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interviews - sep 2004
- Picastro
- The Would Be Goods

- Harper Lee


Picastro
Toronto’s Picastro have garnered a lot of praise recently with the release of their album ‘Red Your Blues’, a brooding album of cinematic proportions where each song stands alone in its own right but, as with many great albums before it, should really be experienced in its entirety. 

With the album now released in the UK on the trailblazing label that is Monotreme and with, hopefully, a European tour planned for the Autumn/Winter, we decided, using the wonder of email, that it was time to crack the skull, apply the suction and pick the brains of Picastro’s Liz Hysen. 

Picastro's album 'Red Your Blues' has pretty much been swamped by a lot of high acclaim. How much of a shock was the way the album has been received to you and the rest of the band?
It's hard to tell if the album has been swamped with reviews more than say another band with similar experience and exposure, especially when we live so far away.  As of right now, it’s been nice to get the reviews that we have from a variety of sources.  I think sometimes I am a little shocked but how much a writer will "get" the band or the record.  When they're bang on, it can be a shock and when they're way off, it's pretty easy to tell. 

So in terms of 'getting' the record, what was it that you wanted to capture and get across with this release?
The composition of the record is very deliberate; it's pretty passive in tone in the beginning and then gets more aggressive.  The arrangements of the songs are pretty exacting and they are all more or less related to each other.  If someone "gets" it, it just means that they recognize the wholeness of it.  The orchestration of the songs usually throws people off and they assume we're one of those sad string bands but the songs are actually songs not jams.  The vocals (especially on the album) are also not meant to come from anyone in particular so the singer songwriter people get confused.  Generally though, the people who like it just like it and they don't necessarily have to know why. 

Comparisons seem to be made frequently between Picastro's sound and that of such luminaries as Dirty three, Rachel’s or those Constellation Records lot. Have these been pleasing comparisons for the band or do you find them ultimately frustrating or perhaps even daunting?
Comparisons are always annoying but inevitable.  I do it myself all the time too.  I notice the tendency in
North America is to compare the band to a female-persona type singer and the tendency in Europe is to compare Picastro to other bands that use strings.  I think I own one Dirty Three Record and nothing by those other bands so it's funny.  I don't think anyone else in Picastro listens to that stuff either.  I do think our timing has a lot to do with it, the band and that record are actually like 6 years old but it took forever for the record to come out and there lots of problems around it so maybe it sounds like we were influenced by other acts.  The comparisons can be daunting but I am slowly learning not to pay attention to them. 

6 years old? So how come there was such a delay from the songs conception to them eventually being released? Does this mean there’s also a back log of loads more Picastro material we're yet to hear?
While the songs were being written and performed, there were lots of changes in the band with people coming and going.  This frustrated the recording process for me because I never knew which version to use.  Finally, we set on something and made some adjustments so there might be overlap with certain members.  Then there were some label issues.  A label in Europe was supposed to put out the record two years ago but the guy that ran it disappeared after we had signed the contract.  Some of my friends were on the label and recommended it so I hadn't considered that would happen. Following this there were even more label problems that I don't want to get into and...anyway Monotreme had intended to put out the album a year earlier but there were complications. There is definitely a backlog of songs that are almost done now and the line-up in the band is pretty steady at the moment.  The new record is just getting finished up.

You recently did a session for Radio 6 over here and then went of on a tour in the US. How did these both go? Any new friendships forged or lessons learnt?
They both went pretty well.  We've toured a lot in the U.S. and this time I finally felt like I knew how to tour properly and how to approach each show. I met Kim at Monotreme finally which was great. Some nice folks pretty much everywhere
Ohio, Pittsburgh, Baltimore...I love meeting new people.  The England part was kind of a blur.  I did learn that Regis Philbin is not as well known in the U.K. as he is in North America and that playing guitar on live radio on a polished metal stool is really hard. Anyway, I almost fell off of it a bunch of times....

Who on earth is Regis Philbin? It sounds more like a condition than a person.
Regis Philbin is this American personality, he has a morning talk show and yells a lot at old people in the audience.  For a brief time he hosted a show called "Who wants to be a millionaire" which I watched, mainly for him.  I think he has been in show business for a long time.  Anyway, when I was doing my undergraduate degree and wasn't at school or work I would watch this morning show and got an unnatural fixation on him.  It’s probably better that you don't know who he is! It does sound diseas-ish.  

He’s bound to be better than Chris Tarrant I suppose.
Chris Tarrant, huh?
 

Sorry Tarrant’s the chump who invented and hosts the British version of 'Millionaire'.
Gotcha, okay. 

So following on from your touring in the US, are we going to be graced with your presence over here for a British / European tour?
We are definitely heading over there for a tour, it sort of depends on people's schedules but very soon I hope, maybe in the winter.  Sooner rather then later though I hope.

So how’s the music scene doing in Toronto at the moment? How involved are you in the stuff that goes on locally and what sort of an atmosphere does it have? 
Toronto is really good right now.  Lots of different kinds of music, lots of good people.  I don't actually collaborate with many folks here, mostly its long distance stuff on my own or other people's music.  The atmosphere here is pretty clique-ish but I guess it’s like that anywhere.  Generally though I like it because it shifts around more now, you don't have to play garage rock over and over again to get people to come out.  People are pretty receptive here to new stuff so it’s all good.  I like putting on shows for my friends here too from out of town but that can be hard.  I think people tend to like local stuff more here unless it is a fairly well known band, it happens more and more these days. 

I remember reading in a magazine a while ago that one of the guys from Thee More Shallows also worked as a gardener in order to fund his music. It always intrigues me what people have to do in order to allow them to do what they really love, whether that be art, music, etc. So I was wondering what do you and the other members of Picastro do as well as being in Picastro? If you have other responsibilities how hard do you find it balancing these with the creative side?
Actually, a few of my musician friends garden as well.  I work as an archivist so I go through old papers and photos and architectural drawings and stuff, Evan works as a cook and Zak works at a music store repairing guitars.  Owen isn't really working right now, he plays in a lot of bands but I think he might be looking for work soon.  Personally, I don't want to do a job that has anything to do with music or anything creative because it would detract from the enjoyment of it. I am one of those people that only wants to work on stuff that I like so if I did play music for a living I am sure I would have to do a lot of things I didn't want to just to compensate for gaps or for money even.  At times its hard to get a balance, I am never sure that I know my instruments really well but for right now, I am happy to do both things and spend as much time as I can touring and trying out other things like making short films.  

You make short films as well? Are these narrative based or do they follow a more abstract train of thought? Do you do soundtracks for any of your own films, or for that matter, anyone else’s?
Yes, I have started about three and am working on a new one now which I hope to actually finish.  The films are not really experimental but they're not really narrative based either.  They're pretty lose and usually deal with something specific, they're not mood pieces or anything like that.  I have started a mockumentary too but that one needs some tweaking.  So far, all my films are silent but the sound on the one I am working on now is actually more involved than the camera work so it will be interesting.  I haven't had much time to score other people's films until recently but I am starting to get more into it now.  It really depends on the film though, I don't think all film needs music. 

This is true but don’t let John Williams hear you say that, he can be a very violent man when angered. One final question, I read on the Pehr records website you have a love of ‘Dawson’s Creek’. With its demise what has filled the void that I’m sure is now present in your life? Is it ‘The OC’?
Well, films don't necessarily have to be narrative or accompanied by the same swelling overtures when there is a touching moment. I think I only watched that stuff while I was in university so I could procrastinate more.  I haven't seen the OC. But I do like TV.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and just bought season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  I also watch Freaks and Geeks and the Office all on DVD.  And Jeopardy, I like that show too.
 

Luke Drozd

(for more information on Picastro go to www.monotremerecords.com and www.pehrlabel.com)


The Would Be Goods
Purveyors of baroque indie-pop, Would-be-Goods release their new album, ‘The Morning After’, this month on Matinee. Tasty thought it was about time we spoke to lead singer Jessica about life on the inside…

Are you happy with the new album? How long has it taken to put together? And how do you think it compares to previous Would-Be-Goods releases?

I'm happier with this album than with any of our previous records - at least, I can listen to it all the way through without wishing we'd  done things differently. That's the advantage of stretching the recording out over two years. We had plenty of time to work out how we wanted the songs to sound.

'The Morning After' differs from previous Would-be-goods records in that it was made by a band who'd played together for a couple of years rather than a group of people who'd just met up in the studio. It's probably more up-beat than 'Brief Lives', too.

Would-Be-Goods is something of an indie supergroup, is it not? Do you think the world of indie-pop (or call it what you will) is a bit insular and elitist? And you think the fans of the music quite like it that way?
I hope not (to all three questions). Supergroups are usually pretty disappointing, aren't they? I've never been in any band other than the Would-be-Goods but Peter, our lead guitarist and occasional songwriter, is quite eminent in the indie world, having been in Talulah Gosh and Marine Research - he's even in the Telecaster Hall of Fame, whatever that is. Debbie Green, our drummer, was in notorious all-girl garage band the Headcoatees. Lupe Nunez-Fernandez, who plays bass on this album, is one half of the fantastic Pipas, who have just returned from conquering Australia. Our new bass player, Andy Warren, was one of the original Ants and was later in the Monochrome Set.

No, I don't think the world of indie-pop is at all insular or elitist. It's a very small world so people tend to know each other if they've been around long enough or (like Peter and Debbie) are in more than one band. But I don't think fans find them (or us) unapproachable. It sounds as if you do, though!

How does your relationship with Matinee work?
Very well. Jimmy Tassos is a good friend of ours and puts a lot of time, energy and imagination into his label. He co-releases our records with Sean Price of the equally excellent UK label Fortuna Pop!

The band doesn't seem to play outside of
London at all. Why is this? Would you like to play in other parts of the UK? Will you come and play in Nottingham?!
'At all' isn't fair. We've also played in New York and Washington DC (as part of the Chickfactor tenth anniversary celebrations) and Oxford. We'd love to play everywhere we've been invited (and plenty of places we haven't been invited) but some of us are in other bands so that it's not always easy to find the time, and there's also the problem of getting drums around without a car. I'm sure we'd love to play in Nottingham some time.

Tell me how you got into the crazy world of pop music.
The official story, for the record, is that I met Mike Alway backstage at a Monochrome Set show in 1982. He lured me into the Cherry Red office the following week with offers of rare Monochrome Set singles.  Five years later he invited me to make a single for his new label el.  (He'd never heard me sing, although he arranged a sort of audition with Simon Turner and Louis Philippe.) Simon and Colin Lloyd Tucker were commissioned to write a couple of songs, 'Hanging Gardens of Reigate' and 'Fruit Paradise'. It was played on Radio 1 and Mike asked if I'd like to follow it up with an album, 'The Camera Loves Me'. This time I wrote my own songs. My sister Miranda co-wrote some of the lyrics and sang backing vocals. It was very popular in Japan but didn't make a big impact here (although a Time Out interview with me got into Private Eye's Pseud's Corner!).

How cautiously do you pick who you work with in the WBG?
I was lucky enough to have the Monochrome Set as my backing band for the first two albums. They were wonderful musicians and kept us entertained in the studio. Peter and I met and started working together in the late 1990s; we made 'Brief Lives' with various friends and acquaintances (and my mother, who plays the mandolin). Now the Would-be-goods are a 'real' band we have a more permanent line-up. (I touch wood here as, a couple of days after the last time I said that, Lupe announced her departure to concentrate on Pipas.) So I've always been able to work with people I know and trust. 

If there was one musician/pop star you'd like to be in the band, who would that be?
I wish Orson Presence, who played keyboards on the second and third Would-be-goods albums, had become a permanent member of the band. Unfortunately he emmigrated to Canada instead.

An awful lot of people have tried and failed to describe the kind of music the WBG make. What do you describe it as?
I take a perverse pleasure in that fact. We've flirted with various genres, from bossa nova to calypso to garage. I usually say (rather lamely) that we have a sixties-ish sound, as people can read into that whatever they like. But we're not self-consciously retro.

Do you consciously try and steer clear of the whole 'twee' label, or is it something you like to encourage?
 It's not my favourite word. When someone first used that word to describe our music as 'twee', I thought it was intended as an insult -  it conjures up images of lace doilies. We're more arsenic and old lace.

Who else would you like to think WBG fans are listening to at the moment?
'Mein Kleiner Gruner Kaktus' by the Comedian Harmonists.


Would you be happy releasing WBG records for the rest of your life?
As long as somebody's willing to listen to them. Other than my mother, my cats and my ten-year-old daughter.

Sam Metcalf


Harper Lee

How have your attitudes towards music changed between the time you started Brighter and the release of the new album?
Not really - I feel less connected to music than I did but that's simply because I don't buy as many records or go to as many gigs. I guess music isn’t central to my life now – it certainly was in 1989. However I haven’t stopped feeling passionate about what I do.

Why do you never seem to play live? Would you like to do more gigs?
I think in principle we like the idea of playing gigs but in practice, given it’s just me and Laura and we’ve always had commitments to other bands, it’s been tough to organise. We did play a few gigs in Spain but we weren’t that good and really it’s not worth doing unless you’re going to do it well.

Are you particularly precious when it comes to studio recording? Or do you sometimes just bash a song out and are pleased with the first take?
Well, it'd be great to have endless days in the studio to get things totally perfect and polished, But we don't have that luxury. The new LP was recorded, mixed and mastered in 7 days. Recording is an expensive business and we don’t want to cripple Matinee with costs we’ll never recoup through sales.  

Saying that, the quicker we can record the songs the better – I wouldn’t want to spend too long fussing over snare drum sounds and the “depth” of the reverb. I like writing songs more than recording them I guess. I hope that isn’t too obvious from the finished product.
 
What's the main inspiration behind 'All Things Can be Mended'? Would you say it was a very typical Harper Lee record?
No, i wouldn't say it's typical. Lyrically it's the usual themes but musically it's far more synthy and lush. Unlike previous releases it was mostly written on the synth rather than the acoustic - I was looking for a sound that was bigger and more orchestral. I think it’s our best record by miles - I really love it though I’m not entirely convinced everyone else will be of the same opinion.

I think it ties up quite a few musical and emotional loose ends – I’m not sure whether this will be our last record ever, but it certainly “feels” like our last record ever – maybe that was the inspiration.

Do you ever worry about running out of topics to base your lyrics on?
Not really - you can sing about anything under the sun.

However, I guess the meaning of your question could be that I've never had a great range in my own lyrical content, a sentiment with which I would agree. I sing about girls, loneliness, disillusionment and disorientation. And I know some will say I should have grown out of these topics by now but I’m sorry, these things still loom large in my life. Maybe I should have had counselling.
 
One of the main criticisms of bands such as Harper Lee is that they come across as very elitist, and somewhat affected. Would you agree that is a problem, and what would you say is the way to solve it?

Um - "elitist"? you make it sound as if me and Laura sit around in gentlemen's clubs smoking cigars in leather armchairs. 

I'm not too sure in what way we're supposed to be "affected" - it would seem to imply that the sentiments expressed in our songs are somehow dishonest. I wouldn't agree, obviously - I think we are one of the most unaffected bands ever.  

How could I solve it? I think I’d just tell anyone who thought we were elitist and affected to not buy our records. We sound like right gits. 

You've put quite a few records out on Matinee now. How did the relationship come about and how does Matinee compare with, say, Sarah Records in your opinion?
I learnt about Matinee through Keith and Dick (Snowdrops/Lovejoy) and they put me in touch with Jimmy because they knew he'd been a fan of Brighter.

I think what ties the two record labels together is a real love of the music they produce but you can't compare Matinee with Sarah because the contexts in which the labels operate are so very different. I have fewer arguments with Jimmy (none in fact), but i still love Sarah's Matt and Clare dearly and I'm eternally grateful to anyone who has put out records for us.

Who are you all-time musical heroes. How much of an effect have they had on the Harper Lee sound?
I think Brighter was mostly influenced by the stuff I was listening to at the time, so Biff Bang Pow, McCarthy, Bodines, all the early pre-Heavenly Sarah stuff ...More recently I think my musical roots have begun to show more clearly, so the Factory Records obsession may have become more obvious.  

I don't think I have any singular musical heroes - however much I may have loved music it's never stopped me believing that most people in bands are wankers. Band-wise, I guess Joy Division/New Order have always been my greatest inspiration, though over the last 10 years Radiohead have moved me more than most.
 
Does it annoy you that you have to put your records out on an overseaslabel? The state of indie pop in the
UK is pretty dire, is it not?
I have no idea about the state of UK or overseas Indie Pop ... like most aging ex-indie "kids" I just buy what the Sunday supplements and Radio 6 tell me to buy. I don't really now what's happening with the grass-root indie scene. Is there one?  

In reality, the fact that Matinee are in the US isn't a problem because most of our sales are always going to be through the internet.

What is on the Harper Lee jukebox at the moment - who else is making ace music?

"You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve" by Johnny Boy is on constant replay. Great title – great song.

Is there any chance of doing a gig with a reformed Boo Radleys?
If you can arrange it, we'll do it. Saying that, I saw Brave Captain the other week and I fear that Martin Carr may be lost without trace up his own backside.