perfectly encapsulates Iver’s hard to pin down ragged soundscapes – the likes of which only Bon Iver could create.
White – Step Up
If there’s a party going on in Glasgow, White will either have started it or will appear at some point in the night, such is the presence they have carved out for themselves in the city. Sharp dressers and even sharper musicians, their infectious, frenetic disco pop takes distinct elements of LCD Soundsystem, Prince and Franz Ferdinand and wraps it up in a shimmering cloak of attitude. The aggressive, pulsating Step Up – from recent EP ‘Cuts That Don’t Bleed’ marks a exception to the rule, and in doing so showcases the band’s talent for experimentation and desire to chart their own course.
Ulrika Spacek – Beta Male
A standout of British experimental band Ulrika Spacek’s debut LP, ‘The Album Paranoia’ – released in February this year, was for me the song of 2016. Labelled by DIY as “the soundtrack to a trip through space-time”, the band’s sound is an abrasive mix of distortion, repetition and fuzz that made their debut release nothing short of remarkable – as evidenced by the epic, 6+ minutes of ‘Beta Male’.
Anohni – Drone Bomb Me
Sung from the point of view of a cilivian, the second single o Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’ release is an intimate portrayal of the faceless nature of drone warfare, against synth beats provided by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Seductive and sublime in equal measure, the subversive quality of the release marked a level of beauty few, if any other artist captured this year.
On March 25th this year The Rolling Stones played a ‘historic’ concert in Havana, Cuba, to more than 400 000 people. Many reported the concert as a date that would go down in history, as Mick Jagger’s men became the first rock and roll band to play a free outdoor concert on such a scale in the city.
Such was the hype for the occasion, Barack Obama’s visit to Havana earlier the same week – the first by a serving US president in 88 years – was billed as merely a ‘warm up act’to the Stone’s show.
But through all the razzmatazz and Jagger hip shaking, it wasn’t that historic. Just ask Manic Street Preachers. They beat The Stones to the punch by a mere 15 years, becoming the first major Western rock act to perform in the city since the Cuba revolution in 1959 and the first Western music act in 22 years to perform in Havana. And not only that, the recently deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro was in the audience.
The date was Saturday 17th February 2001 in Havana’s Carlos Marx theatre. The platform from where the Manic’s gave their concert the very one that Fidel Castro gave countless speeches from against what he called ‘Yankee imperialism’ in his time as Cuban leader.
The timing couldn’t have been better, coming not long after a ban on Western music was lifted, and Castro’s scheduled attendance at the gig was seen by Cuban commentators as way for him to show the world that his country, Cuba, was changing.
It was billed as win-win for both, a convenient promotional campaign against an honest political commitment on the part of the Manic Street Preachers.
At the end of 1999 the government started a campaign of cultural promotion, with literature, plastics and music included in new ‘university for everyone’ projects, alongside transmissions on state TV of English, literature and history classes.
This sparked appearances by Fidel at cultural inaugurations and events, appearances which were deemed surprising considering Castro spent years distancing himself from Cuban cultural life.
The Manics gig is heralded as the second step in a process of using music as a beacon of the visible change being engineered by Castro, as two months earlier on the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s death on 8th December 2000, he unveiled a bronze statue in a Havana park of the Beatles singer/guitarist.
At the ceremony for Lennon’s statue, Castro told reporters, “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.”
El mandatario, quien se mantuvo durante años bastante apartado de la vida cultural cubana, ha asistido en los últimos meses a casi todas las inauguraciones y clausuras de distintos eventos y a espectáculos.
And with respect to the Manic Street Preachers gig, Castro himself wasn’t an all too passive observer, with the then 74 year old standing to applaud the Manic’s song Baby Elian – named after the Cuban child at the centre of a custody dispute with US based relatives and one which regards the US as ‘the devil’s playground.’
It was a concert that literally shook the theatre, with the seats vibrating every time drummer Sean Moore hit his kit. So loud in fact, that some older members of the government were seen with their hands covering their ears.
Backed by a 8m x 13m Cuban flag backdrop – one which Nicky Wire confirmed was used as a ‘gesture of solidarity’, the 5000 strong throng of Cuban youths in attendance, alongside Castro, were treated to an hour of music as the Manics powered through songs off their sixth album, Know Your Enemy.
The concert, unlike that of The Stones, was not a free event. Instead, tickets were distributed out by the Cuban Music Institute and Cultural Ministry to students of music schools, pre-university students and invited guests – dubbed ‘well mannered’ guests by observers. The cost for each ticket was 25 centivos – approximately 17 pence.
It took a while for the crowd to get into the music, but, as those in attendance suggested, the sheer volume of noise created by the Manics won them over. Although the main mood of the night was one of curiosity rather than hysteria, with the loudest cheer of the evening reserved for Castro’s entrance.
“That the president of the island comes to this concert is truly a revolution,” said Gil Pla, a singer with local rock group Joker, who was at the concert. “For a long time, we were catalogued as anti-socials, but this shows that now we are OK, they have realized that rock is culture too.”
