Interview: Stubbleman’s Pascal Gabriel on the making of ‘Mountains And Plains’

Pascal Gabriel – Stubbleman. (c) Pippa Ungar

“I had a plan, and that plan was simply to be inspired,” begins Pascal Gabriel. “I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but I was certainly feeling bored of pop, and bored of the tricks I’d learned. I wanted to unlearn all of that.”

For Gabriel to confess such a disdain for pop music at first sounds like he’s biting the very hand that has fed him for the best part of thirty years. From his pioneering work with samplers on tracks like ‘Theme From S’Express’ by S’Express and ‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb The Bass, Gabriel went on to write and produce countless pop hits, from Debbie Harry to Kylie Minogue to Will Young to Dido, and a cursory glance through the record collections of anyone who bought into pop music over the past three decades is highly likely to yield more than one Gabriel songwriting credit.

If that’s the Pascal Gabriel you think you know, his album Mountains And Plains – released last month by the legendary Belgian Crammed Discs imprint under his Stubbleman alias – represents an altogether unexpected proposition. Stubbleman was the nickname that the staff at Gabriel’s future wife Pippa Ungar’s Carnevale restaurant gave the unshaven patron that would generally turn up each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, evidently smitten by the owner. It immediately suggests something entirely distinct from Gabriel’s work in the pop field; something much more experimental; something altogether hairier.

Mountains And Plains is a quietly euphoric instrumental travelogue written by Gabriel while journeying across America from New York State to California. Its eleven geographically-informed pieces slot neatly into an electronically-infused modern classical canon, while also sounding only ever of themselves. They veer from wide-eyed wonder at America’s bountiful natural beauty to the ceaseless, intoxicating hum of downtown Los Angeles, containing musical gestures that are simultaneously serene and violent.

It is, in essence, the sound of a producer letting go of his inhibitions and moving in a new and rewarding direction.

Gabriel and his wife started their road-trip from the east coast of America to its most westerly points in October 2016. In among their luggage were two Brompton fold-up bicycles for exploring, a MacBook loaded with software synths, a small keyboard, a portable digital recorder and microphone (known as the Hairy Guys) and a playlist of eclectic music influenced by the trip they were taking.

At the start of the trip, the idea for what became Mountains And Plains hadn’t yet presented itself; the only thing Gabriel knew was that he wanted to do something that took him many thousands of miles away from his pop background. “I’d always loved American music,” he says. “Things like Memphis-based soul, stuff from New Orleans, jazz music and so on. I thought the trip would recharge my batteries and maybe something good would come out of it. As it progressed, I realised it was really working, and lots of great things were starting to emerge. Suddenly I had this little seed of an idea, and it got watered and it grew as the trip progressed. Just after we got to Central Texas, and then by the time we got to New Mexico, I had loads and loads of ideas.”

The concept that emerged was simple, but highly disciplined: using the Hairy Guys – a Sony PCM-M10 recorder with a Sony ECM-MS957 microphone, each equipped with a rumble-reducing windshield – Gabriel would capture the sounds of the natural environment in whatever places they’d been to that day and then write music in response to what he’d seen and heard. “We’d arrive somewhere, we’d have dinner and we’d probably be a little bit tired from the driving. We’d just hang out in town, walk round, and then I’d go home and faff around for an hour or maybe more. If an idea came to me, I’d work on that a bit more, and then if it didn’t I’d just go to bed. Generally, I would try and find an upright piano to play and sample, if there was one, really just to get an idea going. They were all sketches, basically. They weren’t finished pieces, but the melodies, the basic construction and the arrangements, were all written while we were on the road.”

Gabriel never really struggled with the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. “It’s definitely easier to write if you experience a lot of incredible views and panoramas,” he reflects. “That’s probably why maybe some of the New Mexican and southern Coloradan days were so inspiring, because the vistas were just so incredible. In contrast, Texas is a bit flat and boring. I had to make musical decisions about what was working and what wasn’t working, regardless of the places that I loved. Some places I loved more than others. I mean, Memphis was an incredible place, I really loved it, but no piece made it from Memphis.

