Thursday, 30 April 2009

Super Furry Interview Part 2

Welcome to day 3 of Super Furry week on Mint Custard and I’m afraid we start off with some bad news. I’ve just looked up the UK album chart to see how Dark Days / Light Years is faring, and still can’t quite believe my eyes. The album has dropped 35 places to number 58 and now sits 3 places below (I kid you not) the Greatest Hits of Ultravox. I know the album has been out in digital formats for a few weeks, but Ultravox have been around for 30 years and the best thing they ever did was inspire Vic Reeves to do a brilliant cover of Vienna. And I bet that’s not even on the album.

Anyway, I’ll sit here King Canute style and hope that the tides of popular culture can turn around and at least recognise that our Super Furry friends at least deserve more recognition than the ill advisedly side-burned Midge Ure…

Second part of my interview with Gutto, Gruff and Cian

MC: The vocal sample on Hello Sunshine by Wendy and Bonnie really stands out cos I don’t think you’ve had other vocalists on your albums before. Is there anyone else that you’d like to get on there? Does everyone just turn you down?
Gruff: There’s a girl called Rachel from Cardiff and she sang on a few songs
Cian: The first female vocal on a Furry record
Gruff: Wendy Flowers sang with us on stage in San Francisco and she sang it as a duet. She’s in her 50s now. Amazing. Perfect pitch.
MC: Is the Bobby Brown story true? (that they asked him to sing on Juxtaposed with U, a single from 2001)
Gruff: Yeah. We asked your man from East 17, Brian Harvey, but he turned us down.
MC: And the Bobby Brown thing?
Gruff: We couldn’t get through to him even. He’s on a different planet.
MC: Has he still got that triangular hair?
Gruff: Last time I saw him he was all shaved off. He was in Israel with Whitney, getting baptised again.
MC: I can see Super Furries hanging around with Bobby and Whitney. Isn’t Whitney a big smoker?
Gutto: Yeah, a big bong-head.
Gruff: Bobby’s more of a bucket man. Whitney’s into the bong.
Gutto: That’s why they’re always fighting.
MC: You’d think it would calm them down
Gutto: Some people it goes the other way and they go mental.

MC: You’ve done a new DVD for Phantom Power after the one you did for Rings Around the World which was well received. What have you done differently this time?
Gutto: The main difference between Rings and Phantom Power is the fact that you can do a surround sound mix on the computer at home instead of going into a two grand film studio which is horribly overpriced. But it’s good that the Rings technology has gone into people’s houses and it’s always cool when that happens. It just makes it cheaper…
Cian: …and more accessible to people and not just a thing for multimillion selling bands.
MC: Some of the videos to Rings Around the World were very powerful. I remember seeing you play Run Christian Run at a festival in Dublin and the whole crowd were ignoring the band on stage and just listening to the music. Is that what you wanted to happen?
Cian: Well, the DVD we primarily started because we wanted to do surround sound. The visuals side came afterwards and on Rings some people were saying it can be distracting – watching more than listening, so on Phantom Power, because you can have multiple streams of visuals on the DVD, people have got something to look at but it doesn’t take away from the music. Hopefully people will listen more than they would have in the past.

MC: I read a quote from you Gruff from 2001 where you said “I think in Welsh and have to translate my thoughts into English.”
Gruff: You see I never said that. It really pisses me off. I dunno who the fuck says that. It really fucks me off.
MC: And you’re held accountable.
Gruff: Yeah, and everything I read on us, people [comment on it] but you know, I’m just as slow in Welsh as I am in English. I’m just fucking slow! But, you know, if I couldn’t speak English I wouldn’t have bothered recording six albums or so in English. It’s a sound-bite made by some journalist at some point that been perpetuated by people who like writing. I dunno why.
MC: Is it frustrating that people pick up on that all the time?
Gruff: A bit. I think people over romanticise a little. So it’s a bit strange.
MC: So when you’re writing songs how do you decide which ones are going to be Welsh and which ones are going to be English? Is it just that the lyrics sound better in Welsh?
Gruff: Occasionally a lyric is driven by a lyric. Like here, we’ve got some sugar sachets which is called “Coffee with Passion.”
Cian: Amore!
Gruff: So you’ll get some words into your head and it’ll turn into a melody so ‘coffee with passion’ is (sings) 'coffee with passion' and the next thing, it’s a song. Sometimes it’s based on a Welsh phrase and it sounds really good and you don’t wanna change it or translate it. Sometimes a lyric will lead to songs and sometimes a melody will come first and you can decide which language you want, but sometimes the language dictates the song. We don’t like to mess around with it too much.