Castro chatted with the band before their performance, where it is reported Nicky Wire, fearing for Fidel’s hearing, told him: “It might be a bit loud tonight,” to which Castro replied: “Will it be as loud as war?”While singer James Dean Bradfield explained via a translator that he was nervous as Castro was mentioned in the song Let Robeson Sing (‘Went to Cuba to meet Castro, never got past sleepy Moscow’).
Fidel stayed for the whole concert, sitting next to his Minister for Culture Abel Prieto – a man who, in times of rock and roll subversion as the authorities considered it diversionary and a bad influence on young people declared his love of the Beatles.
It was subsequently reported how one of those responsible for bringing the Manics to the country noted his surprise at how much Castro actually knew about the work of the Welsh band. All the more remarkable considering Fidel’s previous observations that Western rock music was a threat to the socialist system and the incarnation of ‘decadent values’ of the West.
The gig was made possible thanks to the intervention of MP Peter Hain, a Manics fan who first met the band during the campaign for a Welsh assembly and who used his contacts to convince the Cubans of their left-wing credentials.
The day after the show, the Manics appeared on the front page of the Communist Party daily paper Granma, as they toured various points of interest on the island as if visiting dignitaries participating in an official state visit
Prior to the Manic’s show, the last Western band to play in Havana was back in 1979, when Billy Joel and Kris Kristofferson defied the cultural embargo of Cuba to play.
This year represents 15 years since San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their debut B.R.M.C album. A true milestone for a band in constant pursuit of producing pure, unadulterated rock and roll, they have, in recent years, literally went through hell and back. Firstly, with the death of Robert Levon Been’s father – and BRMC sound engineer – Michael Been, in 2010, followed by the more recent news in 2014 that drummer Leah Shapiro required treatment for Chiari malformations found in her brain.
For Denmark born Leah – former drummer with Dead Combo and The Ravonettes – the thought of not being able to pick up her sticks in the face of her surgery and subsequent recovery was as dark a road to go down as there is for any musician.
“That was a pretty fucking scary thought. The whole year and a half of touring Spectre i had so many problems. I was losing my mind or seriously losing my ability to play the way that I was used to which was pretty scary. I guess there was a sense of relief in finding out why that was happening cause I was kinda going crazy over it . Like every night I would feel like it was flying around in a roller coaster while trying to play drums at the same time. The recovery process was pretty brutal and there was also the fear of how everything was going to feel after it.”
As luck would have it, the surgeon tasked with drilling into her brain happened to be a BRMC fan himself, and he was able to fine tune a ‘drum recovery’ process that enabled Leah to come back to almost full health.
“Yeh he was a fan of the band, it was fucking awesome. He was really incredibly helpful and he wrote out about a whole new programme which I started about three months after the surgery to get back on the drums. Had I not had that I’d have been completely fucking lost. I mean I would have no way of knowing what my limits where or how to pace myself or a what a responsible way to getting back to here was at all so it was really helpful.”
Serendipity or not, her long road from sleepy Aarhus in her native Denmark to life in LA via New York as one third of one of the best rock and roll bands of the last two decades is one that had a little to do with a certain incident with a bird in New York’s Times Square.
“I was working this shitty fucking office job in Times Square and I’d just gotten out of the Subway and like this bird just fell out of the sky dead in front of me. That was kind of a moment when i was like ‘Ok I’ve gotta not be doing this any more, anything else is better than this shit,’ and that kind of led to me joining Dead Combo which was really what opened the door for both BRMC and The Ravonettes – I think the first show I did with Dead Combo was opening with The Ravonettes and then we got to do some BRMC shows during their Baby 81 tour and i stayed in touch with Rob and here we are.”
It’s not often musicians get to support a band on tour before making the transition to become part of that band and its something that’s not lost on Leah, one that gives her a heightened sense of just what makes BRMC who they are and what they represent.
“It was kind of interesting to get to tour with them with an opening band before I joined them. I remember being in the crowd watching and there was this really special energy and, like, some sort of vibe that I’d never really seen before live with other bands. I watched the shows every night and I couldn’t get tired of it. It was always really exciting that you didn’t hear the songs as it is on the records, the set changed from night to night and always had a different element to it depending on what the room was like any given night. Now, every night we play I hope that even though I’m behind the drums I hope that energy is still the same one that I could feel.”
Having just completed a 16 date autumn US co-headlining tour with Death From Above 1979 – alongside Deap Vally, Shapiro is finding it great being back in the saddle with the band after such a long period of recovery from her brain surgery.
“Yeh I mean this is probably my first proper tour where I’ve been fully healed up from my injuries and shit so it’s is a nice feeling just to play without all of those issues. We’ve toured with Deap Vally before so we know them and the Death From Above guys really well, so its probably been one of my favourite tours as far as the lineup and people.”
And although the present musical landscape seems bereft of bands that share a similar approach to pure, no holds barred rock and roll like BRMC do, Leah isn’t one to start complaining, especially given her love of both of their current touring partners, Deap Vally and Death From Above.