“It was scary at the same time as being liberating,” he admits. “For pretty much all of my musical career I’d been working with someone else, so I’d be able to turn to that person in the studio and go, ‘What do you think?’, and you’d get feedback and encouragement back. But with this project I was having a conversation with myself. I’d go, ‘What do you think Pasc?’ and sometimes I wouldn’t know the answer. Back when I still smoked, that’s the point where I’d have gone and had a cigarette and tried to figure the song out, but because I don’t smoke anymore, when I was making this album there was lots of cups of tea and walking around the block. It was a bit like Magritte: every morning, his wife would make him a lunchbox of sandwiches, and he’d go out of his front door, walk round the block, come back to his front door and go upstairs to where his studio was in the attic, and he’d do exactly the opposite in the evening. I did that a few times when I was writing this album, because I wanted to have the cigarette break, just without the cigarette.”

Aside from having someone to turn to and bounce ideas off, Gabriel admits that producing the tracks at his studios in London and France also presented unique challenges. “It was a bit more difficult, because, as a producer and a pop writer, I was very much inclined to think, ‘Let’s go really big. Let’s go Sigur Rós on this and bring on the strings!’ I realised that I needed to set myself parameters. With any project I’ve worked on, I always write down what I call the Ten Commandments – the rules of the project. It’ll be things like staying minimal, using short reverbs, smooth bass and so on. I like to think that it stops me from getting lost. I can break those rules, and that’s okay, because I’m breaking them with intent. It just limits your framework, which I think creates a kind of coherence to the work.” His Commandments for what became Mountains And Plains included phrases like ‘purposefully unrefined’, ‘minimal dynamic shifts’, ‘frame a place and a moment’, ‘sound as a memory’ and ‘say much with very little’; in aggregate, those rules have given the album the fragile, transcendent, impressionistic tone it possesses.

One manifestation of those parameters Gabriel wrote for himself was that the album would not use strings, even though their inclusion would have perhaps been entirely logical. “I love strings, and I think that there’s wonderful, wonderful music made with strings, but I just didn’t want any on this album, because I thought it would be too easy,” he confesses. “When you use strings they glue everything together, and I just wanted space. And if I didn’t want the space, I didn’t want strings to be there – I wanted something else to be there.”

Griffith Park. (c) Pippa Ungar

Nevertheless, true to his mantra that rules can also be broken, Gabriel did add a string passage to ‘Griffith Park’, named for the landmark observatory building on Mount Hollywood that looks down on Los Angeles, a site beloved by film directors, and an important backdrop for James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. A frantic string arrangement was added to the track, designed to evoke the waking LA dawn visible from the observatory’s commanding – yet tranquil – vantage point, but in the end Gabriel reverted to his firm desire to leave the strings out. “There’s probably as much music on the album that you can hear as there was that was rejected,” he explains.

During the course of the road-trip, Gabriel accumulated some forty sketches, a testament to how excited he was by what he was experiencing each day. Sometimes his Hairy Guy recordings would feature in the tracks with prominence; on other occasions they’d be processed, stretched and altered, providing a kind of imperceptible resonance alongside Gabriel’s synths, guitars or toy drums. “On each piece they were a little bit fiddled with,” he says. “I would generally filter the rumble, otherwise you’d get this droning sound which is pretty annoying on recordings of the waves, for instance. On ‘Piety Wharf’, which is the last track on the album, it was a mixture of both processed and unprocessed field recordings from an area of New Orleans that we really liked. There’s birds, which were some of the field recordings that were there, and there’s also a kind of sound that’s also the atmosphere slowed down and stretched a lot to make the length of a recognisable note. I synced that up to the piano part, so then it’s almost like a ghost piano part behind the piano. I think it gives that melody a kind of underwater quality.”

Fourteen of the forty tracks were mixed by Gabriel with his friend Gareth Jones, but only eleven feature on Mountains And Plains. Gabriel remains unconvinced as to what he should do with the remaining mixed and unmixed pieces, namely whether they should be given away as free tracks after an unspecified period of time has elapsed, or simply left gathering digital dust on his hard drive, never seeing the light of day. “I don’t like to go back too much,” he muses. “The ones I rejected – they bore me already. It’s hard to kill your babies, but for me they devalued the others, even though some of them were more complex, or more grand, than the ones we kept. For instance, ‘Great River Road’, recorded along the Mississippi, is three chords repeated at different intervals, but it has something about it that’s special. And the others just didn’t quite have that.”

