Clayhill are one of those bands who exist primarily as a vehicle for their artistic merits rather than commercial enterprises although the three core members Gavin Clark (vocals), Ted Barnes (guitars, keyboards) and Ali Friend (bass, keyboards) have worked in the music industry for over a decade. Not only have Barnes and Friend collaborated with artists such as Beth Orton, both Clark and Friend have also fronted their own successful projects, the former as the main songwriter with Sunhouse in the late 90s whilst the latter was a founder member of Red Snapper.
Having got together just over three years ago, Clayhill finally got around to recording their debut mini-album ‘Cuban Green’ in February and have just released their first full album ‘Small Circle’ on Eat Sleep Records.
Clayhill, having not long since completed a tour with Kathryn Williams, are taking the unusual step of playing a few dates to promote the album with a 20 minute film directed by Shane Meadows as the main support act!
“We’ve had a weird past”, admits Ali Friend. “Gavin (Clark) used to write scores for Shane Meadows, and I’ve done filmic type stuff when I was in Red Snapper, and then I made a solo album about two years ago which Gavin was involved with, and afterwards we spent about a year-and-a-half collecting and writing a body of material that became the main part of ‘Cuban Green’."
“Its definitely very different to anything I’ve done in the past,” says Gavin, smiling contentedly. “I feel like I’ve taken a more central role here with Clayhill as opposed to Sunhouse. I actually enjoy this! At the same time it’s a really shared experience too, in that everyone contributes their own pieces as well, but lyrically I feel more at ease in this band.”
Lyrically, the subject matter of Clayhill’s songs can vary from the Eels-like lullaby of ‘Grasscutter’, which was written about Ali’s experiences of time spent during a recent trip to Peru, to the bittersweet lament that is ‘Rushes Of Blonde’, which Gavin wrote about his wife.
“The original idea to ‘Grasscutter’ was about me being away in Peru and making a little recording of a guy on his knees cutting grass with a pair of scissors, which seemed very strange in this context which was by and large, a desert area. It just got to me what a perfect he was doing, and I had a little minidisk recorder with me, and in the valley below there was this little village festival going on with lots of people shouting and singing, and it was just a great little recording so when I got home I told Ted (Barnes) and Gavin the story, and it seemed a nice beginning about a man who was taking such great pride in his work, something that we would take for granted and yet it mattered so much to this guy. If that’s important to him then…” muses Ali in an emotional state of recall.
The six songs which make up ‘Cuban Green’ thrust the as-then relatively unknown Clayhill into the spotlight, a soothing collage of mellowed gold that recalls both Gomez in their most productive ‘Liquid Skin’ phase and Mark ‘E’ Everett at his most poignant, almost like a concept record even?
“I don’t know. We never intended it to be a concept album,” insists Ted Barnes. “I mean lyrically, they don’t have that much in common at all, apart from the fact they’re mostly a bit depressing!”
“The funny thing is, most of the songs on ‘Cuban Green’ were written around the same time as the ones on the new album (‘Small Circle’) apart from a couple, so it was a case of choosing which songs we felt would make the biggest impact at that time, whilst at the same time saving some of what we considered to be our better songs for the full album later in the year,” adds Gavin.
The recording process used by Clayhill also sets them apart from most of their contemporaries, as Gavin is based in Stoke-on-Trent, Ted lives in Whitstable and Ali spends most of his time in the London borough of Hackney, so because of their widespread locational differences they get to spend very little time together as a group in the studio.
“Even before we started Clayhill, we would send bits of stuff off to each other, for example Ali and Ted would work on an idea, give it a theme or a title and then send it up to me where I’d add the lyrics and work it out from home then send it back down to them, and then eventually we’d find the time to get together and record the finished version” says Gavin, thoughtfully.
“It sounds complicated but I don’t think we’re that different from other bands really. I mean, most artists’ initial ideas usually start at one of the band member’s homes anyway, whether they all live in the same town or wherever. We had quite a big body of work to start with so the main process when we first got together was to decide what we were going to use. The hardest part for me and Ted was trying to fit all of the Clayhill stuff around touring with Beth Orton at the time, so in a way it made life easier working like that in our own little bits of space”, adds Ali, “but then we started to get together about once a month, which eventually resulted in the mini-album about three months later.”
“Initially though we weren’t sure about releasing a mini-album. That was a more of an idea of the record company than anything else,” declares Ted.
Having finally got a body of work together which all three members were satisfied with, it must have been a difficult decision deciding what to use on ‘Cuban Green’ and what to hold back for ‘Small Circle’.
“Yeah it got a bit stressful,” says Ted with a wry smile. “I didn’t actually want to put ‘Figure Of Eight’ on ‘Cuban Green’ because I thought it would work better on the full album, and initially we only really saw the mini-album as like an introductory EP with ‘Grasscutter’ as the main track, so I probably would have preferred to have saved some of the better songs off that record.”
“The thing is though, when you start playing the finished recordings back, it doesn’t really work like that and you then want to try and make the best record you possibly can at that time without really thinking about the next one,” adds Ali.
“It felt right at the time though”, admits Ted.
The lead single from ‘Small Circle’, ‘Northern Soul’, is almost unique in that rather than having the conventional accompaniment of a promotional video, it actually soundtracks (and forms the title), of a 20 minute Shane Meadows film about a guy who wants to be a professional wrestler, and is being used by the band on their current tour in-between the support band and Clayhill going onstage.
“Me and Shane go back a long way,” admits Gavin, “we both used to work together many years ago at Alton Towers, and I started writing scores for him when I was in Sunhouse. We did the music for ‘Small Time’ and so it continued from there really.”
“I think the music we create and the songs we write are quite cinematic anyway, without us particularly trying to be like that, and they lend themselves to that kind of setting,” adds Ted. “Gavin’s had such a long term working relationship with Shane that once we approached him about making a short film for ‘Northern Soul’, we felt more at ease with that than your average pop video. To be honest, I can see us getting involved in that line of work a lot more in the future. I think it would be nice if we were to be asked one day to just write an entire score piece for a film.”
“The record company made money available at the time to make a promo video for ‘Northern Soul’ but it just seemed better to make a film instead,” decide all three in unison.
“He (Shane Meadows) just picked the songs he liked most off the record (‘Small Circle’) and put them on the ‘Northern Soul’ film, ones that seemed to blend in with the story,” says Ali.
“It’s like with the new film ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’. We’ve got a song on the soundtrack for that as well. I didn’t realise just how revered Shane Meadows’ work was even down South but there’s posters everywhere!” says a decidedly enamoured Ted Barnes.
Do you plan to release any more singles from ‘Small Circle’?
“Yeah definitely” says the beaming Ted Barnes. “We’re all in negotiation at the moment.”
“What do you mean we’re in negotiation!” a serious looking Gavin Clark pipes up. “I thought we were going with ‘Human Trace’?”
“Well yeah, that’s the one that several radio stations have picked up on but…we’ll have to wait and see if it becomes the next one,” concludes Ted.
Although they’ve had a pretty sound relationship with their label Eat Sleep Records to date, there has been one instance which caused a major disagreement between the two parties. Ted Barnes takes up the story: -
“They’ve been brilliant so far, really supportive about what we’re doing, and the only time they’ve stepped in is over the tracklisting on ‘Small Circle’. They wouldn’t let us put one of our favourite songs, ‘Funny How’, on the album, which disappointed us at the time.”
“They didn’t feel it was wholly representative of the rest of the album and felt it would make it difficult to market the record, which confused us a little,” adds Gavin.
So would you say you’re bit happier now that you’ve finally seen the end product for ‘Small Circle’?
“I don’t think it’s weakened the album,” says a proud Ali Friend. “If anything, because ‘Funny How’ is such a good tune in its own right I’d like to think its set the standard for the next record.”
“We’ve already got several outtakes from the ‘Small Circle’ sessions that we’re looking at working on for the next record that we’d like to re-record as soon as possible. I think one thing that we’ve all noticed is how prolific we all are at writing. A lot of the second album is in place already,” admits Ted.
When it comes to the state of the music industry at the moment, Clayhill pull no punches as to what they see as the whole debacle at this moment in time.
“The music industry is such a waiting game really. It can be quite painful at times because you want to get out and play your songs to as many people as possible and yet there’s always something, somewhere holding you back,” declares Ali.
“It’s the same with downloading music off the Internet,” Ted continues. “Its good that people are using it as a tool to find out about new music and sharing it with their friends but at the same time its costing many up and coming artists a number of sales which both they and their record labels need to survive and be able to make new records, while the majors like Sony are laughing because they make their products available as payable downloads so you’re still financing the bigger artists to carry on making abysmal records. I think its part of the marketing strategy behind iPods and the like – to phase out records and record shops. I mean, who doesn’t like going into record shops? I love sifting through the racks in record shops…”
“...and music television” adds Ali. “There’s absolutely no outlet for new bands to get their promos aired on any of the major television channels. It’s always the established bands who seem to fill the air. And then the radio stations are becoming more and more of a closed shop all the time. Its becoming more like America, where the national radio stations playlist is strictly mainstream dictated by major record labels and then you’ve smaller college radio stations fighting for airspace playing independent stuff.”
And finally, commercial success?
“I’d definitely say that we’re not in this to get on ‘Top Of The Pops’ or anything like that but having worked in the music industry for so long, it would be nice to finally make some money!” enthuses Ted Barnes. “We want to make more records together and provide food on the table and…that’s it.”