“I’m not that frustrated, I think just being on tour with the awesome bands and watching them kick ass every night kind of takes away some of the frustration away – you get a little jaded but there’s plenty of cool stuff going on just maybe not in the mainstream. Its hard enough at the best of times for bands.”
With a new album most likely in the early part of 2017, the tour has given the band the chance to come up with and road test some new material.
“We’ve always used soundchecks to kind of at least get the process of new ideas started and we have like a million little shitty iPhones; recording our new ideas. It’s a cool setting to start the writing process when your on a big stage with a big sound. Everything sounds better than being in the little confined tiny rehearsal space so its a little bit more fun.”
And with the signs all pointing in the right direction, Leah is quietly confident of a return to a full touring schedule next year in support of what will be the band’s eighth record.
“We’ve been testing out two of the new songs which we’ve done in the studio prior to starting this tour and when we finish up next week it’ll be back in the rehearsal studio writing again and hopefully recording and then we will be back out on the road before we know it.”
The last few years haven’t been easy on the band, with, alongside Leah’s diagnosis, surgery and subsequent recovery, the death of bandmate Robert Levon Been’s father Michael in 2010 – after he suffered a heart attack backstage at a festival in Belgium.
The loss was hard to take for Leah, who credits Been’s father with her progression as a drummer, thanks to his own unique training regime he placed on her when she joined BRMC following Nick Jago’s departure back in 2008.
“A big part of me getting to where I am now as a drummer was Michael putting me through an epic boot camp when i first started with the band. i wasn’t super happy at the time. It was pretty intense but it definitely helped shape my playing and my approach to music in general. He sort of got me to be a little bit more free and I kind of learned to be OK with the mistakes that were going to happen inevitably both in recording and live onstage and learned just kind of go with it and make the fucked up parts work to your advantage, if that makes sense.”
For Leah, what has happened is that the band have pulled together more than ever in the face of such tragedy.
“I mean we’ve gone through some pretty insane shit before. We spend a lot of time together so we are all very close and i feel like there’s more of a family vibe than other bands I’ve played with in the past and I like that. A lot of the guys that are on the road with us have been with the band for as long as I have or even longer so there’s that whole element to it as well. I suppose we are our own kind of weird little dysfunctional family (laughing).”
The story goes that Leah learned around 40 songs in two weeks when she first joined the band midway through their tour off the back of the Baby 81 album, and ever since then, Leah has taken more and more of a creative role alongside bandmates Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been with regards to new material.
“In the beginning i was playing all the material that already existed and when I first started I just tried to mimic the drumming as much as i possibly could to make the transition not like too awkward for Rob and Pete and I guess for the audience as well. I think that when we first started writing Beat The Devil’s Tattoo I started to kind of observe what the process was and figure out my place in it. So its now its been like 8 and a half years or something like that so I’m a little bit more comfortable than I was!”
Her footprint on the band’s material is more than present, not just through her military like – pounding drums – which formed the creative starting point to the development of lead single ‘Let The Day Begin’ from Spectre – a cover of Robert’s dad’s band The Call’s original 1989 release. Her interest in literature and poetry has borne fruit lyrically, her input stamped all over the band’s last two album releases.
“Well at the time when I first got to LA, Rob and I were living in this like, sort of one of those furnished short term apartments and I happened to have some of my books my dad had given to me and some that I’d bought myself. So they were around and I remember showing him things. “Annabel Lee” (from 2011’s ‘Live in London’ release) came out of that. It’s not like an intentional thing but when its around I guess it hopefully influences us but it’s not something I try to force on anybody.”
Interestingly given the high intensity required to provide the engine for BRMC’s motoring sound, Leah feels that playing live she often finds herself in a trance-like, meditative state, as the dreamy ‘Alive’, from BRMC’s debut release – and Leah’s favourite song to play – illustrates.
“Well I mean there’s a lot of repetition and a lot of focus on the flow and feel of it so when I really focus in on it and I’m having a good day when I’m playing well It gets really transitory really quickly and a lot of the music – the more psychedelic stuff – it really lends itself to that. Like you kind of float into some other place which is nice. It’s nice to stop worrying about how your are supposed to be feeling, it just kind of happens.”
Brought up listening to her American father’s record collection, she wasn’t the typical wannabe drummer who, from an early age, was banging tabletops and boxes with anything they could find their hands on.
“I started I guess a little bit later than most people would have, but I just kinda immediately got obsessive about it. I tried to learn other instruments and I completely fucking sucked at it and it didn’t feel natural to me at all and I remember the first day playing the drums it just felt natural to me.”
And with no doubt a few UK dates to pencil in for next year with the release of their new album, Leah is keen to get back out in front of British audiences – even if that means dodging the odd flying pint.
“Oh yeh it’s just so rowdy and fun I love that. I like a good drunk crowd throwing beers at us (laughs) although usually they don’t hit me so that’s why i don’t mind it! I remember Rob getting hit with a beer right in the face in Glasgow at the Barrowlands, I think on the 2010 tour. Maybe next time it’ll be me although it’s a little harder to hit me. I guess that will be the challenge for next year at our shows.”