Mountains And Plains navigates us through some of America’s most incredible landscapes, along the dramatic Californian coast, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, across the unforgiving barren plains of Texas and beyond, following paths cut by America’s earliest inhabitants and new roads built to replace older ones which are left unused, abandoned and hauntingly visible from the modern freeways. Each piece was accompanied by suggested reading material that Gabriel had used when he began researching his road-trip – the poem that appends Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (‘Sea: Sounds Of The Pacific Ocean At Big Sur’), socio-geographic maps by Rebecca Solnit, books of Ansel Adams photography, books on trains in America. Alongside the sounds he had recorded and the images he accumulated, these books added another evocative input to the moods of these pieces.

At times those moods can be uplifting, at others there seems to be a certain disappointment in the tone that Gabriel presents. “I’m quite a melancholic person,” he explains, “but I find joy in melancholy as well. I am genuinely a positive person, and I don’t revel in the past. As with everyone, some things upset me and some things touch me, but I always try to think that there is redemption, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t an easy ride for most people, especially in some of the poorest parts of America that we visited, like Alabama. I’ve only just started to analyse it now, but if I go back to my pop work, things like the Peach album, there wasn’t that many tracks that were completely euphoric. There’s always been a little bit of a questioning quality, and I think it’s the same in this project.”

“My guideline for making music is ‘Do I like it or not?’,” he continues. “In the past I’ve worked with people who say ‘Would the A&R guy like this?’ or ‘Would the record label like this?’ or ‘Will the publisher like this?’ I can’t do that. I’ve never been very good at doing that. I can’t work by formula. I just work by feeling. That’s my compass when I’m making music.”

Stubbleman – studio with cat. (c) Pippa Ungar

Pascal Gabriel will perform the tracks from Mountains And Plains at London’s Purcell Rooms on November 20, with support from Simon Fisher Turner. Not a seasoned live performer, Gabriel was faced with a difficult decision over how to present the Stubbleman tracks. “I didn’t want people to look at me too much, and so I didn’t just want to go onstage with a keyboard and a laptop. But on the other hand, to perform these pieces like they are on the album, I’d need six or seven musicians, maybe even more. I obviously physically can’t play everything myself at once.”

Instead, Gabriel alighted upon a novel idea, but one that, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates his firm commitment to the Stubbleman project and its music. “I’d heard about this guy in Berlin who designed little MIDI-to-voltage boxes,” he explains. “The boxes fire up little electric motors, and that pulls a hammer down. You give it a little impulse, it pulls the hammer down, and it’ll hit whatever instrument you attach to it.”

Gabriel spent most of summer 2018 in his shed in France building a number of instruments using these motors, each one housed in an old-fashioned hard trunk Globe Trotter suitcase, which will play alongside himself, a bassist and other musicians at the Purcell Room show. “I’m quite good at DIY,” he says, modestly. “I enjoyed making them. I bought a job lot of piano hammers from the States to get me started with a first set of vibraphones, and then I decided to make another set, this time with xylophones.” Because of their construction, and the space available to him within the Purcell Rooms, the instruments can be spread out across the stage, rather than being confined to a specific place. The result is nothing short of a theatrical, visually interesting means of presenting Mountains And Plains, somewhere between the primitive punch-card automated music of Victorian fairgrounds and the elaborate, often audacious work of Luigi Russolo’s Futurists.

Stubbleman – live rehearsal, April 2018. (c) Pippa Ungar

Talking to Pascal Gabriel and being caught up in his enthusiastic interest for this entirely new direction, it would be tempting to think that he’d throw himself headlong into other road-trips across other countries, repeating the approach taken on Mountains And Plains. Nothing could be further from reality right now. A return to pop writing and production isn’t on the cards, however.

Instead, he has taken his enthusiasm for road cycling and used that as the basis for his next project. Titled 1:46:43, his next Stubbleman album will be an auditory evocation of his best time on the punishing Mont Ventoux in Provence. “It’s very selfish,” he laughs. “It’s not a bad time. It’s an acceptable time. I’d like to beat 1:45 but I’m not sure I’ll do it this year.”

