Saturday, 15 August 2015

Interview & Album: Vivienne Monday - Modern Cruelty

Vivienne Monday - Modern Cruelty

Vivienne Monday - Modern Cruelty

Info: Bass-player with Galway funk ensemble Earthship, Karl Clews, has released his debut solo album under the moniker of Vivienne Monday. Modern Cruelty is markedly different from his work with Earthship whilst retaining strong strands of his trademark bass-led 70's funk style on some tracks, the album journeys through many decades and musical styles. Opening track and single 'Rely On Me' starts off like David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' as I mention in the below interview, and then goes into Duran Duran 'Save A Prayer' territory as well as Phil Collins vocally. 'Beaten Down' has a more withdrawn sound steering itself toward mid-90's sounds of Portishead / Sneaker Pimps whilst 'Until The Morning Light' has a heavy 70's soul and funk identity, like a Doobie Brothers and Marvin Gaye mash-up. Among the other tracks I enjoyed the expansiveness of 'Manhattan' and 'Moonlight''s chilled out late night ambience and cool electric guitar riffs as well as the mother-funky Prince opening on 'Something We Did'. In the following interview myself and Vivienne Monday dig deeper into Modern Cruelty and dispel scurrilous rumours that he is a control freak!

Remy: It's been quite a while since we last spoke to your alter ego of Commander Clews, leader of the free-form jazz-funk collective known as Earthship, aside from the new album which we'll come to shortly, to misquote Marvin, what's been happening brother?!

Karl: Yes, I guess it’s been about a year. We last spoke when Earthship put out their Proximity Effect EP last summer. We toured that around Ireland as much as we could, and it got some great reviews and we played some great gigs, but by the end of the year, we were all exhausted and, I have to admit, a little disillusioned. We put our hearts and souls into that EP – and I still maintain that it’s a fantastic EP! – as well as a fair bit of our own money, so it was disappointing when the overall feedback from radio stations was that it wasn’t suitable for their playlists. We found it very difficult to get any kind of radio play, so the EP just didn’t get the publicity it needed and never really broke through to the mainstream consciousness. 

I’ve always felt that Irish music fans are underestimated by those in charge – when they get the chance to hear something a bit different, they are generally very open to it, but unfortunately you have to go through the venue owners, promoters and radio station heads to get your music to the public, and these people are much less open to anything different, for some reason. They play it safe, so the public rarely gets the chance to hear anything that might be a bit leftfield, let’s say.Anyway, after this artistically fulfilling but commercially dispiriting experience, I felt the band was tired and needed a break, rather than launching straight into the next round of writing, recording and gigging. So I put Earthship on hiatus for a few months. But I get restless and hate to be sitting around twiddling my thumbs. And that’s where Vivienne Monday stepped in. 

Remy: It's fair to say that the instrument that you (quite literally) hold closest to your heart is your beloved bass, is that what you started out playing when you first took an interest in music and who were your bass-playing idols during those formative years?

Karl: Yes, I’m a bass player first and foremost – that’s what I get paid to do, and it’s what I love doing. But as a kid, I started as a classical guitarist, primarily because I was a very fidgety child – lots of nervous energy, so I always needed to be doing something with my hands! I went the whole classical training route, grade 8, Performer’s Diploma, the whole shebang. But as a teenager, soul and funk caught my attention, and to my ears, it was very much the bass that directed that kind of music. And I was lucky that good bass playing technique actually has a lot more in common with classical guitar technique than you might . So the bass immediately felt very natural to me. I guess it was Mark King of Level 42 who made me want to pick up a bass and try it – not only was his sound very distinctive, but he also made it look so much fun. I know it’s cool to look angst-ridden and pained when playing, but like Mark, I just can’t do that – it’s fun, so why not show people that? Then of course, I wanted to find out about his bass heroes, guys like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius – jazz-fusion players – and these kinds of influences have coloured my own music ever since. 

Remy: You pretty much went full pelt into working on your new album Modern Cruelty, there was the single release in April of 'Rely On Me', but it seems as though there were no tentative steps such as releasing an E.P. first, would it be fair to say you were very self-assured with regard to your goal of releasing a solo album, something that you'd thought about for quite some time perhaps?

KarlNo, quite the opposite in fact, not self-assured at all! I’ve always demo’ed material myself when writing for projects like Earthship, but I’ve never had any great delusions about being a singer. I hate the sound of my own voice, so I find it really hard to be objectively critical of it on a recording. But then I read an interview with David Bowie in which he said the same thing – that he can’t stand listening to his own voice – and I began to realise that it’s quite common, not just me! And I put 'Rely On Me' up on my Soundcloud account and a few folks started commenting favourably on the vocal, so I thought maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. The rest just followed from there – it was an experiment, just seeing what I could do with my own voice, that got a bit out of hand, and suddenly I had an album’s worth of material on my hands!To be fair, I had had the idea of doing a solo album for a while, but in my head it had always been a funk, bass-led thing. Which is why I opted to introduce Vivienne as an alter-ego: people would expect a certain kind of album from Karl Clews – lots of slappy bass and jazz-funk, I guess! But Vivienne is an unknown quantity. He’s free to make whatever kind of album he wants to!

Stanley Clarke

Remy: Listening to Modern Cruelty I felt like I was been taken on a tour of recent decades, even within songs themselves, take for example opening track 'Rely On Me', it's intro reminded me of Bowie's 'Let's Dance' but as the song goes on it has more Duran Duran vibes. 'The Tears of St. Anthony' reminds me 
of, well, Tears for Fears in a way, 'Manhattan' vocally at least recalls Mr.E from Eels and 'Find What You Love & Let It Kill You' ticks some 90's R n'B boxes. Do you feel like the album was a melting pot of many sounds and genres rather than a narrow focus on one style?

