Posts Tagged ‘Interviews’

Elton John: father figure

Friday, June 1st, 2012

The tantrums and tiaras are a thing of the past for Sir Elton John. These days it’s all about reading his son a bedtime story and championing the pop superstars of tomorrow

The complimentary magazine in my hotel room features Sir Elton John on the cover. Inside, it claims that the singer’s current show at Caesar’s Palace, The Million Dollar Piano, represents a back-to-basics approach. This perhaps tells you more about Las Vegas than it does about the show, which, after all, opens with the fanfare from Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, features the titular piano – covered with 68 LED screens that variously light up with colours reflecting the mood of each song, appear at one point to transform it into an aquarium and at another display the face of Kiki Dee – and comes complete with a gift shop selling not just the usual T-shirts and CDs, but Elton John feather boas, Elton John playing cards and scented candles and underpants with the words I’m Still Standing emblazoned over the crotch.

Backstage, Elton John’s dressing room is the size of a small flat. There are dozens of shelves displaying a vast collection of figurines, a selection of aftershaves and colognes that would shame a department store and, in the toilet, a ceramic liquid soap dispenser in the shape of a large penis. In the middle of it all, nursing a mug of coffee, sits Elton John himself, who turns out to be about as unassuming as it’s possible to be for a man wearing what appear to be golfing shoes encrusted with multi-coloured jewels.

It goes without saying that unassuming is not anadjective frequently associated with Sir Elton John. The public perception of him is still shaped by his partner David Furnish’s remarkable 1997 documentary Tantrums And Tiaras, which depicted a man with a fuse so short as to be microscopic – at one particularly memorable juncture, he loudly threatened to abandon an entire tour and go home because a fan had shouted “Yoo-hoo!” at him while he was playing tennis.

And yet he is charm personified: friendly, uproariously funny, engaged and engaging. Indeed, he’s so likeable, it’s weirdly easy to forget who you’re talking to – particularly when he’s chatting about music, which he does all the time, with genuinely infectious enthusiasm – at least until he says something that reminds you that you’re in the presence of a man who’s sold 250m records, such as when he casually mentions that he has the biggest private collection of photography in the world. He buys “at least” one photograph every week, he says, adding blithely, “But you can pick up a photograph for $600.”

He looks in remarkably good nick for a 65-year-old man who plays 120 shows a year and, aside from an annual, month-long summer break, “doesn’t really take time off”. If he’s not performing live, he’s recording. If he’s not recording, he’s writing musicals or running his management company, which boasts Ed Sheeran, Lily Allen, James Blunt and hotly-tipped Brooklyn hipsters Friends among its roster: he’s not averse, he says, to getting on the telephone and telling a record company to “get their fucking finger out” if he feels his artists aren’t being suitably promoted. Then there’s his film company – he’s planning a biopic of his life story, scripted by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame, possibly starring Justin Timberlake in the lead role – and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Yesterday he phoned Jay-Z to thank him for endorsing gay marriage. On the other hand, his unlikely friendship with Rush Limbaugh, the ultra-conservative radio talk show host at whose wedding he performed, has apparently cooled, after Limbaugh claimed that, like him, Sir Elton wasn’t in favour of gay marriage. “I sent him a harsh email when he said that.”

It occasionally takes its toll – a few days after wemeet, he’s hospitalised with pneumonia and forced to cancel several Las Vegas shows – but as he points out, it’s nothing compared with his workload in the early 70s, when he toured the US constantly, and released seven albums in five years: 1973′s 31m-selling double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in 17 days. Then again, that’s probably just as well, given the well-documented effect that kind of schedule had on him: at the height of his success, in 1975, he attempted suicide, in suitably flamboyant style, by taking an overdose of Valium and throwing himself into a swimming pool while shouting, “I’m going to die!” He claims his desire to work hard actually saved his life in the 80s, when he was ravaged by cocaine addiction and bulimia, going days without sleep or washing, gorging on cockles and ice cream, then throwing it up – “Thank God, during my heaviest addiction I still made records and I still toured, and without that Iwould have been dead by now” – but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was the sheer amount of work he was doing that pushed him into addiction in the first place.

“Even though I was the number one star in the world at that time, I still felt like an outcast, and that’s why I did drugs because I thought, ‘I want to join the gang.’ I was never actually in the gang at school, so when I saw someone doing drugs, Ithought, ‘Oh, maybe I can do that and I’ll be with the big boys.’ I didn’t know who I was off stage. Iwas very safe on stage, but the Elton persona was way ahead of Elton the person. Although I was having relationships and buying the necessary house and stuff, it took me until I got sober to realise – and be told – in the cold light of day that your balance is so out of whack that there’s no time for Elton the person, and you resent him. Istill work a hell of a lot – I do 120 shows a year, I’m still recording a lot, I’m writing musicals, blah blah, blah – but I do have a wonderful private life and it’s found its feet.”

Today, he’s in such great good humour that he’seven tempered his views about some of his bugbears: there is no sign of his supposed feud with Madonna, while he’s even relatively equivocal about the deleterious influence of Simon Cowell’s TV empire. Actually, what he saysis that a singer appearing on The X Factor is on “a road to ruin”, later adding, “in my day, we had Seaside Special, which was shit, but it wasn’t as shit as Britain’s Got Talent”, but given that lasttime an interviewer canvassed his opinions on the subject, he suggested, “I’d rather have mycock bitten off by an Alsatian than watch TheX Factor”, this very much represents a new softly-softly approach.

Anyone searching for reasons for his good mood doesn’t have far to look. One will later come running through the dressing room clad only in anappy, offering some fairly vocal resistance to the notion of having a bath: his and Furnish’s sonZachary, born to a surrogate mother on 25December 2010 and cheerfully described by hisfather as “a little sod”. I’d had word that EltonJohn wasn’t keen on discussing fatherhood with journalists, but I’ve barely sat down before he’s explaining his childcare arrangements – perhaps uniquely in the world of rock’n'roll, Elton John’s pre-gig preparations involve bathing an occasionally recalcitrant 15-month-old boy andreading him a bedtime story – and showing me photos on his iPad. There’s Zachary on his lap at the piano, Zachary kissing his housekeeper’s daughter (“He’s so straight”), Zachary playing football. He seems particularly pleased with the latter, as you might expect from a man whose love of football led him to become chairman and director of Watford FC shortly after coming out asbisexual, with perhaps inevitable results: “Thousands of away supporters singing ‘Don’t sitdown when Elton’s around or you’ll get a penis up your arse,’” he laughs.

He says he worries about Zachary being spoilt. It’s not him and David who are the problem, he says, so much as a global army of well-wishers. “You know what? At Christmas we bought him aswing for the garden and a little slide, and this was his Christmas present and his birthday present from us. But he had so many presents from other people throughout the world, which istouching, but we actually found it obscene. Isaid, ‘This is shocking. It’s four hours we’ve been opening these presents.’” They ended up giving most of the stuff to charity, and are trying to encourage people to donate money to an orphanage in Lesotho instead. “We had nine strollers given to us,” he sighs. “It’s crazy.”

He and Furnish are keen to have more children, partly because he was an only child of an unhappy marriage – “I spent it in my room, listening to music if my parents were rowing” – and partly because of the specific challenges associated withbeing Sir Elton John’s son. “I think it’s difficult to be an only child, and to be an only child of someone famous,” he says. “I want him to have a sibling so he has someone to be with. Iknow when he goes to school there’s going to be an awful lot of pressure, and I know he’s going to have people saying, ‘You don’t have a mummy.’ It’s going to happen. We talked about itbefore wehad him. I want someone to be at his side and back him up. We shall see.”

The other reasons for his current ebullience aresitting quietly on the sofa in his dressing room: Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes, better known as Australian electronic duo Pnau. They are the latest recipients of Sir Elton’s celebrated capacity for musical patronage, his interest piqued when he heard their eponymous 2008 album while on tour in Sydney and proclaimed it,with characteristic understatement, the greatest record he’d heard in 10 years.

He was always a genuine music obsessive. Inthe early 1970s, with his career in full, vertiginous flight, he incredibly found time to help out at a Soho record shop on a Saturday, manning the counter when the assistants went on their lunch break, selling albums by Leonard Cohen and Soft Machine to London’s discerning rock fans: “Maybe they did recognise me,” he frowns when I ask if London’s discerning rock fans weren’t a little disconcerted by finding Captain Fantastic on the till, “but I was just having a ball.” Even in the pits of his addiction, he says, “I would listen to music and cry because Iwas so out of it, but I always listened to music.” But it’s in recent years that people have really noticed. Alone among his superstar peers, Sir Elton seems to spend as much time proselytising about young artists as he does plugging his own records. “If you listen to someone young and fabulous,” he says, “it just gives you so much adrenaline, adrenaline that I had when everything was going my way in the 70s.” He still gets sent a list of new album releases every Monday morning and buys four copies of anything he likes the sound of: one for each of hishomes. He checks the British charts on a daily basis. Furthermore, he acts as a kind of unofficial publicist for younger artists – today he raves about the forthcoming Hot Chip album and Alabama Shakes – and a mentor to everyone fromRufus Wainwright to Lady Gaga. He is, he says, currently a little concerned about the latter. “I look at Gaga and I think, ‘How does she do it?’ Italk to her mum and dad about it. They worry. She is frail, and she doesn’t eat when she should do, and she’s a girl, and it’s tougher for a girl. Sheworks really hard. She will be in Denmark onenight and Saudi Arabia the next. I know how tiny she is and I do worry about her, yes.”

Last time I met him, I was in the company of aScottish dance producer called Mylo, who looked a little gobsmacked when Sir Elton blithely informed him he’d bought more than 100copies of his debut album in order to give them away as presents. This time, however, his interest has extended beyond simply doling out Pnau’s CDs to his friends, although he’s done that, or signing them to his management company, although he’s done that, too. Four years ago, he handed the duo the master tapes from his early 70s albums and told them to do whatever they wanted with them, a turn of events that the duo still seem a little stunned by. “We just kind oflost our minds at that point,” Mayes says, quietly. Littlemore nods: “It took us eight or nine months before we could even touch anything.”

The duo were doing OK in Australia, they say, but after Elton took an interest, things changed considerably. They moved to London at his suggestion. Littlemore’s collaborative project with Luke Steele of indie band The Sleepy Jackson, Empire Of The Sun, sold more than 1mcopies of their album Walking On A Dream. They worked with Robbie Williams, Ellie Goulding and The Killers: Littlemore is currently engaged with both the new Mika album and the latest Cirque Du Soleil show Zarakna, due to fetch up in Las Vegas in August: “I used Elton’s name to get me the job,” he deadpans.

“Well, yes, I wanted him to do it,” Elton says, “because Ithought it would be a horrific thing todo.”

“You were right,” says Littlemore. “Deadright.”

“It was a nightmare, but it made you stronger as a person and a better writer,” Elton says firmly.