Not for Gabriel, however, the twee concept album approach taken by Kraftwerk on Tour De France Soundtracks; instead, he used the various statistics about his performance recorded by his on-bike computer – heart rate, cadence, gradient and speed – and converted that data into four modular synth sequences derived from the length of his climb to the end of the route up Ventoux.

“You could do it on any mountain, really,” he says. “Like the US road trip Pippa and I did, it’s another journey. With this, you really push yourself to the limit, and every corner becomes an entire state, if you compare it to my current album. Essentially it’s going to be made up of different events along the climb that inspired me differently, and themes that reoccur through the whole thing – for example, something that evokes the feeling of your legs being completely dead and like you can’t go on! I can write themes for those kinds of feelings and then bring them in at different points.

“To me, it’s the same way as how Max Richter’s Sleep is made up of lots of different elements,” he continues. “It’s not a single piece. For example, there’s a few times on the climb up Ventoux where you have these very sharp turns, and I can write for those events, and allow them to repeat at different points during the whole piece.” I’m treated to a brief snippet of this work in progress as our interview concludes; at this early stage the first gestures of what will become 1:46:43 are inextricably recognisable as being Gabriel’s work, but are entirely different to the album he’s just released.

Mountains And Plains, the forthcoming live show and his new work all find Pascal Gabriel enthused and enlivened in a way that he recognises he hasn’t been for some years. “I’m really fired up right now,” he agrees. “I’m mixing different artforms and I find that really interesting after years of observing other people doing interesting things in other places from the pop world I was in.

“When I first came to London in the late 70s I mixed with lots of people from St. Martin’s College Of Art,” he recalls. “I always loved the free thinking they brought. I came from a small town in Belgium and when I came to London and I hung around with them, it was like everything was possible. They were great artists that went on to do many, many brilliant things. I’ve always wanted to do something more artistic, but, over time, pop became my raison d’etre. So what I’m working on right now is a very, very liberating thing for me.”

Mountains And Plains by Stubbleman is out now on Crammed Discs and can be purchased from the Stubbleman website. Tickets for the Stubbleman and Simon Fisher Turner show at the Purcell Rooms on November 20 2019 can be purchased from the EFG London Jazz Festival website.

Stubbleman is published by Mute Song.

All photos used with the permission of Pascal Gabriel and Pippa Ungar.

Documentary Evidence album review: here

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Electronic Sound 53 – including my Mute STUMM433 feature

ES53_Bundle-Square.jpg

The latest issue of Electronic Sound is now available in the usual high street retailers and as a bundle with an exclusive 7″ from their website. This issue has a primary focus on Berlin, featuring conversations with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubaten, Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and others who recall the vibrant creative melting pot that the divided city represented in the late 70s and early 80s. The accompany 7″ features Berlin legends Malaria! while Gudrun Gut from band offers her take on sometime Berlin resident David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the B-side.

My major contribution to issue 53 was a feature on John Cage’s seminal composition 4’33” and the incoming Mute STUMM433 project. For this feature I interviewed K Á R Y Y N, Daniel Miller, Simon Fisher Turner, Irmin Schmidt, Laibach, Pink Grease and Maps, each of whom explained how they approached their performance of Cage’s distinctive piece – where they recorded it, and what instrument they didn’t play. Each of the 58 versions on STUMM433 is wildly different from the next, each one includes its own individual story and accompanying visual, and only one of the inclusions is actually silent – just as Cage would have wanted.

This feature involved me diving back into Cage’s Silence book – something I’d first tackled in my late teens when I found a copy in my local library and studying the score. One took much longer than the other. It also awoke in me an interest in Zen after reading about Cage’s following of these ascetic Buddhist principles.

Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. by Maps; the score to Marnie by Bernard Herrmann; David Tibbet and Andrew Lisle’s debut Nodding God album; the latest Blow collaboration on Front & Follow by Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer; and a fantastic new Buchla-based concept album by Simon James.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Maps (Clash feature, 2019)

Six years on from James Chapman‘s last solo LP and his 2016 onDeadWaves project with Mute labelmate Polly Scattergood, Maps returns with the brilliant Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. on May 10th 2019.

The album takes the signature Maps sound down bold new pathways, finding him collaborating with Erasure collaborators Echo Collective, live drummers and additional vocalists.

Ahead of its release, it was an honour and pleasure to speak to James for Clash about strings, synths and… SodaStream. You can read the interview here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Andy Bell – Torsten In Queereteria : Redux

Since 10 April at Above The Stag in London’s Vauxhall, Erasure frontman Andy Bell has been reprising his role as Torsten, a half-English, half-Norwegian semi-immortal polysexual born way back in 1905.

Entitled Queereteria TV, the third instalment of Barney Ashton-Bullock’s series places Torsten’s recollections inside a nightmarish vision of a post-apocalyptic Britain, where a trio of misfits – Lady Domina Bizarre (Matthew Baldwin), Rupert (veteran actor Peter Straker) and Daniel (Ashton-Bullock) – seek to recreate the halcyon days of the Queereteria sex club they and Torsten frequented before Lady Domina inadvertently caused Armageddon after a fumbled sexual liaison with the monarch.

What emerges instead is a TV station dominated by the very worst, lowest possible common denominator of programming that Britons have no choice but to watch; so much so that ‘detector execution vans’ patrol the streets to ensure strict compliance with the fascistic dictat that the channel’s crude and debased content must be watched. “It’s basically a filthy comedy,” says Andy Bell, however unlikely that might sound.

Unlikely it may sound, but a filthy comedy – perhaps the filthiest your most exuberant imagination could muster – it most certainly is. Queereteria TV is a raucous, ribald excursion of a musical that is most definitely not for the faint hearted or easily offended. It can frequently leave you laughing uproariously or sitting with your mouth agape with shock at the things you’ve seen or heard. And yet through it all is the strangely morbid tale of our hero Torsten, kept sedated in a bell jar for Lady Domina’s amusement, Bell’s embodiment of this sad, broken soul acts as a counterweight to Baldwin’s wonderful portrayal of Domina as the worst imaginable panto dame.

Bell first performed as Torsten in 2014 at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. For those used to seeing his performances with synthpop royalty Erasure, Torsten The Bareback Saint may have come as something of a shock. A one-man show written by Ashton-Bullock with music composed and performed by multi-instrumentalist Chris Frost, the show found the wretched Torsten surveying his long life, many lovers and frequent disappointments in the kind of brutally honest, and often hilariously colourful detail that was a world away from Bell’s dayjob operating within the written and unwritten parameters of pop music.

Torsten reappeared in The Beautiful Libertine at Above The Stag in London two years later. Not exactly a sequel in the traditional sense, the second instalment in what Ashton-Bullock describes as “postcards from the hotspots of memory” dug into different moments in the life of the Torsten character, revealing more detail about his life, yet more outlandish and sad episodes, but in anything but a straightforward linear narrative.

Bell settled into the character again for The Beautiful Libertine as if it was a second skin, surely meaning that this third instalment should be a breeze. “To be honest, even though he’s my character, he’s a stranger to me,” he confesses. “I can’t quite put my finger on him really.”

“I don’t think any of us can,” concurs Ashton-Bullock. “For me there’s two ways of looking at drama – there’s the approach where you have a beginning, middle and end and a forced narrative, and where you try and make everything fit that; or you acknowledge that in our lives we don’t really know what the beginning, middle and end are. If you write like that, eventually a life and a story assert themselves. Our own memory of our own lives is incomplete – we remember fragments and have selective memories and all of that. So I think with Torsten being older than any of us, his memories are even more jumbled, and everything is fragmented.”

“He’s 114 years old, even though he looks a lot younger,” adds Bell. “In this new show his bones get brittle, he’s feeling older inside, and his memory’s going a little bit. He’s a bit similar to myself, really!”

Though he’s being sarcastic, if Bell can relate to the character on some level, in part that’s because Torsten was written by Ashton-Bullock specifically with Andy Bell in mind. “I always felt as though I knew Andy, although I hadn’t met him, because I just felt that we were very similar,” he says. “The thing that Andy, Chris Frost and I all have in common is we’re very reclusive introverts, and we often don’t get the chance in life to be the best we can be.”

“We’re wallflower people,” nods Bell in agreement. “We don’t necessarily want to go and join in. It’s not our style. Barney and I have become very good, very close friends because we’re both so similar.”

“People put you in boxes and we get talked over all the time,” continues Ashton-Bullock with a sigh. “But I really think we have an energy between us which is completely understated, and that energy means we can create things that are of value to people. Without taking anything away from Andy’s success in Erasure, I really felt like there was a voice trapped within the style of synthpop – and I’m saying that as a fan. I wanted him to be freed from the regular beat and I wanted his voice to soar. When I heard him on Peter Hammill’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher from 1991, I knew I would want to work with him to do just that.”

The music written by Chris Frost for Ashton-Bullock’s vivid words also serves to free Bell up from those strictures, their distinctively flexible presentations being the outcome of a collision between Frost’s jazz / classical background and Ashton-Bullock’s schooling in the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Fad Gadget. The net effect of that is music that can occasionally be a bit New Romantic, a bit futurist, deeply theatrical, and more than often a bit uncomfortable.

One way in which Bell can get to grips with the anguish of Torsten’s life is to relate it to his own experiences from his long-term relationship with the late Paul Hickey, whose memoir Sometimes vividly detailed his life with the singer. “We had an open relationship,” recalls Bell. “I mean, I’m quite a romantic, and when Erasure were really, really successful it felt like I did have someone like in every port who I’d see while we were touring the world. I liked to make attachments, but I wasn’t allowed to fall in love. That was Paul’s stipulation, which I realise now was a bit damaging. Torsten is in a similar situation, because he outlives all of his amours and paramours.”

“It’s very similar to how I’ve written drama through the years,” explains Ashton-Bullock, whose Daniel character is a married man that Torsten has an affair with. “If I’ve got somebody’s voice in mind when I’m writing it really helps me. There are lots of similarities between Andy and I – weird things like we both worked in Debenhams when we were young and we both had love affairs in Weston-super-Mare when we were in our late teens. I think that’s why we’re both very, very emotionally committed to the Torsten project and seeing where that story will lead.”

Though it wasn’t necessarily evident to audiences when it opened in Edinburgh, Barney Ashton-Bullock had always conceived that Torsten The Bareback Saint would be the first part of a trilogy. Arriving at the latest instalment, it’s become apparent to everyone involved in the series that there are more stories left to tell. “We’re already thinking, ‘Right, what’s going to be the next thing?’” says Bell. “In the latest show they’ve introduced a younger Torsten played by Tom Mann for these kind of flashback scenes while I’m singing off to the side. It’s like me looking back at a reflection of myself in the show.”

Bell turns 55 during the show’s run. “I’m just waiting to get that time when you get written out because you’re too old,” he laughs. “I can imagine when it gets sent to Netflix or and they suddenly say they’re going to get Ryan Gosling to play Torsten, but I can have a bit part in the background playing a tramp on the street.”

“As long as there’s something to say, and that were all alive and available, I wouldn’t kill him off,” says Ashton-Bullock. ”I do think I know where the character can go next and on his timeline. That said, we’ve got the luxury of time. We’ve all got other jobs. I can wait for inspiration to strike, rather than feeling like I’ve got a deadline approaching. I think there are still things to say and I also feel like we’re living in a world where certain ideas desperately need to be shared. These are very weird times, very estranging at times. Sometime’s it’s a struggle for everyday people to wake up and be happy because the times are so odd.”

Though Ashton-Bullock wrote Torsten specifically for Andy Bell, he’s clear that other things went into his genesis from his own life experiences. “I think we’re all products of the culture that we live in and our interests,” he says. “My influences from a very early age were Harold Pinter, Derek Jarman, Steven Berkoff, and the ability that they had in their writing to pattern the world and to be viscerally honest about things. I really admired that in all of them. Also, being an outsider in a very small seaside town growing up, having my parents split up when I was four, having to fend for myself and all the sort of nightmare scenarios you can dream for yourself in all of that.” All of this manifests itself in Torsten never seeming to find his true place in the world until he found the forgiving environs of the Queereteria club.

If this were a novel, parts of it could be labelled a classic roman à clef, a story inevitably full of Ashton-Bullock’s own life encounters and recollections, only he really admits to never been drawn to books – only poetry. “The language in books wasn’t concise enough for me,” he admits. “It was like I was reading a book to get a kind of hit, but I was just never getting it. I’ve read all my life poetry, right from when I first bought my collected works of W. H. Auden. I was with my grandmother in the Pump Room in Bath when I bought it on a family weekend and she said to me disapprovingly ‘Hmmm, you do know he was a homosexual?’ From early on I just thought that poetry was the most immediate and violent expression of language.”

Transitioning from poetry to the complex, intensely full flow of words that Ashton-Bullock has written for the Torsten series wasn’t remotely a difficult one. “I think the rhythmic thing is something I’m so in tune with,” he says. “The strictures of contemporary poetry are very much that you’re considered a failure if you’re dealing in rhymes, whereas in lyrics we can rhyme sometimes. They don’t have to be full-on rhymes, they can be oblique ones or open verse rhymes or whatever, but I find that very liberating. Lyrics are a way of actually making the poetic sensibility accessible.”

One aspect of Torsten’s character that remains a mystery, even to Andy Bell, is his Norwegian heritage. That again came from Ashton-Bullock’s past. “There was a stage of my life where I definitely felt like I’d been born into the wrong, not body, but into the wrong country,” he reveals. “I remember feeling extremely Norwegian while I was growing up for some reason, even though I have no ancestry in Norway, I’d never been there, or anything. I can’t even describe it. I’m just extremely happy when I’m there. It’s a very strong connection, and so Torsten is a half-Norwegian, half-English character, born of a Norwegian merchant seamen, and a mother that lived in Rotherhithe where the boats from Scandinavia came in, in 1905.”

The songs for the new album, some of which appear in Queereteria TV in either abridged form, in full, as solo pieces for Bell or the entire ensemble, are among the most varied and captivating pieces that Chris Frost and Ashton-Bullock have yet composed together. Recorded in Autumn last year when the last Erasure tour had finished, these songs find Bell fully sloughing off any inhibitions he might have had about once again casting aside his pop credentials for this much more theatrical endeavour. Key to his sensational delivery of these songs is an appreciation of Torsten’s fundamental character. “The thing is not to be scared,” says Bell. “It doesn’t matter where your voice goes, or if it breaks. You kind of try to make everything perfect, but you can’t. You’re dealing with this character, this somewhat broken person, so you can’t do that – you have to let it go where it goes.”

One of the most memorable moments in Queereteria TV is the song ‘We Hadn’t Slept For Twenty Years’, delivered by the whole cast but led by a stunning duet between Torsten and Daniel, the voices of Andy Bell and Barney Ashton-Bullock weaving in and out of one another in tender, perfect harmony. This is the first time that Ashton-Bullock’s character has appeared in the series, though his role was trailed in the mournful song ‘Photos Of Daniel’ from the second part of the series.

The on-stage chemistry between the show’s writer and its central character seems to underline that friendship that’s been built between Bell and Ashton-Bullock, while the flashback dance scenes between Tom Mann’s young Torsten and William Spencer’s young Daniel (also choreographed by Spencer) are among the most evocative moments in the show.

The other highlights come when you are subjected to Baldwin’s Lady Domina haughtily quoting Margaret Thatcher or hilariously attempting to make a traybake using whatever detritus might be lying around as she presents a cookery show at short notice. “Lady Domina is really like a critique of the most awful kind of narcissism that any of us that work on the fringes of showbusiness have to endure, just pushed right to the extreme,” explains Ashton-Bullock. “She was an ex-lover of Torsten, a sort of onetime seaside special star, or a very bad cabaret artist.” There are moments throughout Queereteria TV where Baldwin’s ludicrous portrayal of Domina act as brutal moments of absurd levity around which some of the more austere songs are woven, and those unexpected juxtapositions provide some of the keys to Queereteria TV’s captivating presentation.

Becoming Torsten has undoubtedly had a huge impact on Andy Bell and his own approach to songwriting. He has spoken to me twice before about wanting to move in more of a theatrical direction, and you can trace that interest right back to his portrayal of Montresor in The Fall Of The House Of Usher, through Erasure’s 1992 Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour, that fateful appearance at Edinburgh’s Fringe and finally arriving at the profoundly stirring songs written for Erasure’s 2017 opus ‘World Be Gone’.

On the new album and in his delivery during the show, his performance reveals an artist whose metamorphosis is essentially complete; from the soaring ‘A Hundred Years Plus Today’ that opens the collection of songs, to the austere poetry of ‘Lowland Lowriders’, to the bawdy ‘Cabaret Awayday’ to the nod to Brecht / Weill on ‘If We Want To Drink A Little’ (with Hazel O’Connor) here we find Andy Bell utterly – and willingly – transformed, in no small part thanks to Barney Ashton-Bullock’s inventive lyrics and Chris Frost’s endlessly adaptable playing.

Queereteria TV completes its run at Above The Stag on 28 April at Above The Stag. Tickets are available at abovethestag.com. The album ‘Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria’ is out now on Strike Force Entertainment via Cherry Red. A shorter version of this piece first appeared on the Clash website on 2 April

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence & Clash

Daniel Blumberg (Clash interview, 2018)

I have concluded that Daniel Blumberg is probably one of the most important signings to join the Mute roster in its entire forty years of releasing records. His debut solo album, Minus, written after immersing himself in London’s improvised music scene, towers above just about everything else around it, capturing a visionary songwriter and musician tearing up his own rule book for the sake of furthering his art.

To coincide with the release of ‘Family’, an unreleased song from Minus sessions, Clash have today published an interview that I did with Daniel Blumberg in July, wherein he explains the genesis of the album and the impulses that drive him.

In my humble opinion, it tells a story that needed to be told, and provides an insight into the mind of a prodigious talent; I am enormously proud of this feature.

Read the interview here.

Watch the video for ‘Family’ here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Start To Move: A Short History Of 1970s Wire (Clash feature, 2018)

On the occasion of last week’s release of deluxe hardback reissues of Wire’s three 1970s albums, I was asked by Clash to contribute a short piece reflecting on the (perhaps overlooked) importance of those albums. Sections of the piece appeared originally on the first version of the Documentary Evidence website about ten years ago and haven’t ever gone back online; the original piece formed part of a longer bio covering the three chapters in the Wire story.

The Clash feature can be found here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith for Clash

Electronic Sound 35

Issue 35 of Electronic Sound has been out for a while, and this month features a major in-depth look at the work of much-missed German producer Conny Plank.

This issue features the last part of my feature on Alison Moyet, here focussing in on her influences. Such pieces are often really illuminating, particularly – as here – were they cover non-musical influences, and it was no different on this occasion. The interview was conducted in a bar in Chelsea back in May, and is the companion piece to a feature about Moyet’s latest album, Other.

My other major feature for this month was about the weird world of the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, something’s that been running for years but which totally passed me by. My interview with Jeffrey Cranor, co-author of the podcast, was definitely one of the most fun things I’ve done this year.

On the reviews front, I covered Gregg Kowalsky‘s ambient delight L’Orange, L’Orange, the very Night Vale-friendly strangeness of Snapped Ankles‘s Come Play The Trees, a reissue of an overlooked album by Twins Natalia, an absolutely fantastic electronic jazz crossover in the form of Brzzvll‘s Waiho, a more subtle jazz-with-synths hybrid in the form of Chet Doxas‘s Rich In Symbols, the fantastically raw No Luscious Life by Glasgow’s Golden Teacher, and a career-spanning piece on Simian Mobile Disco‘s ADSR reissue and Anthology collection.

My final contribution this month was among the most personally rewarding. For the magazine’s Buried Treasure section, I wrote a piece on Vic Twenty‘s Electrostalinist, an album which sadly seemed to pass everyone by when it was released in 2005. Vic Twenty was originally a duo of Adrian Morris and Angela Penhaligon (Piney Gir), they supported Erasure in 2003, and Mute‘s Daniel Miller set up a new independent label called Credible Sexy Units just to release one solitary single by the duo. Piney left to follow a successful solo career and Morris carried on alone. I drafted a review of the album for Documentary Evidence when it was released but never finished it, much to my regret, and so it was a pleasure to finally give Electrostalinist the coverage it deserved.

Electronic Sound can be purchaed at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound