I grew up in a small town. Well, a small city, to be more accurate. Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada. In Saskatchewan, you need at least 5,000 people to be a city. When I was born, in *mumbles*, there were 9,000ish in Estevan. In 2021, 10,000ish.
I lived in a cross between Little House on the Prairie and a Bruce Springsteen song.
Mediocre Mile starts there, or somewhere very like it. It’s a story of drifters, of disenchanted wait staff and fleeting romance.
Only it’s set in the real world. Or my version of it – I admit your mileage may vary. No sweeping getways in fuel-guzzling automobiles. It ‘wasn’t a romance for the ages. The sex was hardly worth the sweat.‘
It has existed in a great many versions over the 10 or so years since I wrote it. But it has always come back to being a country song played in a not-very-country-way. I love it very much. It contains some of the lyrics of which I’m most proud, especially as, in the context of Idiopath, it departs from the album’s primary narrative, but, nonetheless, shares its overall concerns. The many ways in which people excite and disappoint each other. The ludicrous way in which hearts behave.
Frank and Hannah, I salute you. I am you.
It’s hard to know where to start with our Mediocre Mile cover artist, Alan Jenkins. He was behind the desk for the very first ist EP, The Adult Tree, for numerous demo sessions AND for our album King Martha. Those personal connections, however, are but the tip of the iceberg. One of the most eclectic, eccentric and electric artists in the world, he has traded as or been a member of The Deep Freeze Mice, The Thurston Lava Tube, The Chrysanthemums, The Creams and, as here, Alan Jenkins & The Kettering Vampires. And that’s not to mention the amazing stuff he’s issued sans moniker and, no doubt, a thousand other variations I’ve forgotten.
I’d be a fan for his song titles alone. The Tuesday Cat Club. No Periscope will Help you Drive your Car. As If We Were Eating Bagels.Duet for Guitar and Toy Animal. I mean, you can’t NOT like that.
Thankfully, the music is just as intriguing, alarming and weird.
I first asked Alan if he would mind providing a vocal part for the song “Careful How You Go”, which he did, icing the cake with the bonus of a perfect organ part.
When he agreed to cover “Mediocre Mile” I was delighted.
When he sent me his version, I laughed for a week. In the best possible way. For starters, it was as groovy (said, obviously, in the style of Bruce Campbell) as I’d hoped.
It was also in Italian. Which I was not expecting, but somehow made perfect sense.
Franklin e Hannah, in stile continentale.
Alan’s version is called La Viale Dei Perduti. Which translates as “The Avenue of the Lost”. Please, someone make that movie. In black & white, on 16mm film.
First of all, a quick explanation of ‘Smells of Cake’. That’s the name with which I’ve christened my home studio. It is a studio in so much as a lot of Idiopath was recorded there. It also, more accurately, one corner of my bedroom.
What a time to be alive.
Anyway, it struck me that at SOME point, I’m going to have to play the 33 1/3 songs that make up the record live. And because I wrote a lot of them in the studio rather than – as in times past – in a rehearsal room with a band, I should probably start learning them properly.
THEN it occurred to me that I may as well record the results as a way of – hopefully – keeping you entertained while I do the dirty business of trying to flog records.
So, here’s the lead single “That’s More Like It” in acoustic form and in glorious monochrome, the better to disguise my increasing decreptiude.
“That’s More Like It” is the first single to be released from Idiopath, and one of the songs that goes back to my original attempt to concoct a solo album back in 2011. In fact, the recording you hear on the album and single is a hybrid of the original takes from over a decade ago and retakes made during the production of Idiopath. It really does stretch across the years.
I created several unnecessary stumbling blocks for myself, when I first started recording a follow-up to ist’s Toothpick Bridge. The first was my initial reluctance to involve anyone from the band in its production – I wanted to prove I could do it on my own. As I had been surrounded by exception musicians and producers for the previous 10 years – in the case of Toothpick Bridge, the peerless Jay Burnett – what this meant in practice was that I was fumbling around in the dark with boxing gloves on. And while this is often what my playing sounds like anyway, I was flailing and grieving at the same time. Not a recipe for musical coherence.
So, slowly, the messages began to creep out. Would you like to…? Could you possibly…? For the love of God… help me!
Mark “Flash” Haynes has been my drummer for over 20 years. He thinks I am his singer, but we have agreed to disagree. Best of all, like all of my favourite drummers, he is genre-agnostic. He can get loud and rowdy with the best of them (as here). He can also be subtle, unexpected or goddamn weird as the song requires. He’s a songwriter’s drummer and a hell of a composer/arranger in his own right.
When it came to “That’s More Like It” I knew I needed him back. I think I probably laid out a trail of wine bottles and Smarties leading into the studio. There we were joined by Pete James on bass. Eventually I also drafted in Chris Ilett (a founding member of it) on many loud guitars. The last of these would go on to co-produce Idiopath in its current form.
It was noisy, raucous and oddly joyful for such a sinister song. Trouble is, it was one of the few tracks in those early sessions that I managed to make sound anything like music.
Again, I revisited the song in prep for Idiopath and found I wanted to make some changes lyrically. The initial lyric was a quite brutal and less than subtle examination of the animal lurking beneath every civilised veneer. But once more, I was in a different headspace when I came back to it. It no longer seemed funny to be cruel, even ironically. Edgy, I have learned, is too often a simile for “can’t be arsed to do the work.”
Thankfully, the core idea was easily transformed into the wail of an insecure man child, so desperate for attention that he’ll express any controversial idea going, just to feel important. I really hope it’s a “there for but for the grace of” proposition for me personally, but I’m willing to be contradicted.
There’s quite a lot of broken heart material on this record, so these broadcasts from the other part of my brain are essential in making the record whole, in terms of being the best representation of me, now, that I knew how to make.
It also allowed me to come full circle in terms of release. The single (backed with “Sweet” – on which more later) is being released as a limited edition 7″ vinyl via an imprint of my/ist’s very first record company Pink Box (now better known for its excellent Punk Fox catalogue.) Chris & Sue Garland have always been champions of independent music and have – without even a single eyelash turned in the direction of making a dime out of it – have given a leg up to so many bands and artists over the years, it’s quite astonishing. They love music. That’s why they release it. I was already coming home to music, coming home to Scatola Rosa (Google Translate is your friend) was a significant bonus. There will be more details on the single very soon.
In the meantime, all of this is to one purpose – we need your support to make this whole ludicrously large project work. The pre-order window lasts until the end of June, during which we need to sell 300 copies. Thank you to all of you who have already pre-ordered. To everyone else, I’m batting my eyelashes seductively. Look away if you must.
That’s more like it.
I’ve met a lot of amazing singers and songwriters over the years. The only downside to that is that when it comes to collaborating, we basically do the same job. I’ve got round it a couple of times by sitting in the producer’s chair – basically just an excuse to play in a different sandbox. My production aim has always been to assist the artist in sounding like themselves. And, for reasons best known to myself, encouraging the use of Hammond organs, regardless of genre (I like Hammond organs).
One of my favorite projects was being behind (and to the left of) the desk for The Smears’ High in High Heels album. Emma O’Neill, who fronted the band, is an extraordinary talent and the fact that they let me add backing vocals on “Party Song” was an honour I swear was offered willingly.
Long story short, when I was casting around for someone kick-ass, smart and downright goddamn cool to take “That’s More Like It” to another place, Emma was my first port-of-call. That she answered said call was a rock ‘n’ roll dream come true.
We’ll be debuting her version in the next few weeks, so keep an ear out. You won’t have to listen too hard – I expect it’ll be loud.
The story behind “The X-Factory” is complicated and, I think, interesting. First of, it was always intended to be the bastard child of Del Amitri’s Nothing Ever Happens and And If Venice is Sinking by my beloved Spirit of the West – adopted and raised by the first half of Blood On the Tracks. Of course, it almost certainly doesn’t sound like any of that now, which is my blessing and my curse.
It was written and, indeed, released in a very different version, while I was still in ist. I was, shall we say, less than enamoured of reality television and, in particular, singing competitions. I was equally fond of meaningless publicity exercises, in the hopes of attracting attention to our little window of the musical world.
