Author Archives: John Freeman

About John Freeman

I'm a music fan and have been writing for publications and websites since 2008. These include Ireland's AU magazine, Clash magazine and The Quietus website.

Ten Artists for 2012: #1 – Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny.

1. Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves Of Destiny.

I love Beth’s music a lot and have written many words about her. Finally, her debut album, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is aboout to be released and the world will fall at her feet.

This is what I wrote about her last year.

A couple of years ago Beth Jeans Houghton was being talk up in hushed tones. Still in her teens and the keeper of an intimidating amount of talent, her debut album was coming along nicely and the music world seemingly lay prostrate at her feet. Last year, however, the trail leading to Beth seemed to run cold. As the weeks turned into months, no news about the album turned into no sign of Beth.

I first experienced the wonder of Beth back in September 2008. Playing a support slot for Bon Iver at Manchester’s terrible Academy 2, she was captivating. A mere slip of an 18-year-old, she regaled an initially indifferent crowd with neat anecdotes, a birthday shout-out to her brother (the artist Ben Jeans Houghton) and a short set of her twisted, psychedelic folk music – just Beth and her guitar. At that point, she had released a gorgeous debut single ‘Golden’ with the help of folkie producer Adem.

A few months later, after the release of her Hot Toast Volume 1 EP, I interviewed Beth. She was a joy, charming me with stories about being related to Billy the Kid, how her songs each come with a clothes outfit that she designed as she composes and why the best way to describe her sound was – and I quote – “marching to war music.”

I then saw Beth play a couple more shows, firstly in a church in Manchester’s boho suburb of Chorlton and again upstairs in a student eatery in Fallowfield. By then, she wore big-wigs and had been joined by her fabulous Hooves of Destiny backing band. At the latter gig, she played a song called ‘Dodecahedron’ which she’d told us she had only just written so “could go horribly wrong.” It didn’t. ‘Dodecahedron’ was beautiful, featuring a melody to die a million deaths for. This bode well for her debut album, which was being recorded with big-shot producer Ben Hillier.

And then it all went quiet. Really quiet. Beth seemed to lapse into radio silence. When I asked her publicists about where the album was up to, they shrugged their collective shoulders and said “Even we’ve not heard from her.” Apart from the odd sweet but uninformative tweet, it had seemed that Beth’s career had taken an unexpected break.

So, it was a spectacularly pleasant surprise when, one inauspicious day, an email plopped into my inbox from Beth’s PR person. Not only was Beth ‘back’, but she had signed to the mighty Mute label and, – and this was the intriguing bit – she had been living in Los Angeles. The press release also spoke of a free download track. It was called ‘Dodecahedron’. I’ve rarely been as excited, relieved and curious about the scribblings of a publicist. I desperately wanted to interview Beth again and a few weeks later I got my chance.

When I call Beth she is still on a bus in her native Newcastle. She had been clothes shopping with the band Warpaint (who were on Tyneside that day for a gig) and was running slightly late. She claims to remember our previous chat, and when I ask her the inevitable ‘Where’ve you been?’ question she is already into her stride. “It’s not really that I’ve been away,” she tells me while trying to find her front door keys. “There have been delays with the record due to illnesses. I didn’t play that many shows over the winter [of 2010]; I was spending quite a lot of time in LA. I’d written the next album already, I’d been practicing and trying out new stuff for the live show, so it doesn’t seem to me that we’ve been away that long. I can understand that it is almost like a comeback, but I don’t feel like I’ve been away.”

I’m still baffled by the concept of LA. Showing a gaping lack of understanding of Beth’s psyche, I tell her that if I had to guess a city that she may end up in, I would have plumped for Paris or New York, Berlin or Barcelona – somewhere with a bohemian chic and not a city of endless freeways and Muscle Beach. “Since I was about seven or eight, LA has been the place for me. It’s like I’m finally doing what I always planned to do. I’ve always felt like a traveler, and I am at my happiest when I’m travelling or moving. What I got from Los Angeles was that wasn’t true, it was just that I hadn’t found California yet. Also, in England, if you get any kind of success, they get really bitchy. No-one wants you to do well. ”

It is the first point in which I hear a note of sourness in Beth’s voice. She is not the carefree whirlwind of possibility she seemed to be when we last spoke. She tells me that she didn’t go to LA to further her career (“I don’t yet have a career to further”) and will be looking to move over to California semi-permanently. “I’m working on getting a work permit as we speak. The band will come over with me, so that’ll be cool. The move is actually nothing to do with my music at all. I’m doing it because I feel I’d be a lot happier existing there.”

