When the Guardian printed their 'Great Lyricists' booklets last year, they mostly hovered around the sixties folk legends, throwing in Morrissey, the Boss and a token modern artist – Alex Turner. My parents had collected them, and the day I came home and flicked through, I stared at the last cover for about five minutes trying to work out if I was reading it wrong. This isn't an exaggeration, or something I've made up for the sake of an argument. I squinted, turned my head, and tried to figure out if in some way it was an advert. It never occurred to me that it could be for real, that while I was floating around my life meaning to get around to listening to Arctic Monkeys, Alex Turner had somehow managed to inhabit the Zeitgeist with a couple of albums worth of words.
Can it be? I listen to Darren Hayman, and I think 'This is a great lyricist'. Time and time again I find myself knocked out by something he's singing. I remember being confused by the fact that ketchup has 150g of Tomatoes for every 100g of product (how?), but it seems to me that Darren Hayman can inject more pathos into a set of rhymes than those words should physically be able to carry. Take 'Amy and Rachel', on his latest album Pram Town. It's ostensibly just a song about a pair of girls in a small town band, but it rings so true it aches. Everybody who's ever lived in a town knows someone like them – with their 'extra in the middle/ helps them out with their sexy wiggle' – and everybody who's ever had a first band knows that particular brand of idealism. "They were the best band to come out of Harlow," he sings, echoing the dreams of about nine million teenagers operating in Britain today, "all of their friends would tell them so."
"Idealism is sad," says Darren in this interview, and it's perhaps when he's finding the little details in life that are the most banal and yet the most sad, that he hits you the hardest. This album began as a concept around a New Town, the post war developments that started cropping up in the 1950's and 60's, but within those confines, with its crumbling modernist high rises watching over 'chicken, pushchairs and ring-tones', he's found the setting for a real-life tragedy. It's kind of a love story, it's kind of about the limits you are born into and the ones you create for yourself. In his words, 'the story of a big fish in a little pond, who's thrown a lifeline while fare evading in a first class carriage'. The little snapshots of local life woven around the story, like Amy and Rachel, only serve to make the final decision more poignant.
Pram Town came out on January 26th.
Emmy: The album has been out for two weeks now, and you had some illuminating things to say about reviews? Can you tell it to me again?
Darren: I don't know where I heard this but it always stayed with me. "Read all of your press or none of it," it relates to the Andy Warhol quote as well, "You don't read your press, you weight it."
Certainly if you are going to dismiss a review because it is bad and you think they didn't understand your work, then you have to consider that a good review might equally be misunderstanding you.
Another thing I heard recently was that when someone says like , "Oh I don't think that line works." and then you say "Yes, but you see what I was trying to do there was...." then from that moment on your are not accepting their criticism. Accepting criticism is to say "OK" and just take it.
To that end for this album for the first time in years I have read ALL my reviews good and bad, and I seem to have survived.
The album is from the point of view of one person, who is thrown a lifeline whilst fare evading in a first class train carriage. What is it that stops him from taking this lifeline and keeps him in Harlow?
Inverted snobbery, failure to take the leap. He convinces himself the girl is too good for him. She is, but not in the way he thinks. We all know people like this, and I'm like it often myself. People who the fear of failure stops them trying at all.
This is an extract from your website: "As everybody on my street put faux Tudor leading on their windows and dreamt no longer of modernity, I escaped to London." You say that you managed to escape the confines of your own small town. Is this character in some way the you who never made it out?
Yes, exactly. In a small town you always have the local big cheese. "I once supported Neds Atomic Dustbin you know?" that sort of thing.
There is nothing wrong with small towns and I understand why people live in them, but to be the biggest band in Chelmsford say, is no real achievement.
Last year, I interviewed you and you mentioned a record you were making about New Towns, and it didn't seem like the songs were going to deal with such human issues. It really sounded like they were going to be about town planning? At what point did it turn into the record that it is now?
Hmmm thats difficult to answer. I always new that it couldn't be an album just about town planning and I knew some kind of love story had to take place amongst the concrete. The songs that are about townplanning on the record are perhaps not the best songs on there but they are needed to create the setting.
What is it that inspired you to write about Harlow instead of Brentwood, where you grew up?
I just the new town thing would give me more to write about and give the record a stronger identity. I also thought I would write better about something that I was removed from.
When did you develop an interest in new towns, and when did you think they might make a good setting for the story of Pram Town?
I think you can follow a line through the last few records. Old Cafe's, growing old, the pasts vision of the future, a general interest in 1940s/50s aesthetic, surburbia have all culminated in this project.
On your website you write very movingly about the architecture of your youth. I think your exact words describing the housing estate you lived in are 'the past's future vision'. It really struck a chord with me because that's the thing that I find most beautiful in art or architecture, places like the Barbican or the vision of the future in Studio Ghibli films, but I've always thought of them as idealistic, not sad. Is it a different symbol for you?
Ha! I used almost those exact words again in the answer above. Idealism is sad isn't it? Noble and brave certainly, but ultimately sad. I think they are beautiful and I am full of admiration for those sorts of pioneers. I think the Barbican is beautiful as well, but there is a difference between a wonderful idea and a practical idea, I guess.
'High Rise Towers in Medium Sized Towns' was a song I found almost unbearably sad, does this relate to the previous question? And what is the sample at the beginning of the song?
The sample at the front is from a public information film about moving to a new town. It might be from this one here...
It pleases me that you like that song, I think someone suggested to me that it shouldn't be on the album. Yes thats what the song is about. New Towns were a great visionary ideal, but who wants to live in someone else's dream?
The album is more electronic than the last one. Is this to do with the album's urban setting?
Yeah that was a tricky balance. I wanted the record to sound rural, because the New Towns loved to have trees and grass next to the concrete, so to that end I used acoustic instruments. But also something had to reflect the modernist thing hence bleeps and bloops.
I don't know whether the balance works.
Many of the songs on the album are love songs. Do you find yourself returning to that no matter what the concept?
I enjoyed getting to know Dennis Wilson's solo album again through the re-issue. It sounds like when ever he runs out of words he just sings "I Love You" over and over again to fill in the gaps. Its not such a bad idea. They're great words.
You live in Walthamstow now, but often return to Essex in your music. It seems to remain your geographical inspiration. Why is that?
Yes it does. Well, I feel I flirted with it in the past, but now I'm just trying to deal with the subject properly. As you know, because you've sung on some of it, the next album is also set in Essex, but more in the deep countryside. A third album in the trilogy maybe about the Essex Witch Trials in 1645. I shit you not.
You've already got the concept for the next album, can you tell us about it? Do you think even further ahead than that?
Ah ha! once again I answered a question too early. The next album is going to be called Essex Arms its 90% finished. Its about the lawlessness and grubbiness that often exists in what we think of as the idyllic countryside. Dogging, joy riding and illegal pit bull fighting all feature, but of course its really a love story, again.
Is 'Amy and Rachel' a nod to the best death metal band in Denton?
Yes it is, well done. I've never heard John Darnielles original, but David Tattersall sung the song to me, and I kind of stole the idea a little. However Amy and Rachel are a real band, though they're not called that. I taught them at the British Academy of New Music, and I still have a video clip of them on my phone.
Do you think you'll ever write a book?
I've thought about it for the first time recently. But that's all I did. Think about it.