Karl: Absolutely, and you’ve nailed a lot of the touchstones for this album right there. To me, a lot of today’s music feels and sounds soulless. There’s no depth to it. It’s all surface. I love the music of the 80s, despite the fact that a lot of it now is regarded as cheesy throwaway pop, and desperately uncool. The fact is that the best bands of that decade really knew what they were doing. They had grown up listening to classic rock, disco, funk, soul and fusion in the 70s, and they knew how to play that stuff, but after punk hit and made all that kind of thing look uncool, they made the commercial decision to suppress those influences and make pop records. I’m thinking of bands like Level 42, Duran Duran, and guys like Nik Kershaw, Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby. But you can still hear echoes of those influences in their pop songs, in the occasional jazz chords and voicings slipping in, in unexpectedly virtuosic solos offhandedly thrown in here and there, and that gives that music a depth and longevity that I don’t think much of today’s pop has. 

I’m a firm believer in building on what has gone before, not trying to erase it from history and start from scratch. So yes, I don’t mind at all if some of my 80s and 90s influences come through. And with regards to the style of the album, there is no focus at all! That was kind of the point – in freeing myself from Earthship, and from the expectations of being a funk bass player, I was freeing myself from having to focus on any particular style. I had lots of bits of songs lying around in my studio that had never been used because they simply didn’t sound like Earthship, or whatever project I might have been working on at that time. And these bits and pieces have a way of piling up and getting in your way when you’re trying to move forward. So I had to do something with them, let them out into the world. And regardless of genre, they were all fair game for Vivienne, simply because, as I said, he’s an unknown quantity. Nobody has any preconceptions about his style, least of all me!

Remy: Looking from the outside you can feel that Modern Cruelty was definitely driven by one man in terms of how you wanted it to sound and play out as an album, was it a strange feeling not having to consult with others like you might have to do in Earthship or other bands, or did you encourage input from session musicians, old music friends as well?

Karl: It makes me sound like an arrogant control freak, I realise, but it was nice not to have to compromise! As I mentioned earlier, I have always demo’ed material myself when writing for any band projects I’m working with – I would record a track on my own, as near to completion as possible, then have the rest of the band re-record the guitar, the keys, the drums and the vocals in their own way, in the hope that they will bring something interesting and fresh to those parts that I would never have come up with on my own. And with a band like Earthship, full of inspired and inspiring musicians, that’s pretty much always the case. But occasionally there will be situations where I think, ‘well, actually what I played on the demo worked better’. I may not have played it as well or as cleanly, and maybe I played part of it ever so slightly out of time, but there was something about my take that was lost when somebody else came in and re-recorded it. Music is like that: it’s not about being the best player or recording the most pitch perfect take; sometimes there’s something in the imperfection that adds to the atmosphere of the song. And having a unity of vision – everything coming from the same source, as it were – means it’s much easier to maintain the atmosphere that you’re aiming for when you don’t have to bring other musicians into the mix.

Of course, I have a few guest players on the album – Ciaran Storey, from another band project I work with named Superfreaks, contributed lead guitar on a couple of tracks, and Bart Kiely, drummer from Earthship, added some percussion here and there. I may be a control freak, but I know my limits: sometimes there are sounds you hear in your head that you know you just couldn’t possibly create. Luckily I knew two guys who could!

Remy: Undoubtedly the theme of love permeates the album’s tracks, but the album's title suggests that our protagonist Vivienne Monday may have a less than endearing message that he wants to share as well, would that be correct?

Karl: Well, yes, no and maybe! The origin of the album title is rather more banal (or comical) than you might imagine, but it went on to colour the mood and themes of the album as a whole. I’m a blow-in from the UK, now living in Galway. And there’s a certain old Galway accent that I find particularly endearing, and two words that leapt out at me as examples of this were ‘modern’ and ‘cruelty’, which when rendered in this accent, to my English ears, come out something like ‘mothren’ and ‘crulity’. Discussing this with a friend, one of us put the two words together and something clicked. It didn’t mean anything at first – I just liked the sound of the two words together – it has an echo of the 80s New Wave about it somehow which suited the range of influences I had in mind as I was recording this. But over time, I realised that it 
also had a certain resonance for the lyrical themes of the album. Indeed, most of the songs are about love, but love under difficult and occasionally dark circumstances. Love can be the greatest feeling in the world, but it can hurt like nothing else when it goes wrong. And modern life sometimes has a way of making things go wrong, of dropping obstacles in your path. Shit happens, as they say. We just have to learn to deal with it. And we always will, because the high that love gives you is always worth it. That’s the cruelty – love keeps you coming back for more, no matter how much it hurts.

Remy: With the album complete and released, what's the next step, is it back to the deck of the Earthship or is there more solo material on the way?

Karl: Oh yes, there will be more from Vivienne at some point. I certainly haven’t finished exploring his sound and his story. And there will be a Karl Clews album sometime too, which, unlike Vivienne’s album, will sound exactly as people expect it to! And yes, we’ll be firing up Earthship’s engines for another flight very soon. After intentionally keeping the bass playing so minimal and unflashy for Vivienne’s album, I’m getting itchy fingers!

Remy: Finally, where can people catch Vivienne Monday live around the country?

Karl: That depends really on how Vivienne is received. If he gets a good amount of airplay and interest from radio and promoters, then I’ll happily gig it as much as I can around the country. I just don’t expect everyone to understand it. Even to my ears, it’s a very odd album on first listen, and I accept that it’s going to polarize people. So at the moment, I only really have plans to do one or two local shows in Galway. But we’ll see how things go.

To buy a copy of Modern Cruelty, head along to Vivienne Monday's Bandcamp page here

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