Then, as Beth is in the middle of a noble rant about the destruction of music by digital media, she stops mid-sentence and asks, “If there is a bottle of wine next to me, and it was opened yesterday and it doesn’t have a lid, will it have gone off?” I think it will be fine, and assume she’s now helping herself to a glass of vino-cum-vinegar. Back to the rant: “I was talking today with the girls from Warpaint about reading books on their iPhones. It is okay to do that, as long as you still have real books. It is so sad; we are in that horrible future where nothing exists, apart from on a screen.”

The shopping trip with Warpaint must have been an eye-opener for the Californian quartet. Beth Jeans Houghton is not just about the music. She designs her own record sleeves and also makes many of her own clothes. Her stage costumes are wondrous and on many occasions have incorporated vast wigs. Personally, the last time I saw her play live, the ridiculousness of the teetering beehive hairpiece was an annoying distraction, but because I am a coward I don’t tell her that – she brings it up herself.

“I’ve completely changed my mind on that front. What I wear on stage is very often what I would wear in my normal life. That’s what I do. I like dressing up. But, I got really irritated by reviews last year that were saying stuff about what I was wearing, whether it was good or bad. Music journalists were writing more about the fashion side than the music. That just really fucks me off. So, I think that it is the only thing I will compromise, is tone down what I wear so that, hopefully, people listen to the music.”

It seems that retaining control over her artistic vision is critical for Beth. She states that she would never be overtly commercial (“It might make me richer, but I’ve never really had much money”) and that signing a record deal after she had finished her album was also very important. “On this record, it was really important for me to do exactly what I wanted to do, as this was the standard I was setting. If I compromise and give in now, it will be a lot harder to do what I want later. I think I’ll always be stubborn. I think I have comes to terms with that fact.”

I’m interested as to whether she has written any songs in LA, and how they compare to her older songs. Beth again gives me a glimpse of where he head is at. “It was different because of the environment, but it would be different anyway because my musical tastes have changed and what I want to say has changed. I’m a lot angrier than I was when I was 17 or 18. So, a lot of my more new songs are more vicious.”

Angry? This is not the Beth Jeans Houghton I remember. I ask her what makes her angry, but am not sure I want to hear the reply. “I just got fucking sick of everyone being dishonest. You know when people are being polite and they are like ‘oh yeah, I understand’ but they don’t mean it. I know it seems brutal when someone is deadly honest with you, but at least whatever they might say, you can take it as the truth. I wish that was the case with everyone.”

We then talk and talk and talk; the interview has run way over schedule, but Beth seems in a mood to offload. She tells me how she isn’t anything like the oft-compared Florence Welsh or Laura Marling (she isn’t) and how, as a child, she was inspired by Patti Smith. She talks passionately about sexism in the music business and how hurt she has been by those she once trusted. She’s so open that I’m worried my advice about the wine might have been wrong and I’m saddened by how this amazingly talented young woman could be so bruised. Much of the transcript is deleted for posterity.

For some reason, we end up talking about our biggest fears. “I’m freaked out about death,” Beth tells me. “Not the pain or anything, but the thought of not finishing projects or getting out all my ideas or missing stuff. I mean I am terrified of flying, but the fear of dying before I get to all the places I want to go to freaks me out more. The fear of not doing stuff is scarier.”

Three months later I attend another of Beth’s gigs at a mercifully air-conditioned Deaf Institute on a balmy October evening. She is confident, assured and bursting with triumphant, ballsy songs laced with mischief. Gone are her wigs of yore (she’s rocking a man-size Star Trek t-shirt and beetle crushers look) and her Hooves of Destiny band are now a serious(ly good) unit and not merely a jokey skiffle band.