And then there’s the new album. It’s not the first time in recent years that Elton John has returned to his early 70s catalogue. Indeed, he’s returned to it again and again, in a way that suggests he’s keen to remind the world that behind the extravagant sunglasses and platform shoes there lurked a serious singer-songwriter, releasing a follow-up to 1975′s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy in 2006′s The Captain And The Kid, and collaborating with his early inspiration, Leon Russell, on 2010′s The Union. Even so, his collaboration with Pnau is abold move, and one you can’t really imagine, say, his long-standing friend and fellow star of Caesar’s Palace, Rod Stewart, sanctioning. For his part, Sir Elton is keen to point out that he’s a long-standing lover of electronic music (an obsession that apparently began in the late 70s, when he listened to German pioneers Kraftwerk while smoking “a big joint” and “thought I’d found God”) and that it wasn’t merely an act of munificence on his part. “I saw the talent there and I thought they can do something really fresh and introduce my music in a different way to people. This is so much more about getting the records downloaded by some 15-year-old kid in Nottingham who might then say, ‘I’ll go and listen to another Elton John track.’”

If he boggles slightly at the duo’s methods, which involved unpicking dozens of his songs and then reshaping their constituent vocal and instrumental parts into new songs – “I can’t comprehend how they did it, it’s like the fucking Sistine Chapel to me” – he is understandably delighted with the results: the album variously sounds like euphoric house music, disco and, in the case of a track called Telegraph To The Afterlife, something not unlike Pink Floyd (“It’s like, pass the bong,” he chuckles). “I’m hearing my music in a different way and I really love it, but I wouldn’t love it if I was hearing the old shit that it was before, because I’d be bored to tears.”

This summer, they’re playing together in Ibiza at the behest of the DJ Pete Tong, a state of affairs that seems simultaneously to horrify and amuse him: one minute he’s saying that he “might go down like a turd in a punchbowl”, the next that it’s going to be great and he’s planning on wearing a fishtail dress for the occasion. “I’ve never been to Ibiza,” he says. “I’ve got my house in France, so I never really go to places like Ibiza, and also Idon’t take drugs, and it’s part of that culture, isn’t it? You have to go to a nightclub and get stoned. The last time I went to a nightclub was inLondon about 10 Christmases ago, and I felt soold. I felt like the Queen Mother coming downthe steps. All I needed was a Dubonnet andsoda in my hand.”

Indeed, there are moments when you’re reminded that for all his loudly-expressed love of dubstep auteur James Blake, Elton John is a pop star from another era. He doesn’t own a computer or an iPod or a mobile phone. “So I couldn’t get hacked!” he cries with delight. “No, in one way, Iwanted to be hacked, because I fucking hate…” Then he thinks better of it and his voice trails off. “Well, you know what I think.”

Has he been following the Leveson inquiry? “I’m clapping my hands with glee. The Sun tried to ruin my life years ago” – in 1987, he successfully sued the Sun for an estimated £1m after they claimed, among other things, that he “was at the centre of a shocking drugs and vice scandal involving teenage rent boys” – “and Ifought them because I had the money to do it and the wherewithal not to be bullied. A year and a half it took me, and I won the apology on the front page. I’m OK, I could afford to fight back. Alot of people couldn’t afford to fight back.”

Then his mood brightens again. There are more immediately pressing things to attend to: a million-dollar piano to play, a small boy to bath. He has another album finished and ready for release called The Diving Board: just him with a bassist and pianist. He talks, a little speculatively, about slowing down when Zachary reaches school age. But the thing is, he has never enjoyed his career more. “If I was burnt out and just doing it to pay the bills, then it would be different– Iwould be very resentful of it – but this is the time when I’m actually enjoying it the most. I know when I come offstage, I’m going to be happy. I can go to bed. I don’t have to stay up all night doing drugs. I’m going to get up in the morning and see my little boy and see my partner. We have a life. You think, ‘How the fuck do you do it?’, but actually, you do. You just manage to do it.”

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30 minutes with … Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

The Hives singer on his love of punk, Andy Kaufman and ninjas

• Album stream: listen to Lex Hives

The Hives are known for their onstage showmanship. Have you worked out a move that could top The Freeze (1)?

Yes. But I will keep it a secret. It’s not perfected yet.

You sound like the Australian cricketer Shane Warne …

I sound like a cricketer? Is that an insult or a compliment?

It’s a compliment. He was the greatest ever spin bowler and before every series he would promise to unveil a new delivery that would astound all observers, but he would keep it secret …

Ah! OK! That’s good. I like that.

Can you give us any clues?

We have one that we excavated from the vaults as well. I guess somebody probably did it in the 60s, but for us it comes from a Finnish band called the Flaming Sideburns. Other people have done it as well (2), but they have ripped it off from us. It’s where we get the entire audience to sit down. It’s a good move as well.

You have already made the best rock’n'roll album ever (3) several times. Doesn’t that make it hard to do it again?

It does, yeah. That’s why it takes us so long. We get a lot of questions: “It’s been four and a half years since your last album. Why did it take so long?” Well, why do you think? Have you heard the album?

You were introduced to UK audiences as Your New Favourite Band (4), but that was quite a long time ago – are you now our Old Favourite Band?

Old sounds like we’ve stopped being your favourite band, and I don’t like the sound of that so I’ll just say no. We are still your favourite band. Your perpetual favourite band.

Are there ever nights when you’re not the greatest rock’n'roll band in the world?

Yeah. It happens. It’s terrible. It’s an awful feeling. After a show where you don’t feel you’ve done your best there is a feeling of nausea and vertigo. And that’s why we constantly have to try to be as good as we possibly can. Because no one wants that feeling of nausea and vertigo. It will follow you until you can redeem yourself by doing a good show.

