Musicians can often have a way with words on their records but not necessarily in real life. Andy Falkous is not one of those people. His vitriolic lyrics have underpinned the success of both the Future of the Left and mclusky. His Twitter account has seen him gather a loyal online following and his blogs have seen his words published in the mainstream press as an argument against music sharing.
However, Falco's most recent lyrical output formed the basis of a critical caning over on Pitchfork; a verdict he was less than enamored with and which seems out of kilter with every other review of their latest album (including the one on this site). We got to find out some of his thoughts on the matter first hand, alongside an illuminating discussion about the new band set up, how hard it is to make a band work financially in these changing times and what music reviews should strive to be...
DiS: So this is the band’s third studio album? From your blogs and tweets it seems like this one has been the hardest to make yet in terms of finances, holding down jobs etc. How do you feel about it now it’s finally out?
AF: For a start it’s not really over. I’ve not listened to the album for about two months now, which is a tragedy for me. A really good way to ensure you fall out of love with something is to have to listen to something 5000 times to make sure you’re making a record to the best possible state. It just took a lot longer for various reasons we didn’t anticipate. Firstly the writing process was strung out by jobs and the requirements of life plus there was the fact we simply couldn’t afford to record the album at first – if it hadn’t have been for a gift from a very generous friend who was a big fan then we probably wouldn’t be talking about the album today. The problem is not just to do with having to finance the album, which was done relatively cheaply and managed at the Manic Street Preachers’ studio in Cardiff. They gave us the studio for next to nothing but the downside of that was it was very much at the whims of availability of a studio that in effect belongs to a very successful full time band. So we would have loved to stay there for three weeks in one go and if that had happened the album would have come out last November, but it didn’t so it came out 4 days ago.
DiS: Quite a few reviews now have commented on the records’ length. Was it a deliberate decision to make this one longer after ‘Travels…’ brevity or just a consequence of having lots of good songs?
AF: It wasn’t a deliberate decision. Once we had what we thought were enough good songs it became an exciting inevitability. I think with some records there’s definitely a sense of filler; I’d say in the 70s a lot of blues and rock bands would write 3 or 4 songs and the record company would say if you could churn out another 5 or 6 songs it’d complete an album, so they were literally filler in that sense. I can concede that unless you’re in the band there are people who probably won’t enjoy every single song on an album but that doesn’t mean there’s any filler on there as such. Every single song on this record, obviously some band members prefer compared to others. I wouldn’t say I have a reluctant relationship with ‘I am the least of your problems’, but compared to my band mates that song does very little for me. It exists for me, I sing on it and it’s a pretty decent basic rock song, whereas ‘Cosmos Ladder’ excites me more than it does some of the others. But that’s the whole way of making a record.
Yeah, as much as I loved ‘Travels…’ I did feel it was a bit slight in terms of time. I like the idea of a record approaching though not necessarily going over 40 minutes, so this one was a happy accident I guess. I can concede that it cuts through with an bewildering assortment of styles and that might be the weakness for some people who were very excited after ‘Travels…’
DiS: What aspect of the album are you most proud of now it’s out there?
AF: I’m proud that it exists and that I can stand beside it. In short, I wouldn’t put a record out unless I thought it was at least the match of its predecessor. Whenever you make a record you reach a specific point of critical mass, especially if you’ve done everything you can to make it work, where you don’t think you’ll be able to follow it. It’s not a point of ego, it’s a point of creation and if you don’t work yourself up to that level of mania then it’s nothing special to you in the first place. But as the months and years go by past a record then you begin to see more of the flaws in it and, whilst you don’t consciously target new material at those flaws, you do react to it in some way.
I wouldn’t say the record is conceptually pure as that was never the way it was conceived, but it is definitely more so than previous records we’ve done which have been more a collection of songs or a document of their time - I don’t mean of its time in the sense of the prevailing public or political mood, more that it speaks to and of the musical personalities of the people in the band.
DiS: I guess it’s a bit weird for those of us who have seen the band in the past 18 months to still call it a new line up, but it is the first full length release that this incarnation of the band has got to put out. How have the 2 new members changed the dynamic and what have they brought to the table?
AF: Well it hasn’t changed the essence of the band or the way it works, though Julia has brought a certain sense of organisation to it - it sounds facetious but it really does help when everybody knows when rehearsal is. Jimmy is a very creative person; ideas pour out of him and sometimes he needs a filter to keep a hat on them all. Julia is a less immediately creative individual but a very accomplished musician. The challenge was to get those two to fit into the way we work; with Jimmy it was initially to harden him from an explosive guitar player and bring him into our puritan work ethic, more by time keeping than anything whereas with Julia it was to help loosen up her more creative side. And it takes a while when musicians are in their 20s and 30s as they’ve spent a long while playing in the same way and getting into good and bad habits.
The way we work is in a very quick way. When we walk in a rehearsal room we start playing and if it doesn’t result in a song within 2 minutes then that’s it - it’s gone, and we’re onto the next idea. You try something else or throw another thought in and you need to be able to react to that. I probably write more parts than anybody else but when it’s at it’s best it works as a collaborative effort. If I’m directing then that’s usually when it’s starting to sound a bit forced.