With her (bafflingly-christened Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose) album finally out in January, Beth is quickly up to speed, nailing the geometric beauty of ‘Dodecahedron’ before a hastily-remembered trumpet is sourced for a tingling, galloping version of new single ‘Liliputt’.

What’s most impressive is the airing of new tracks which may adorn the album. ‘Shampoo’ switches from a 1950’s swing beat into a flash of punk, while the self-explanatory ‘You Let Me Down’ is a tense slab of simmering rock. All memories of her folky strumming are jettisoned into history and any hint of wispiness has been snuffed out.

Houghton, thankfully, has not completely lost her sense of fun. The crowd is invited to enter a ‘make yourself burp’ competition, which the singer duly judges herself victorious after a gargantuan display of gastric bad manners. She then organises an audience dance-off before shedding her guitar and launching into a fabulously kitsch version of Madge’s ‘Like A Prayer’. Post-show, as she happily signs autographs behind her artful merch stall, Beth says she has a gift for me. She pulls out a t-shirt, designed at my bequest: it is covered in dodecahedrons. My year is complete.




Ten Artists for 2012: From #6 to #2….

I am riddled with shame. Life has thrown so much at me in the last few weeks that I have neglected to update my blog at a critical time. There are six other artists I think will make it big during 2012 and I have not had the time to write about them. I’m having to compromise. So, here are numbers six to two.

6. Patterns

Angular yet melodic, intimate yet reaching-for-the stars, Manchester’s Patterns are everything you’d want intelligent boys with guitars and keyboards to sound like.

5. Alt-J

The Leeds band are named after the Mac shortcut for the theta sign (try it) and make big jagged tunes you can dance to. Well, you can dance to them; I am too old to dance.

4. Friends

Brooklyn-based cool pop kittens making a sound like the 1982 version of Madonnna. Which is a very good thing. ‘I’m His Girl’ was my favourite single of 2011.

3. The Heartbreaks

Skyscraping melodies rammed into a Mary Chain-cum-Spector wall of sound from Morecambe’s finest ever band. A debut album is imminent – and it sounds lavishly great.

2. Niki And The Dove

The Swedish duo are where popular music should be heading in 2012. Singer Malin Dahlström is extraordinary, like Bjork, Kate Bush and Madge (again) rolled into one. Their recent EP The Drummer was the sound of a band revving up to take over the world.

Ten Artists For 2012: #7 – Stealing Sheep.

7. Stealing Sheep.

I like it when bands invite me to their homes. It doesn’t happen often, but always beats a noisy bar or a smelly dressing room as a civilised place to chat. So, early this month, when I was invited around to Beck Hawley’s Liverpool flat to interview one-third of folktronic trio Stealing Sheep, all was good with the world. Becky is a graduate of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts – or LIPA as it is known around these parts – which is sited at Paul McCartney’s old school. Along with bassist Emily and drummer Lucy, she formed Stealing Sheep during the summer of 2010. Their brand of melancholic, woozy folk quickly captivated local audiences.

After supporting the likes of Ólöf Arnalds and Emmy The Great, Stealing Sheep have recently released a sparkling mini-album, Noah & The Paper Moon, which collates their early singles, on the ever-inspiring Heavenly Recordings. The trio is currently writing their debut album proper. When I asked Becky about how the band settled on their sound, I was hugely impressed by their logical approach. “Well, we all met up in a café in Liverpool in July 2010 and we knew what each other could play and we all liked female harmonies – that is the reason it is three girls,” she told me. “Then, we each wrote down on a piece of paper all the bands we liked, made a playlist, swapped them and they were all completely different. Emily listens to Krautrock and Seventies psychedelic stuff, Lucy likes gypsy music and I like electronica. We decided to be heavier and a bit more dramatic. We didn’t want to be twee in any way, as it is three girls with cutesy voices. We didn’t want to fall into that Joanna Newsom thing, even though we like her. We didn’t want it to be soft. We wanted it to have a melancholic, haunting vibe.”

Listening to Noah & The Paper Moon, it would seem they got their wishes.

For the full interview with Becky for TLOBF, see here:

Find out more about Stealing Sheep:


Ten Artists For 2012: #8 – Ghost Outfit.

8. Ghost Outfit.

More Mancunian majesty: Ghost Outfit are Jack Hardman and Mike Benson and for the last year or so have been making big burps of fizzing fury. Ghost Outfit’s recent single ‘Tuesday’ / ‘I Want Someone Else’ showcased their brimming talent – two guys, rattling melodies and enough emotional punch to floor Mike Tyson in his heyday. I’ve interviewed Jack and Mike for a future article. During our chat – which was held on the bunk-beds in the secret guest quarters at the Deaf Institute – Jack told me about the ‘vision’ for Ghost Outfit.

Warning: the following quote contains the phrase ‘two-piece’.

“We were tired of this awful, shoegazey indie. There were four of us in this band – we had a bassist and another guitarist – and it was only last year that we became a two-piece. So, from when we became a two-piece, there wasn’t a two-piece band in Manchester who weren’t trying to sound like a two-piece – in the way that No Age are not trying to sound like a two-piece. They try to sound like a full band which is what we try to do.”

That’s that sorted, then.

Find out more about Ghost Outfit here:

The Day I Met Grinderman

Nick Cave has announced the end of Grinderman. After two extraordinary albums, the feral garage-blues rock band are no more. In September 2010, I got the chance to interview Grinderman at RAK studios in St John’s Wood. It was a wonderful experience and here’s what I wrote for AU magazine.

Outside a North London recording studio there is some filming going on. Members of the band One Night Only are practicing opening a door in an adjacent house, walking towards to the steps of the studio’s impressive Victorian frontage, and entering the front door. They are in the process of recording a single with a short film to accompany it. The lads, with carefully messed-up hair and skinny jeans, are trying to look like indie rock stars and walk at the same time. It’s harder than you think and the process is repeated for some minutes.

Suddenly, during one take, a huge black Audi pulls up to the entrance. A chauffeur opens the rear door, and out steps a man dressed in a lime green shirt and tight black trousers. His hair is slicked back and he stalks, insect-like, up the studio steps. It’s Nick Cave and he has obliviously walked straight through the ‘scene’, ruining that particular take. Minutes later, bandmate Warren Ellis does exactly the same thing. Clearly, Grinderman don’t give a fuck about One Night Only’s filming schedule.

Grinderman have arrived to rehearse for an imminent European tour to promote their (quite frankly) brilliant new long-player – the imaginatively titled Grinderman 2. Their debut album appeared to be a celebration of libidinous middle-aged men exercising, and perhaps exorcising, their right to lust. Multiple reviews suggested it was a sonic mid-life crisis, a description which Cave is understandably riled by. “The ‘mid-life crisis’ was an easy journalistic tag. It’s patronizing about something which is quite complex and possibly threatening, on some levels. So it’s an easy way to dismiss it and render it impotent. I did find it very fucking patronizing.” His words hang heavy in the air.

Grinderman 2 is a very different beast; it is more expansive musically and lyrically more diverse – even if the trademark talk of wolfmen and bogeymen still prowls the songs. While testosterone and aggression are still in evidence, the wonderful psycho pop of ‘Palaces Of Montezuma’ and the Lou Reed-inspired ballad ‘When My Baby Comes’ both display a softer, feminine side to the band. Cave pounces on the assertion, “There is a vulnerability in Grinderman that I think women recognize. They understand intuitively that we are fronting up to issues that most men would rather not face up to. Vulnerability is the wrong word. It’s a neurosis. We’re not ashamed to admit that we are neurotic. We are being driven by neuroses.”

“And as we all know, that’s a real thigh opener,” drummer Jim Sclavunos deadpans.

“The sage speaks,” laughs Cave. “We open ourselves up to both ridicule and awe.”