Can the audience tell when you haven’t been the greatest rock’n'roll band in the world?

Maybe if you’ve seen us a lot you could tell the difference. There is less ecstasy going on: you feel less greatness.

Moving on to the individual members of the Hives. What does Dr Matt Destruction hold his doctorate in? Destruction?

Bass guitar. He claims. I am not absolutely certain where you would get such a degree, but he claims to have one.

It would be very hard to get that postgraduate course funded these days …

Very hard. He could probably teach a course in it, though.

And exactly how dangerous is your drummer, Chris Dangerous?

He can be very dangerous. Apart from the fact that he is an extremely fast and safe driver. So the only time he would not be dangerous is behind the wheel of a car.

Isn’t he getting a little less dangerous now, after nearly 20 years with the Hives?

It’s sort of this thing where you have to project the fact that you can, at any moment, become dangerous. And you get better at it as you get older. If you are rumoured to be dangerous, you don’t have to be dangerous that often. You can just establish: “Hello there, I’m dangerous. Don’t try anything.” And you can just perpetuate the image of being dangerous. He’s practised so much that he can just cruise at altitude.

Vigilantism is widely frowned on. Does your guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem not fear the authorities might clamp down on his activities?

He doesn’t talk a lot, so I don’t know what he’s thinking (5). But one would fear there’s not a big fear of authority there.

I recently had to explain the concept of arson to my children, after telling them about Nicholaus Arson (6) while playing Lex Hives at home (7). Will you indemnify me in case they start burning things down?

Not really. That’s down to your insurance company.

And down to you – in rock’s league of howlers, who is the greater – you or Howlin’ Wolf.

I think Howlin’ Wolf is better than me. But that’s just genetics. I’ve worked harder at it, but he was born with something extra.

Is the great Randy Fitzsimmons (8) still your writer and manager?

Yeah, he’s still involved, but slightly less so. I feel like he trusts us more with every move we make in his spirit, so he doesn’t have to steer us as much as he used to.

And how does he communicate his spirit to you?

Well, it’s a little but like Chris and his dangerousness. We’ve been brought up in his school, so to speak, so we have developed similar aesthetic tastes, so we usually do the right thing. Otherwise he will smack us around a little bit, steer us back to the straight and narrow.

I would hate to imagine him having to email you, or tweet you …

Nah. He’s not a very modern guy.

Has he never got fed up with being behind the scenes?

No. That’s the funny thing – it makes people so nervous, this sort of Big Brother edge, because he doesn’t want to be seen. I think that’s where all the questioning about his existence comes from. People have been religious for millennia, and that takes a leap of faith, but that’s the point. If you don’t believe, you don’t believe.

It’s a very unusual name for a Swede, isn’t it?

Oh, he’s not Swedish. I think I’ve already said too much.

Have the Hives never felt the need to exercise their own creative muscles?

We’ve had our run-ins. There have been ideas about maybe doing something else, but it feels pretty perfect.

Would the Hives – being the greatest rock’n'roll band in the world – be capable of being the greatest at any kind of music they turned their hand to?

We would be capable of playing it. I just don’t know how good it would be. For what we do, it doesn’t really matter that much, but the band consists of some pretty accomplished musicians and we could fiddle with jazz and fiddle with reggae, and a lot of bands seem to do that. But being more stylistically diverse is watering down what’s at the core of what you do, I feel. Even in art, there’s basically just Picasso who could have 50 different phases that were all genius. For most people, it feels more powerful if an artist has something you can immediately recognise, and what you want as a band is to have people saying: “Oh, that band is like the Hives,” not, “Oh, the Hives, they’re like that band …” And in order to get to that point you have to have an identity. And to have an identity you have to be consistent.

Have the Hives ever felt they have had anything in common with the raggare (9)?

At first there was a big rivalry between punks and raggare. We liked a bit of both – but we were more punks, so I don’t think the raggare took any notice of us. But there was a foot in each camp. It’s like in the UK, if you are a rod or a mocker, you can be a little bit mod and a little bit rocker.

You share that love of American cultural heritage …

Absolutely. Most of our influences come from America, and there is something to be said for how much awesomeness has come out of American culture, as young as it is.

How do you feel about the state of American rock’n'roll at the moment?

Pretty shit. But I feel like for a very, very long time it has been pretty shit. There’s always good stuff if you scratch the surface. But if you look at the nominees for best rock Grammy (10), there hasn’t been a rock band there for 10 years. It’s all pop bands with distorted guitars. Nothing blues-based, whatsoever. Well, a few things.

I take it you don’t have a lot of time for emo, then?

Not really. We used to like it in the 90s – there were a few emo things we thought were good and we liked. I liked Jimmy Eat World and Fugazi. Then I hear people say the second Weezer album was an emo album, which I don’t agree with at all. But for what it is now? No. It’s pretty shit. It claims to be rock’n'roll but it’s people constantly whining. Rock’n'roll is 50 drunk people in a room who want to have fun, but there’s something extremely unsexy about it being perverted into middle-class guilt and whining. We like our rock’n'roll sexual.

All those words have had their meaning changed. Punk means something completely different now, doesn’t it?

I have a friend who is writing a big bible on punk aesthetics. The last picture in the book was supposed to be a picture of Demi Moore on the cover of Architectural Digest, where it says “At home with Demi and Ashton” and she’s wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt. That’s basically the end for punk. And David Beckham wearing a Crass T-shirt. It’s all the fault of stylists. Stylists and anyone in trend analysis. That’s the age of the hipster though – you take everything and you turn it into bland.

What does punk rock mean to you, then?

Punk rock to me is an era in rock’n'roll, one of my favourite eras in rock’n'roll. It’s also an attitude, and it’s been called different things – that attitude has existed probably since the youth gangs of Roman times. But my version of rebellion in puberty was punk rock, so it’s probably the musical genre that’s closest to my heart.

Over the past couple of albums the Hives have evolved. Do the gods of rock’n'roll look kindly on evolution?

I guess it depends. But yes. We do what we need to do in order to feel excited about playing rock’n'roll, and that sometimes means we need to stretch it as far as we can. I think The Black and White Album (11) was our way of going into space. But once we got there it was a little cold and lonely. So therefore now we have travelled to the Earth’s core. I think Lex Hives is probably our most classic rock’n'roll album. So I think the gods of rock’n'roll are smiling on us at the moment.

You have become adept at provoking crowds. Has it ever gone horribly wrong?

It has. It used to go horribly wrong all the time, when there were fewer people at the shows. Then it becomes more personal to the people you’re baiting. The crowds we used to play to – 20 punks – would have no issue with walking up on stage trying to fight us. You get some boos. But horribly wrong? You have to look it from an Andy Kaufman (12) perspective, where going horribly wrong becomes part of the art. Any reaction is better than no reaction.

It’s interesting you mention Andy Kaufman: do you feel kinship with the notion of playing absurdist pranks on your audience and daring them to get it?

We do feel like that, yes. Some of it comes from comedians, but comedians that are not necessarily funny. Andy Kaufman might be the best example – as long as he liked it, he didn’t really care what was going on. He seemed a little crazy too. Lenny Bruce, too – very confrontational standup comedians we took a few things from.

Is it hard to be an exciting band when rock’n'roll becomes a career rather than just an explosion of self-expression?

Everyone has that first moment, but if you don’t quit then invariably there is a career after that. And I think that career is sometimes underestimated. People always say: “Oh they were good once.” Like the Rolling Stones. First people said: “Oh they were good in 66.” Then people said: “Oh they were better in 71.” Then: “Oh they were also pretty good in 78.” If you are band for a really long time you will have peaks and valleys, and the first peak will be most noticeable because then you are coming from nothing. But I also feel what happens after the explosion can be underestimated. But the first time is always the first time: you’re worse at it, but it’s gonna feel pretty exciting.

Finally, how important are ninjas (13) to rock’n'roll, and should more rock’n'roll bands employ ninjas?

The skills that are required to be a ninja are also the skills that are required to be a good backline tech, so it’s worked really well for us. But I fear other bands probably shouldn’t, because then we’d have to beat them up.

And is a ninja more useful than, say, a samurai?

Yeah, the ninjas are just hired guns. You pay them and they do their jobs. Also, their agility and ballet techniques and rappelling are more useful to us than a samurai just waving their sword around.


(1) Mid-song, the Hives all, well, freeze. Then they start again. It looks great, and it costs nothing.

(2) You can see the Flaming Sideburns doing it here. The Decemberists do it, too. Come on, Howlin’ Pelle, you can do better than this.

(3) For the purposes of this interview, we will be taking all the Hives’ claims about themselves and their greatness absolutely literally. We leave it to you to decide whether or not to accept them.

(4) The 2002 compilation on Alan McGee’s Poptones label that introduced them to Britain.

(5) He was doing a round of interviews, so presumably he does talk sometimes.

(6) He’s actually Howlin’ Pelle’s brother.

(7) Actually, I didn’t. But given that the Hives are prone to creating their own mythologies, why can’t interviewers, too?

(8) The Hives have always claimed their songs are written and their activities directed by this mysterious svengali. No one believes them. One journalist, with more time than sense, gave it the Woodward and Bernstein treatment and disovered Fitzsimmons was a pseudonym registered to Nicholaus Arson. In other news, the pope is Catholic. And have you heard what bears do?

(9) The Swedish cult obsessed with 50s Americana.

(10) The actual award for best rock album appears to be given in turn to Foo Fighters and Green Day.

(11) The 2007 album that saw them working with hip-hop production team the Neptunes, and which did not make them the biggest band in the world.

(12) Have you seen the film Man on the Moon? No? Go and watch it. It’ll tell you all you need to know about Andy Kaufman.

(13) The Hives’ roadies are all ninjas. Or, possibly, people dressed as ninjas.

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Sébastien Tellier: ‘In France we are very free with sex’

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

The French singer on the evolution of his country’s music, the good side of vice, and his favourite sounds of the moment

Sébastien Tellier is perhaps the archetypal French pop star: louche yet naive, sensitive yet flippant, proud of his French heritage but determined to sing mostly in English to reach a wider audience. He first rose to prominence in 2004 with his mellifluous, lovelorn anthem La Ritournelle, while subsequent albums Politics, and Sexuality (produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) grappled with the big issues facing mankind in his own charmingly candid way. His current effort, My God is Blue, explores his spiritual side. In 2008 he was chosen to represent France in the Eurovision song contest, finishing 19th with his song Divine. He lives in Paris.

Bonjour Sébastien. Did you always want to be a pop singer?

Yes, because I was very bad at school, and all the jobs I could imagine were awful, like working in the office or driving a bus. Luckily, my parents never told me I had to become a doctor or a teacher. They were very happy for me to be a musician. So for me it was a very tranquil path, and it was easy to choose music.

Was it difficult to imagine how you could make it in the pop world, given the lack of French role models in the 80s?

Yes, it felt very out of reach. In France we have a very weird vision of music. For example, a French person doesn’t listen to the bass or the fire of the drums – they just listen to the lyrics. When I was a teenager, my dream was to be an American guy and sing for a band like Guns N’ Roses. But for a French person, it’s really hard to be in contact with American or English bands, because you guys are already so good at that type of music.

So how did you go about developing a style that you thought would appeal outside France?

My solution was to try to understand why English and American pop music was so good and French pop music was so bad, and try to be different from my countrymen. Of course, we’ve had great singers like Serge Gainsbourg and Christophe and Michel Polnareff … I tried to just keep the sexy side of French music and to forget all the rest.

Have French and British music tastes become less polarised?

Yes, because now it’s easier to travel to different countries and, of course, everyone can use the internet to exchange cultural ideas. It’s easier now for a French guy to be an international musician.

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Do you think you have played a part in that coming together? Do you feel your success could be an inspiration to budding French pop musicians?

I hope so. That would be a big pleasure for me. I am the slave of other artists like Salvador Dalí or Stevie Wonder, so it would be a dream for me if one day I could be like that for other musicians. For me it’s important to give something back. When I play music, it’s not for music or glory, but to burn the mind of others – to have an influence on the music of the future.

Your music, particularly on the Sexuality album, is renowned for being quite raunchy. Is that a characteristic you might say is quintessentially French?

It’s true that in our country we are very free with sex. It is common to see naked women on the TV, and it was easy to shoot my video for Cochon Ville with a lot of naked people. I’m sure it would be very hard to do that in California, for example. In France it can be classy to talk about sex, and I think that is not the same with all the countries in the world. But the sexual side of the French character exists in the spirit and the soul – it is still not so common to find music that talks about sex. My message is that vice can be good as well as bad – you can take pleasure from vice. Cochon Ville is a message of freedom and I try to say to everyone: “Don’t forget the vice! It’s not just bad, there is a good side of vice.”

Whether you’re talking about sexuality or spirituality, your lyrics tend to be frank and open, almost naively so. Is that another quintessentially French quality?

I don’t know. It’s just that, for me, to make good music, you have to discover something when you compose. That’s why I like to choose topics that are bigger than me. On this album [My God is Blue] I tried to discover the spiritual side of life and before I tried to discover the sexual side of life, and before that the political side. I try to be a beginner for ever because that way you always sound fresh.

Do you still live in the business district of Paris?

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Yes. I don’t know why, but I don’t like the bohemian side of big cities. Of course it’s cute and you have a lot of little shops, but you recognise every day the same people. It’s like a village. For me, I’m very happy in an impersonal neighbourhood where nobody says hello. I feel alone, and that’s a very comfortable feeling.

Does that sense of isolation within the city help you to focus on writing music?

Of course. I believe that when you’re thinking, electricity goes out of your brain. When there are a lot of other people thinking around you, all this energy creates a big ball with no point. So I like to use my brain when the electricity around me is quiet. At night, after seven or eight, my neighbourhood is completely empty, so it’s perfect.

For that reason, could you see yourself moving out of Paris to the countryside?

One day I will leave Paris. Maybe I’ll live in Normandy. I think it’s the best place in the world to create music because it’s a land out of time. Everything is sweet and beautiful: the cheese is wonderful, the beef is completely gorgeous. So I think that’s the life for me, but I’m too young for the countryside yet. Maybe when I’m 40 I’ll leave the city.

How did your Eurovision performance go down in France? Was there ever a danger that people might think you were just taking the pee pee?

Eurovision was a fantastic experience. First, it was a wonderful party, but also it was a big opportunity for me to sing my song in front of millions of people. And it really gave me a new audience. Before, I played in front of intellectual people between 30 and 40. After Eurovision, I had young girls coming to my shows just to dance and sing and have fun. Luckily, my old audience understood why I did Eurovision, so for me it’s not something shameful. It was a totally positive experience.

Which other French bands and producers do you rate?

I’m sure you know Justice. I love SebastiAn, the DJ from Ed Banger. I love Kavinsky, and Daft Punk of course – I’m very excited about their new album. Now the French scene is a very good scene – it’s always trying to create something new.

Most of the artists you mention are electro producers, whereas you’re a more old-fashioned kind of performer …

Yes. The father of my grandfather was a clown working in the circus, so I try to keep the good tradition of showbusiness alive. Performance is an eternal value. But I don’t forget to be modern. I’m always trying to discover the future.

• For more information on certain destinations, visit our Eurostar Music Discovery site, published in association with Eurostar

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‘Joey Ramone sings these songs beautifully’

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

The late Ramones singer’s brother, Mickey Leigh, talks about the 10-year struggle to release a posthumous collection of his work

Waiting outside a record company office in mid-town Manhattan, it’s not hard to identify Mickey Leigh as he lopes down the street. Sure enough, he’s the guy in drainpipe jeans, a black leather jacket and a mop of unruly hair, a look that would be be suspect on a figure of his age if it wasn’t for the fact that he helped pioneer it: he’s the younger brother of Joey Ramone, the Ramones singer who died after a six-year struggle against lymphatic cancer at the age of 49 in April 2001.

A posthumous Joey Ramone album, Don’t Worry About Me, was released the following year. Since then Leigh has been working on the release of a sequel: 15 songs written by Joey, some of them dating as far back as 1977, which he recorded as demos. With overdubs provided by fans and old friends, including members of Cheap Trick and the Dictators, these have now been brought to life. But as Leigh tells it, in the record company’s office, over black coffee, it’s not been an easy project.

Why has the record taken this long to make?

Well, it’s been a 10-year struggle: there have been a lot of legal issues. Even when I had the material – and some songs were written for Ramones, but they rejected them, which baffles me, and some songs were left over from his first solo album – there were differences of opinion over what to do with it. I wanted to work with people who knew him – who had the right attitude and spirit. I’d even discussed the idea with Phil Spector when Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [after Joey died, in 2001] – an honour I was meant to accept on my brother’s behalf, but that’s a whole other drama.

Some other people wanted to get some big names and bands involved, but I wanted to keep the focus on Joey, not on Dave Grohl or whoever. So I said, give it a try. Then later it would be: “So … how you doing with that? Oh, they want a fortune? Oh really?! Hah hah!” So it went back to the way I envisioned it, working with real New York City guys.

It’s very diverse. People will be surprised by some of the material. But I can’t imagine even hardcore Ramones fans not liking it because all the producers did a great job, they’re great songs … and Joey sings them beautifully.

What kind of person was your brother?

Well, he was there when I first opened my eyes, so I know him as my brother, not as “Joey Ramone” – but you’re talking about a very complex person.

There was a huge transformation when the band became famous, but it was a beautiful thing to see because growing up he was very shy … Not so much reclusive, by choice … but because he grew up so fast, and was so tall and skinny and a little different from everyone else, he took a lot of teasing, a lot of people pointing and laughing, a lot of bullying: he was kind of in his shell. So to see him gaining confidence in himself was great … although it was still slow, because he was still in a band with a bunch of guys from the neighbourhood, like John [Cummings – later known as Johnny Ramone], who were intimidating personalities.

It was a different dynamic from most bands, where the singer is the spokesman and the focal point. In this band, there were other forces – inside and out – that kept him back in that personality he had growing up. But he overcame that as well, it just took a while.

Tell me about the start of Ramones.

I’d known Tommy [Erdelyi, later the band's manager, then drummer] and John since I was 10 years old. I was in a band with them when I was 14, playing cover songs mostly. My brother didn’t know them until later.

Then a couple of years before Ramones started, I went to play in Iceland, with a different covers band. I’d left an acoustic guitar in the house and when I came back it had these scratches on it. Joey played drums, he never sang except perhaps, say, in the car with my father … but I said, I see you’ve been playing my guitar, and he asked me if I could teach him to play. He was a leftie, I’m a rightie, so I knew it could be problematic, so I taught him how to play on just the bottom strings. On the bottom two strings he could form the makings of a chord, and whatever melody you sang above, he could determine whether it was a major or a minor chord … Stuff he didn’t really have to know, but he could do it with one finger. And he wrote these songs … things like I Don’t Care and Here Today Gone Tomorrow.

So I’d heard those songs already – they were the seeds of what Ramones … I don’t want to say a formula, but it became a part of the Ramones sound.

I first saw my brother sing in the band he was in prior to Ramones – this glam band called Sniper – and I was just blown away. It was the first time I’d seen him as a frontman on stage – I was used to him sitting in the corner of our bedroom, with his hands in his hair, very quiet. And there was on stage: like a lion. But he was also wearing purple lavender platform boots.

My Mom had an art gallery – one of the very few in Forest Hills, which is a very Jewish neighbourhood [in Queens in New York]; I mean, she didn’t just sell paintings of rabbis at the wailing wall, she sold real art – and we used to rehearse in the basement. So one day, I walked in there. I knew [Joey, John Cummings and Douglas Colvin, who now became Dee Dee Ramone] were starting this band but I’d never heard them play. My brother was the drummer at the time. They were playing songs he had written and things like Beat on the Brat.

I got what it was going to be: it was just as simple as it could be. And it was refreshing, even though it was so messy. Maybe that’s why it was refreshing, because everything else at the time was so slick, with these virtuoso half-hour solos, everything so polished. And it was funny. Because the words were just things we’d say hanging out in the schoolyard. “You’re a loudmouth, baby … I’m gonna beat you up.” It was just fun … you’d never hear people write that in a song! It was entertaining to me immediately.

The title of the new record – Ya Know? – sounds like the same sort of thing

There were some other ideas for the title being bandied about, and I was texting a friend to ask what he thought, and he replied along the lines of “I’m not really sure they’re true to Joey’s personality…” – and he signed it “Ya know.” And I thought, that’s it – it’s just perfect.

What was it like growing up in Queens at that time?

In the late 60s and early 70s, when we grew up, there were still people combing their hair back with grease and into Elvis and doo wop. Things were nothing like they are in society now. Today, every style is instant. Back then, there was this big separation: you were either a jock or a freak … there were a select few of us who were freaks, and the majority of kids were more into the status quo and being rewarded for being good.

Also, my brother had some emotional problems growing up, a really severe case of OCD, and living in the same room as someone like that – we shared a bedroom – I knew I was not going to have a normal life.

So, we were outcasts, and we knew it.

Ramones made their name at clubs such as CBGBs on the Lower East Side in New York. What was that part of the city like at that time?

Downtown New York had been on the decline since the 50s. Alphabet City was a notorious drug haven, the Bowery was all hookers and alcoholics – it was dangerous. It took an area like that for something like [Ramones] to be able to happen. CBGBs was a place where you could make your own character. Everything else was discotheques and rich people …

Everything’s much more sanitised now, isn’t it?

Punk has become so polished and packaged. The Bowery is now like a wild west tourist attraction. They should make up a show: punks having fights with junkies – and the tourists could come and watch. “OK, next show at four o’clock!”

When did you become aware of punk in England?