The other thing they’ve bought, both as long standing fans of this band and mclusky is a love and pride in it as well - mclusky’s Barfly gig in Cardiff was one of the first shows Jimmy ever saw when he was 15 years old so, and I am quoting him here, it was ‘a chance to join one of his favourite ever bands’. For Julia we did a lot of our first shows as Future of the Left with her band at the time The Quiet Kill. So as a result of having that longstanding relationship with the band before they were even in it, they have the same levels of pride in our performance that Jack and I do.
DiS: And I guess having four of you allows you to play some songs you might otherwise not be able to, such as ‘Lapsed Catholics’?
AF: Yeah that was simply impossible and didn’t work before. The wonder (and part of the magic) of a three piece is the restriction within it – sometimes it’s what makes a band so good. But it does mean an idea or a transition you really want to do justice to that you can have a stab at on record, when played live the paucity of players really comes across. When Future of the left started it was meant to be a four piece. I was just going to be a guitar player, a guy called Hywel from Truckers of Husk was going to be the bass player and Kelson was going to be the singer. And because Kelson quite frankly couldn’t be arsed with singing, I ended up doing so. He just wanted to play bass and Hywel was going to be the extra guitar player but that didn’t end up working due to a conflagration of styles really; Hywel is a very busy technical player and we were more, how do I say it… basic? If I worked for the Melody Maker in the 1980s I would say ‘primal’. Even though it is very basic there is a certain discipline required within our band; musically the parts themselves aren’t hard to play, it’s the repetition of those parts and the way they fit together which lets the music almost at times create the impression of being complicated.
At that time I really wasn’t ready to write as a four piece and I was in the frame of mind that a band was a guitar, bass, some drums and a guy shouting over it. But what happened with Kelson was, in short, he couldn’t do the band anymore on a full time basis for many reasons. He said he wanted to continue to do it part time and Jack and I owed him as much, as a friend, to consider that offer seriously. In the meantime we started another band with Jim after we saw him playing with his other band Strange news from another star in Cardiff but the songs we were writing with Jim sounded so much like Future of the left that it seemed ridiculous to have two bands that were exactly the same. So that’s when we decided to tell Kelson that we wanted to continue with Future of the left because it was the best outcome all round. I mean, it would have otherwise meant playing just 5 or 6 live gigs a year and releasing an album every 4 or 5.
On a fundamental level, I need to be stood on a stage shouting at people- it’s very important for me to do. I love every part of making music but without the final release of eventually playing it live, I’m not sure I’d exactly bother with it all. I think there’s a danger sometimes with people in bands where they’re aiming for a place with a record deal or a tour at the end of it all and they forget to enjoy the actual process of making the music in the first place. If I were in a band – and let’s explicitly remind ourselves of this in case there’s any danger of forgetting it – then I’d say that the means and the end are the same thing; the means is making music with the end of hopefully getting to make more music.
DiS: And it must annoy you when you feel that this isn’t conveyed in reviews? I’m sure you’re going to get asked about this A LOT, but how do you now feel about the whole Pitchfork review and your subsequent retort? It felt to me that your issue with that piece of writing largely stemmed from a misunderstanding of the lyrics?
AF: I think he willfully misunderstood the lyrics is my point. I don’t want to assume, but all reviews and indeed rock shows are played out with an agenda. Over the period of twelve years I’ve had lots of bad reviews – anybody in a band has. The difference with Pitchfork is partly that it’s incredibly influential but, in particular, it was that the review came out a full eight days before that of any other. Now that to me is suspicious and it helps set an agenda even for those people who don’t regard themselves as impressionable; it’ll seep through their consciousness and create a certain amount of doubt.
More than anything though, I really enjoy fucking arguing with people. I love the record we made and I will argue the fuck with the cunt – using that precise jargon – and, if I have to, fight them in a fucking cage to prove how good that record is. If I foresaw any criticism of the album then I thought it’d be from those who were into the more straight forward aspects of ‘Travels…’ and might find ‘The plot…’ too varied and not heavy enough. I did not for a second imagine the lyrics would be a problem for anyone who has ever been into the band.
And particularly for a song like ‘Anchor’ to be focused on because - even though we’re known quite rightly as a cynical nasty bunch of bastards at times - there is humanity to the band as there is indeed humanity to any collection of individuals. Sometimes you can be painted as a one dimensional cartoon style character that is putting over an almost monotheistic worldview that just isn’t the case. With a song like ‘Anchor’, which was frankly only written because the riff happened and I sang ’Sobriety demands that my face ignore my hands’, we thought that was a cool line and I went off to explore different troupes of alcoholism and one thing I’d noticed about myself was that I was drinking too much; like everybody I know frankly, with the exception of my mother and my cat. Though not my mother’s cat I hasten to add who is a big gin drinker. But I noticed that if there were a lot of beer bottles in the recycling then I’d put some in the bin. The only person I’m hoodwinking there is myself and I’m sure the recycling guys aren’t judging me badly. That’s what started the thought patterns off about the song but to find out that it was some kind of vicious take on the work of Alcoholics Anonymous was pretty stupendous to me. I think it takes an agenda to come to that decision.
But then again I think it takes an agenda. Maybe a bad review is simply a bad review. There’s no way you’re going to take everybody from your first record to your last and if everyone who was happy with that first record loves the last one, then there’s something wrong with it. If you’ve chemically distilled a formula, improved it by 4.2% and everyone agrees that that is precisely what you were aiming for at this time then congratulations, you’ll likely be 4 places higher up the end of year polls, but you’ve made a huge error. Obviously that’d never happen to that degree with a band…
DiS: I’m trying to think of one it has?
AF: Radiohead probably mastered it a few years ago. It’s a bizarre thing with some bands but critical consensus suddenly all kicks in at the same time and people almost feel ashamed to criticise it. That’s not to suggest it’s the Emperor’s new clothes or anything, just that it happens.
In short, 95% of the response to the blog about the Pitchfork review was incredibly positive. There are people who feel you should be able to take criticism, and I agree with them, which is why I then criticise their criticism. That’s not true, but I couldn’t have expected a better response. I sent it to a few friends first to make sure I didn’t come across like a total dick and to check, as much as I enjoyed writing it myself, that the tone was apparent; simultaneously annoyed and amused by it but not prepared to be patronised by someone who spent about 2 hours playing a record that it took us 2 and a half years to make. And I don’t think that right to reply thoroughly discredits the record or devalues the whole notion of music journalism but we have an internet that allows any anonymous idiot hiding behind any ridiculous angle to come up with anything. The idea that somebody criticises you in your given name and you are not allowed to respond is a notion I find farcical.
DiS: I saw you tweet that you gave a music interview the other day and ended up talking about the state of the industry instead?
AF: Yeah I did, it was really bizarre. I think it was for Rocksound? The only question I got asked about the record – twice – was ‘do I like it?’ Yeah I like it just fine mate, but what’s your fucking point? If you don’t like it, don’t like it.
I learned very early on how band criticism could work. Like with any opinion, you need pillars to build it on. The first mclusky single ‘Joy’ got a really bad review in Kerrang! and it was the first time I saw an actual review having had an incredibly superior idea that I would never read one; it took me a year and a half of us having shows and reviews to get to that point. The review said it was terrible, which honestly didn’t affect me, but at the end said ‘And even the band say they’re going to rerecord their debut album’, which wasn’t true. What that made up fact says is ‘See? It IS true, even the band say so’. That’s what made me angry about the piece; not that I simply didn’t like it, more the way it was hung on the washing line of truth…
Sorry, that’s an awful image. I wish I could punch everyone in earshot and scrub that last sentence… ‘The washing line of truth, in the back garden of despair and yet hope…’
It is a cliché but unless they’re incredibly boringly factual and say things like ‘This song is in C and there is a minor BPM fluctuation after 115 seconds’ then reviews do reveal more about the writer than the band at times. The problem with that is that it’s not a review of the writer but the band. I’m not suggesting that it ever will or should be different, but a writer rather loses control when they’re in denial of that fact. There needs to be an acceptance that it’s about them. Even some writers at Melody Maker in the mid 90s, would have done that. Everett True say, whilst some people find his writing a bit much at times, would have a glowing acceptance of what the form and message is: ‘here’s a record that at times is almost incidental with how it fits in with my worldview as opposed to here is the empirical truth about a record’.
DiS: I’m not about to ask about the state of play and go all Rocksound on you…
AF: This is very good news Sean…
DiS: …but even as a guy who loves the band, that Pitchfork review did question my view of the album and, to a lesser extent, the new line up.
AF: And you know the game and how it works. Part of being a fan of somebody or something is having faith in the people who are engaged in making that music and that faith should extend to one or two listens. I know there’s a danger when you stream stuff that people are going to be doing so on their laptops, which isn’t the format you want people to be listening to. But the lack of faith some people have is the thing I find most disturbing about the whole process.
I’ll never forget to this day when ‘Polymers…’ streamed on Spin and some guy who proclaimed to be a huge fan gave a really critical review of a 21 minute E.P. 10 minutes after it went live. That person is not a fan the way I understand that term. That person is a casual listener of music so taken by the idea of criticism and the power that the internet affords him that they’ve lost sight of what the word means or should mean. As a fan something deserves a proper hearing; if having listened to it you still don’t like it, then there’s nothing more I can say about that. But to think that an opinion by merely existing at speed has some validity I find astonishing.
DiS: Does it make it harder to want to keep doing this after knee jerk reactions like that?
AF: Making a record is one thing, playing live another. Everything that follows afterwards is something of a game, isn’t it? Obviously I want my band to get as much attention as possible as I believe in them. If there’s anything out there that I feel impacts on us unfairly then I’ll say something about it. It’s going to make some people love the band more; it’s going to alienate other people who quite frankly would not have enjoyed it anyway, though I’ve not done any statistical research to bear this out. It is a sad admission but I do enjoy the game as well; arguing with people whether in an actual or written format is, as my girlfriend says with a reluctant admiration, the only time I’m ever really alive.
The Plot Against Common Sense is out now.