We released it as “Anonymous” when that was still a convenient nom de plume and not so much a V for Vendetta style nom de guerre. I’ve had a look and there’s not much trace of the original version anywhere. Maybe the new style Anonymous don’t like folky story songs.
We took a typically idiosyncratic approach to the songs, some of us swapping instruments and recording it, in full lo-fi style, in our then rehearsal room. I found the recording recently. It has tremendous charm. It shouldn’t have been thrown away.
So, when I started work on Idiopath, I was determined to give it another lease of life.
It was interesting to revisit something I’d written back in my angriest and least medicated days. I’m still less than enamoured by singing competitions, but I do try to save my full fury for things of true importance. Also, I’m of the opinion – most of the time – that if people like something, then it’s none of my business. Life is short, brutal and cruel – take your comforts – kindly and consensually – where you will. More power to your various arms.
However… HOWEVER… there remains something insidious in the format of those shows. The parade of those desperate for their chance – been there, bought the overpriced T-Shirt – and vulnerable to the “good TV” approach of their dismissal and criticism by judges.
I could write an entirely different blog about my feelings on public criticism, but this is neither the time or place. Also, I get a little mouth frothy and no one wants to see that.
I found Tracey – my character in search of her dream – far more sympathetic when I returned to her. I wanted things to turn out well for her, and remained worried that they wouldn’t. I didn’t alter much lyrically in the new version, as I have in other songs of an older vintage. In this case, I did, however, change one line that had always scanned weirdly and replaced it with something that I think summed up my more nuanced feelings about the characters within.
“Queued up alongside the hopeless and hopeful. Each of them desperate to dig themselves out of a hole. Tell the whole damn world where they can go.”
That’s a feeling I understand. I’ve been Tracey. Far more often than I would once have admitted.
On the flip side, somewhere in between growling and purring, I was once, some years ago, invited to audition for The Voice, when it came through my adopted city of Leicester.
I went along with a sense of mischief and played this song as my audition piece.
They invited me back for a second audition.
I declined. Either they hadn’t got the joke, or they had and thought it might make “good TV”.
Which says something about something.
At the time of writing, we are still looking for the right artist to cover this one. So, you know, if that’s you or someone you know, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Music by Kenton Hall, Mark Haynes & Brett Richardson
Maybe is a track that represents one of the key ways in which Idiopath evolved, with a third of its songs being written a decade before the others. Maybe is one of the few songs I wrote in between. Initially intended as the B-Side for a one-off song I wrote for a film in which I was acting, the wonderful (and wonderfully-named) John Lennon’s Turd by Phil Peel, it fell by the wayside and I’m glad it did.
It had been written as a sort of modern day Norwegian Wood, a tale of a man who gets up the Dutch courage and self delusion to approach a woman in a bar, only to discover she is happily with her girlfriend and has no interest in him on a number of counts.
It was light, a little comic – the sort of character sketches I enjoy dabbling in from time to time – and we came away with sympathy for the poor, deluded soul.
When I came back to the song as a contender for Idiopath, I saw him completely differently. This was a character marching across a bar and putting himself into the space of someone who has not invited it in the slightest – fantasising all the way about how she is going to fall for his charms, such as they are.
I sensed in him that despicable male anger and entitlement that too often stems from insecurity and almost always manifests as rank misogyny. That most frightening of creatures – the nice guy, the bookish guy, bitter that his supposed superiority isn’t prized to the degree he imagines himself deserving. I fear my younger self, though he’d have been mortified at the accusation, being intellectually on the side of equality, slid into that character more than once.
I’m a shy person, though most of my friends laugh at the idea, with whatever wildly extroverted behaviour I’ve exhibited over the years coming courtesy of the manic side of bipolar disorder. In order to do my job as a performer, I wrapped myself up in a persona – a rock ‘n’ roll persona, gag – to insulate myself against embarrassment, against my poor self esteem, against my terrible body image, against all of the damage done by mental illness and an abusive childhood.
And do you know what? That doesn’t reduce the effect of any of the times I behaved like an asshole.
Now that I was older and occasionally more mature, my sympathies no longer lay with my narrator. So I rewrote. I leant into that. I allowed him to gradually show his true face, in the hopes of illustrating just how hideously easy it is to think you’re owed something by other people, because of pain in which they played no part.
That’s the song ‘Maybe’ became. And I’m much prouder of it as a result – though Christ I wish there had been no need to write it.
Each song on the album has also been covered by a wonderful artist – encouraged to make the song their own, without interference from muggins here. I have mostly kept to that promise.
I was delighted when Findley Webster agreed to tackle Maybe. She is a fantastic performer and songwriter, who I knew would bring the track to life in a completely different way. I also knew that she’d be able to approach the material from a very different perspective, which could only be to its benefit.
I can’t stress how much I’m looking forward to hearing it in her voice. We’ve been on parallel music paths for many years and never really had a chance to work together until now. That’s been one of the real pleasures of this project. Not least that these extraordinary artists agreed to do it. For a songwriter, that’s hairs on the back of the neck stuff.
We’ll be revealing her take as soon as it’s ready, but for now, why not add some Findley to your ears? I recommend her excellent album Kiss My Tiara.
So – yes – I have an album coming out. The first I’ve released in – gulp – 14 years.
I didn’t intend to leave it that long – I’m almost certain of it. I had spent the previous decade and a half in either a full-time relationship or a flirtatious separation with the band ist. From 2000 and 2010, two line-ups of the band that formed the core of my identity tore a strip off the country and each other in search of music and in spite of madness. And at our best, frankly, we were pretty damn good.
Still, being in a band is a emotional rollercoaster at the best of times, and for the mentally miswired such as myself, that only gets magnified. We decided that after a critically-praised album that had barely sold enough to pay for its own coffee, we didn’t really know what came next. So we broke up, before we murdered each other.
It didn’t quite take. We were the exes that swore blind we were done, but kept waking up in grotty hotel rooms hungover and three hours pregnant.
We remained collaborators – as we have to this day – and would occasionally regroup for a gig here or there, for charity or special occasions. We recorded two new songs in 2015 (more on those later) for my film A Dozen Summers. And, in the meantime, we all got on with other artistic pursuits, separately and together.
I had tried from 2010 onwards, to record a solo album. I was still in the zone of “life explosion, writing, recording, tour.” My life was, again, in the midst of an explosion, with the usual mixture of glory and defeat that entails. I was still used to writing songs regularly and I documented my emotional turmoil and current concerns as per usual.
Then I tried to record, without a band, for the first time in over a decade.
It did not go well. In fact, calling those recordings demos would be an insult to the good name of demos. They will not be finding their way onto re-releases in future years. Because they have been burned, in a skip, at midnight, at a crossroads. Besides, filmmaking, acting and other sorts of writing were taking over the part of my brain that tried in vain to corral my creative impulses into something useful.
The short version of the story: No album was forthcoming and a dozen or so decent songs got shoved into a drawer.
Fast forward to 2019. Chris Ilett, one of the original members of ist, moved back to my adopted city of Leicester, having added tasty production and mixing to his musical bow. Most importantly, he was having no truck with my not being a songwriter anymore and forced me at capo-point to make something – anything – or he and I would be having words. Maybe we’d write something. Maybe I’d finally clear out that drawer.
Pondering his threats over the next few days, I picked up a guitar and a song came out – like it used to. This surprised me and in my shock, I wrote another. Then another. Idiopath is 36 tracks long and, if you think back a few paragraphs, I started with 12ish.
Turns out I had a lot to say. The emotional upheaval that had birthed the first 12 had led to another, even more upheavely upheaval that had, in turn, led to a breakdown that had led to me briefly retiring from the Arts altogether, in a very flouncy, melodramatic way.
Suddenly, I had two sets of songs, forming bookends to one of the most life-changing decades of my existence.
That, thought I, sounds like a suitably wanky premise for an album.
A triple album. Why not? Who was going to stop me? Chris and Brett, another ist stalwart, took on production and mixing duties. I was in good hands, if you didn’t take my own into consideration.
One of the first songs of the new batch that I wrote was ironically – considering the project – Keep It Simple, the opening track of the album. If the title was intended to subconciously rein me in, it failed. I have also been informed that it has been, by far, the most challenging to mix, which I think is funny, as does no one else.
I’m not a big one for explaining lyrics. You need to leave room for the listener and their world. Elvis Costello once said something along the lines of “If I could say it in other words, I’d have written a different song” and I tend to agree.
But it is both a love song to a very real human being, and a message to myself that things needn’t be complicated to be beautiful. Sometimes just the knowledge of someone existing in the world can be almost enough. Hold on, I think that’s Your Song by Elton John. Okay that, but more Canadian and with a greater number of puns.
I wrote it one suitably lonesome night on a banjo I’d neglected to tune, but that’s not where it ended up. It found its melancholy home however in picked guitars, descending pianos and wandering bass.
We recorded it early on in the album sessions, before the world caught on fire and I could still rock up to Chris’ home studio, spill coffee on his carpet and hum piano parts at him from across the room. It was finished about a week ago.
We may not have listened to its advice.
Listen to Keep It Simple now and order the limited edition version of Idiopath (including a triple vinyl physical copy of the album, a digital copy and a companion album “Omniopath” comprised of cover versions of the tracks from an extraordinarily diverse group of artists) exclusively from Digger’s Factory.
Each song on the album has also been covered by a wonderful artist – encouraged to make the song their own, without interference from muggins here. I have mostly kept to that promise.
For “Keep It Simple” I reached out to the upsettingly talented Chris Conway. Whereas I have taken 14 years to follow-up Toothpick Bridge with something new – Chris records a beautiful, heart-stopping album every 14 seconds. It’s frankly ridiculous. He’s played with everyone. He can play anything. And he’s goddamned kind as well. He really should be stopped.
Instead, I asked him if he’d like to expend some of that excess talent on a cover for us.
He agreed almost instantly. Because he’s nice.
Here’s Chris’ stunning version of the song. Also, please check his immense catalogue out. Just remember to buy Idiopath first, or you’ll just spend all your pocket money on his stuff.
Most days I’ve reached a sort of uneasy truce with my mental illness. I’ll take the meds and it won’t try to kill me, starve me, frighten me or try to crown me Emperor of anywhere.
It’s not happy about it and neither am I, but it is what it is.
Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, my current existence, mentally at least, is a million times better than before, when I was constantly either in pain or recovering from it.
But there’s a symptom of recovery that’s been creeping up on me, acknowledged but only becoming truly distressing cumulatively.
In my previous – less boring but less tenable – existence, I either doubted myself completely or not at all. I was either curled up in a ball or leaning over balustrades with a stupid grin on my chops and a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 in my back pocket. (Not metaphors, alas.)
When I had an idea, when inspiration struck, it was like a thunderbolt, hurled by a hurricane in the midst of feeling up a tornado. Some of them were good ideas, some were terrible ideas and many were actually quite acceptable ideas but executed by a man in the midst of delusion, confusion and, all too often, various infusions.
I still have ideas for a living. It would butter my bread if I weren’t trying to take off some of the meds weight. And, let’s face it, I’m a right ponderer at the best of times.
But now I doubt where I might once have whooped and taken a little victory run around the room.
Not as much so professionally. I have craft to fall back on there. Writing is a slower, more deliberate process now, but it gets the job done.
But sometimes I still have grand ideas. About the world, about the human condition, about our place in the universe, about my place in the kit, kaboodle and Kalashnikov of it all. Occasionally, those ideas even make sense (to me) and I want to set them down on paper, the way I used to do.
And then the alarms sound.
That’s what you used to think, I think, confusing myself with my own sentence structure. That’s the kind of ‘big picture’ brain work of which you were so incredibly, horribly proud and which, in turn, rendered the best parts of your life a series of smouldering craters, radioactive and totally outside of zoning permissions.
Sometimes, it feels safer to dumb myself down. Don’t think too big. Don’t think too broadly. Don’t worry at the details with such canine ferocity.
Don’t go overboard.
But I am who I am. And who I was. And who (Jesus Christ, there’s more?) I will be.
It’s easier to vent the melancholy of being a smaller force than to wear the mantle of a more dangerous man. There are still ideas to be had, and stories to tell. I’ll just have to handle them – and their designated adult – with care.
This time last year I was promoting Bisection, a comic memoir of living and parenting with bipolar disorder. Those of you who read it (as well as any of you who know me) will know that my love of all things Doctor Who is one of the very few constants in what has been an… interesting life. Indeed, my first movie featured Colin Baker as a narrator, as a treat for both myself and the audience.
So, when my publishers, Chinbeard Books asked me if I would first, like to contribute to a new, for charity, Who anthology and two, if I’d like to edit said volume, I said, “Yes, sir. How high?”
Obviously, that made no sense but, sue me, I was excited.
On August 3rd, the result is published – Regenerations. A story of the War Doctor, the Time War and the effect it has on the past lives and adventures of the Doctor.
I’m extremely proud of how it has turned out. A great team of writers, taking on Doctors 2 – 8, while I handled the original himself and the War Doctor story that ties it all together.
It felt like being the showrunner for a fun, funny and occasionally heartbreaking series of literary Doctor Who.
Stories are courtesy of
Simon A Brett
Barnaby Eaton- Jones
Kenton Hall (him? again?)
All proceeds from the book go to Invest in ME, something of which I think the Doctor would approve.
And check out the cover by Steven Horry (and coloured by Chiara Lowe Bonacini). It’s very pretty.
Editing a volume like this is a long and brain-bending job, but so rewarding. And I think we’ve got something special on our hands.
It’s a limited edition, so if you fancy a copy act quickly – or get yourself a TARDIS. Available to pre-order from Chinbeard Books and released on August 3rd.
Before I begin this review, there are a few things I need to get off of my chest. One is this lead waistcoat, which was a terrible idea and it’s certainly the last time I take fashion advice from an X-Ray technician.
Secondly, despite my own diagnosis with bipolar disorder, I have tended, in the past, to avoid books about others’ experiences with the condition. I didn’t need, I felt, to be reminded of everything from which I was running at a feverish pace, usually while attempting to outpace a fever.
I was glad that people were sharing their journeys – god only knows, misconceptions about mental health abound – but I was busy dealing with my own and preferred to read stories outside of my experience, perhaps about someoneone struggling with flu, or elbow pain.
Thirdly, there was a brief moment, when I stumbled across Bring Me to Light, as someone has also just published a book about my experiences with bipolar, where I had the same feeling as the makers of Antz and A Bug’s Life must have felt during my childhood. Which can be best summed up as, “Oh, come on!” Especially as, from what I could tell, it was written by an engaging and talented human being who has survived more than anyone ought to have had to and, goddamn it, writes wonderfully.
In any case, a sense of solidarity – not to mention a deep weariness with thinking of nothing of my own work – won the day, and the book plonked on my hall carpet with the swiftness of an Amazon.
It was worth the mental effort.
I often wonder what it’s like for other people, those without direct experience of mental health issues, to read stories like ours. I’ve always hoped that they foster understanding and inspire much needed moments of connection between human beings of different backgrounds.
In truth, I mention coming to Eleanor’s story with mild misgivings because honesty is both something I value and something that Bring Me to Light delivers in lorryloads.
What struck me most about reading the book were, expectedly, the similarities between our journeys and our symptoms and, reassuringly, the differences. We both had parents that also struggled with mental health conditions, we’ve both suffered from anxieties and stress points that are in no way helped by the demands of our chosen professions. But both our tragedies and our successes have been stridently individual.
And that’s possibly the most inspirational element that works like Eleanor’s book offer. Not simply a tale of surviving, but a reminder of the personhood of those who survive – so often the first thing stripped away by stereotyping, prejudgement and ignorance.
It’s a beautiful book and it should be read. I felt less alone for reading it, which is the highest compliment I can pay to any work of art.