In the flesh, Nick Cave is a wondrous sight. It’s his 53rd birthday today (AU ashamedly arrives empty-handed), and he looks as if he could be in his mid-thirties. Tanned, lean and wrinkle-free, he looks like a bastion of health next to his grizzly bandmates. Guitarist Warren Ellis possesses a beard of natural wonder and a hideous cackle to match, while at 6’ 7” Sclavunos is a tower of sardonic insight. The fourth member, bass-player Marty Casey, sits behind his shades and barely utters a word.

Grinderman has become something of a creative salvation for Cave. The method of writing songs through improvised jam sessions has given him a jolt of freedom. After The Bad Seeds magnificent Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus albums in 2004, Cave felt his energy levels had sapped. “It was getting very difficult for me to sit in my office with a blank piece of paper and come up with songs. I have written over 200 of them and it is difficult to find that original spark of creation to write another song. You just run out of things to write about.”

Was he ever concerned that he would lose the capability to write songs? “Yeah, there is a certain panic about things. I’m always worried about being spooked as a songwriter and not being able to do something and it snowballing into flat-out writer’s block and then you don’t write anything for a couple of years. I’ve made every effort to not let that happen, but sometimes when you have had a day when you’ve played a whole lot of bullshit, you start doubting your abilities or whether you’ve still got it.”

“Suddenly, Grinderman offered a whole new way of making music which was a) collaborative and b) didn’t require any time or effort on some level because it was largely improvised. So, you go into the situation with absolutely nothing, with no ideas and you just play music for five days. In that process, stuff just comes up. Then I go back and try and stay true to those themes that were coming up within the improvised session, work on them and bring them up to scratch. That’s a whole new way of writing that has really enriched the songwriting process for me for The Bad Seeds, where I can now sit down with a blank piece of paper and feel freed up by that.”

It’s a view that’s shared by the others, who between them have played in dozens of bands including The Triffids, The Cramps and Sonic Youth. Warren Ellis seems particularly invigorated; “With Grinderman, I like the fact that we are trying to find something all the time. It feels to me that we are going into it with the same enthusiasm we did when we were 19 to find something different, musically and lyrically. It feels like that energy is still there, which I find really addictive.”

Suddenly, all is not well in Nick Cave’s world. “What, are you saying that we were going back to the studio like kids, or something?” he asks Ellis, accusingly. “All I’m saying, is not that we’re like 19 years old again, but it’s with the same enthusiasm that I’ve always felt with these people still seems to be there, no matter what,” Ellis replies defensively. “That’s all I meant. Fucking hell – it’s lucky there’s two people between us on this couch.” 

An unlikely diplomat, Sclavunos attempts to diffuse the situation by talking over his glowering bandmates. “I think it’s just in our temperament to have this restless creativity, whether you are talking about Grinderman or The Bad Seeds, individually or collectively. We set a high bar for ourselves.”

But Cave is having none of it; he has a point to make and he’s going to make it. “I’m more excited about the process of making music than I was when I was 19. When I was 19, I was really ambivalent about it to begin with. I didn’t know anything about it or if that’s what I wanted to do with my life – to be a musician. It took quite a long time to get to something where I felt that I was actually going into the studio and doing something important. And now it really feels like that.”

“Fuck – I’ll let you off because it’s your birthday,” soothes Ellis to AU’s relief. “Any other day and I’d have jumped on your…”

As both Grinderman albums have been created by an initial intense burst of improvisation and jamming, there is no sense of molding how each record might sound. There will be no premeditated sonic evolution for future Grinderman records. “What we are actually doing is not preparing and going in and improvising and really allowing that hothouse situation to take the music to somewhere completely different. That’s what we are looking for,” Cave explains. “The interesting thing about the last Grinderman improvised sessions is that we left (at least Warren and I did) feeling like we didn’t really get that much.”

Ellis writes songs in a similar way with his other band, The Dirty Three, and concurs with Cave’s view, “You leave and you are depressed and you throw it all in the bin. And then you come back again, and there is something really good about that. It teaches you humility.” But out of dejection, came the light of salvation, “It was only when we listened to it later on that we were like ‘fuck, this is amazing’, because it was very different from what we anticipated the next Grinderman record to be,” Cave admits.

The other defining change for Cave in the last few years was that he began to play the guitar; an act which has completely changed how he perceives music and the songwriting process. “There is something very immediate about the guitar. Before, when I present a song I have written on the piano the kind of chords you play are different, and they don’t actually sound like rock ‘n’ roll. As soon as I started playing the guitar – which I only have a basic ability to play – I was immediately able to understand why rock ‘n’ roll was rock ‘n’ roll. Within a week of learning three chords I could pretty much sit there and play about ten Velvet Underground songs – this is why and how it’s done.”

A week later, and with their UK tour in full swing, AU catches Grinderman’s Manchester show. It’s an exhilarating experience; time may have dimmed the debauched anarchy of Cave’s Birthday Party performances, but there is a still a deliciously controlled fury. Whether it’s ending up in the crowd during a particularly sleazy version of ‘Kitchenette’, or accidentally falling into Sclavunos’ drum kit while vamping up ‘Heathen Child’ (“Sorry Jim”), Cave is still a master of menace and his fellow Grinder-guys are seriously skilled musicians.

The new track that is greeted by the biggest cheer is the next single ‘Worm Tamer’. During our interview, we reflect on the fact that almost every review has made reference to the perceived humour of the lyric, “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster / Two great big humps and then I’m gone.” “There were probably a lot of guys having a serious meltdown at home listening to that one,” chuckles Ellis. Cave, however, is aghast at the idea that the line is comedic. “That wasn’t supposed to be funny. It’s tragic.”

There is, however, a refreshing level of self-deprecation running through Grinderman songs, be it the Loch Ness admission or the defeated air of ‘No Pussy Blues’, a track from their debut album. According to Ellis, it’s a deprecation brought about by self-confidence and experience. “It’s a fucking age thing at this point – it’s not like you’re young and care what anyone thinks. You just don’t give a shit after a certain point.” With band bonhomie restored, Cave nods in agreement, “That’s what happens, you get to a certain age and you don’t give a fuck.”

“I could be completely wrong about this,” he continues, coming full-circle on our discussion. “But I think that women respond to the fact that we are quite open about the male situation and that there is a certain levity about it that they enjoy.”

There is seemingly no end to Grinderman’s ability to open thighs.

Ten Artists For 2012: #9 – Milagres.

9. Milagres.

While mountain climbing in Canada, Milagres’ lead singer Kyle Wilson fell and broke his back. While recuperating he wrote a set of songs that would become the Brooklyn band’s debut album, Glowing Mouth. That is a seriously good way to convalesce. The five-piece conjure up a palette of mountains, beaches and fading light, set against a regal backdrop of guitars, keyboards and Wilson’s delicate falsetto. Think TV On The Radio at their most tender or Coldplay when they were good.

Milagres will be my first major interview of 2012 – and I cannot wait to see them play Glowing Mouth in a live setting. Milagres means ‘miracles’ in Portuguese, which rather sums things up nicely.

Check out the video for forth coming single ‘Here To Stay’ at the following link:

Find out more about Milagres here:

Ten Artists for 2012: #10 – Brown Brogues

So, here are my ten tips for 2012. A bit like the BBC list, the artists in question cannot have released an album at this point, or had a Top 20 single (I’m assuming none of them have – I’m not sure I’d know how to check this fact) or be already famous like an X-Factor moron.

I posted a Top 10 for 2011 last year, with mixed results. While Ringo Deathstarr and The Crookes seem to be doing very nicely for themselves, MAY68 have since split up and my top choice – Duologue – haven’t exactly ripped up trees. Oh well.

10. Brown Brogues

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to interview Arctic Monkeys. While chatting with Alex Turner I asked him which new bands he’d been impressed by. Without a moment’s hesitation he said “Brown Brogues” – which had me scrabbling around on YouTube later in the day. Brown Brogues are Mark Vernon and Ben Mather and are from Wigan. Apparently, they hate Wigan. They make a lot of noise. But it is a visceral, heart-thumping, adrenaline-shot of electric noise that make forty-something men smile. Their single ‘Wildman’ is full of vicious intent, with vocalist Vernon at his snarling best over a rush of stormy guitars.

To listen to Brown Brogues, check out their Soundcloud page: