Tag Archives: Goldsmid House

No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

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On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.