Not that long after things at CBGBs started flourishing in 1975. I’d become the Ramones roadie and we went to England for the first time in 1976. We knew about bands such as the Sex Pistols. July fourth, Ramones played at the Roundhouse, opening for the Flamin’ Groovies, and the next night at Dingwalls we ran into the Clash.

How well did you relate to your brother?

It could be problematic, because he’d grown up never being accepted whereas I did good at school, skipping grades and getting pats on the back – and he was where he was. When the tables turned, he enjoyed it, thankfully so, but sometimes he went a little overboard. Maybe he got a little bit too cocky sometimes and it maybe seemed like he was taking advantage of his status at times. Even with our Mom.

I seemed to be the only person who would talk to him like I always did, like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And there were some other issues between us, regarding songwriting and things like that. But it’s hard for people who attain that level of success and fame to not get a little overwhelmed with themselves.

I’d try and bring him back down to earth. And the big difference between him and these other successful people: he always stayed pretty true to who he was, more than most.

Was Joey worried that in the eyes of some, the Ramones sound, the whole thing, was reduced over time to a caricature?

It’s the reason why he quit, so he says. And I don’t doubt it. “I don’t want to keep with this bowl haircut and playing these same sort of songs.” It was hard to keep that formula going. Those original songs still sound fresh and exciting. Personally, I lost interest after … well, I shouldn’t say when. I don’t want to discourage people who just started listening to Ramones.

How satisyfing is it for you that this new record is finally happening?

It feels good and it feels bad. That’s the first thing I always have to think: that I’m only doing this because he’s not here. And it’s sad, but I have to see it through for him. He entrusted me with this responsibility. I don’t have to do any of it: I could just sit back and collect cheques and not have to sit up all night and get into these battles with people, but I have to.

He never expected to die. He was fighting to the last day, he always thought he was going to beat it, and get back on stage.

When two brothers are fighting and one says “my brother’s an asshole…” and that person happens to be Joey Ramone, then everyone says you’re an asshole. And after he passed away, there were some people who appointed themselves his protector, and said ah, he didn’t want it this way, or that way. Well, if he didn’t want it this way or that way, he would have said.

• Ya Know? is released on 30 May on BMG Rights Management.

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Emeli Sandé: soundtrack of my life

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

The English-Zambian singer-songwriter from Aberdeenshire on growing up with Eternal and Tracy Chapman and her latest love, Swedish electronica band Little Dragon

Brittany Howard, lead singer of blues-rock stompers Alabama Shakes, has been making music since she was 13. Aged 15, she trusted good friend (and bassist) Zac Cockrell enough to listen to it and from there the band grew. The four-piece have since released a live single through Jack White’s Third Man label and a much-heralded debut album, Boys & Girls, that went top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.


Power of a Woman by Eternal (1995)

When I was young I was obsessed with the girl band Eternal. They stood out because everybody else I’d been listening to was from America, and they had this high energy and really strong voices – you could tell they came from a gospel background. Power of a Woman was a big song when I was six or seven – I remember singing it and doing little dance routines at school with my friends. I nagged my mum for tickets to see them at Aberdeen Exhibition Centre for ages, and that concert was one of the best nights of my life, though I got upset at the beginning because I was too short to see over the people in front of us.


Why? (The King of Love is Dead) byNinaSimone (1968)

The first time I heard Nina Simone was when I was a wee bit older, about eight or nine. My dad played this song to me while we were in the car waiting for my mum. He probably didn’t think anything of it, but for me the whole world stopped. I didn’t even know if it was a male or female voice but I was blown away by Simone’s delivery and tone. The lyrics of the song are very poetic – it was written after Martin Luther King died, and it was a recording of a live perfo rmance so you could feel that the atmosphere must have been emotional and poignant. I think that was the moment I started branching away from the young pop stuff and understanding what being an artist meant.


Fast Car by Tracy Chapman (1988)

Once I’d heard Nina, I was really looking out for other singers of that calibre. I visit Montenegro quite a lot – my fiance’s from there – and on my second trip, Fast Car came on the radio. It was the first time I’d really listened to the lyrics and understood the poetry of the song. When you’re in a different country, music is taken out of context and it can be like you’re hearing it for the first time. I realised this was a pop song that everybody knows and respects, that’s played in countries all over the world. It opened my eyes to the idea that you can be artistic and still make pop music.


The Flowers by Regina Spektor (2004)

Before I went to uni Iworked in Virgin Megastore in Aberdeen. While there, I found Regina Spektor via Tori Amos, who I was a big fan of. On her third album there’s a song called The Flowers, which I fell in love with because of its soul and the mix of her classical style with abstract lyrics. It’s such a beautiful piece of music. It reminds me of my first date and my first kiss, on New Year’s Eve. I kept playing this song over and over again as I was preparing to go out that night, and it still sticks with me.


Bach Cello Suites 1 & 2 (1717-23)

Leaving medical school and moving to London to pursue music was a big decision, and after six months there, though I loved creating music, I really started missing higher education and using my brain in an academic way. So I began to learn to play the cello. I got obsessed with practising, and I played the Bach cello suites all the time, to the point where I annoyed everybody around me. I’d never played a string instrument before but I loved the feeling of knowing that your practice is really getting you somewhere.


Ritual Union by Little Dragon (2011)

The first time I went on Later… with Jools Holland, Little Dragon were on the stage next to me. I love how free the lead singer Yukimi Nagano is with the music. I’ve been playing their album Ritual Union; [as a musician] youcan get really caught up in your own way of writing, and it’s so cool to listen to something completely different. Hervoice is soulful, but sheuses it in such a minimal way. It’sthe type of music that makes you feel like you’re the coolest person, evenif you’rejust listening to it walking down the street.

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