MC: Would a radio station like this have been good for you guys when you starting up?
Gruff: Totally. In Cardiff you mean? There’s nothing like this is Cardiff.
Cian: They’re few and far between in the whole of the UK
MC: There’s not much community radio in the UK is there?
Gutto: No. You get pirate radio shows in the major cities, but not in Cardiff.
MC: Super Furry radio?
Gruff: Shit yeah! We were gonna broadcast on tour. We were gonna get a transmitter on the bus. But we forgot. We were meant to do that about three years ago but we forgot everything about it. Dunno what happened. Maybe it clashed with the police frequencies or something.

MC: Are you looking forward to playing Australia again?
Gruff: Yeah, definitely. It’s weird not being here for 4 ½ years. I don’t know if anyone has heard what we’ve done in the meantime.
MC: They have, definitely.
Gruff: It’s pretty incredible to come literally to the other side of the world and people know your songs.
MC: In the past you’ve had smoking volcanoes, you had a great visor Gruff, yeti costumes, quadraphonic sound, the infamous blue rave tank which you sold to Don Henley from the Eagles and also Acoustic Bingo. Is there anything that you’ve wanted to do that’s been too expensive to do?
Gruff: Aircraft carrier we’re still working on… Nightclub…
Gutto: Lasers. We asked for lasers but they said that you’ve got to have a plumber. I think it was just the crew lying.
MC: Surely you can get what you want now can’t you?
Gruff: We’ve bankrupted so many record labels. We bankrupted Creation, Fly Daddy, Ankst, S Records, Placid Casual. Sony we’re on the verge of bankrupting after the Rings around the World budget.
MC: Money well spent though…
Gruff: Fucking brilliant, aye!

MC: Cheers guys – we’ve been taking to Gruff…
Gruff: … that’s me…
MC: Gutto
Gutto: hello that’s me! Thanks!
MC: and Cian
Cian: Bonza
MC: … from Super Furry Animals. Thanks very much guys, cheers.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Super Furry Interview Part 1

Day 2 of Super Furry week on Mint Custard and as promised here is the first part of an interview I did in 2003 for the launch of Phantom Power.

The band were in Sydney for a gig and Guto, Gruff and Cian came to promote the album at a community radio station where I was a volunteer. I was excited about being given the job but also a bit scared because at this point I'd only ever interviewed Turin Brakes, which as you can probably appreciate wasn't quite on the same scale. There's also that big thing about never meet your heroes, but it turned out to be fine as they were genuinely nice guys. Considering the fact that they had probably already answered similar questions for days they were very chatty, though they were more animated about sport than having to talk about their album again...

We ended up in the beer garden of the pub around the corner, so picture if you will picnic tables, sunshine and scavenging birds leaping about the place, one of which which will play a part in our story.

Gruff: Australia’s sponsored to fuck isn’t it? The product placement… it’s insane.
MC: What things have you seen that make you feel like that?
Gruff: Kitchen knives. You know, they go to the adverts in the cookery section of a program and it’s “Woah, check out these knives by so-and-so company. Don’t they glide through the strawberry?”
MC: I remember my first rugby league game in Australia and each try was brought to you by Beazer Homes or something. I guess the rugby is on everybody’s minds right now, did you watch any of the rugby while you were travelling around?
Gruff: Just the final.
Cian: We’re not big rugby fans, contrary to popular myth about Welsh pride. It’s a butt sniffing game
MC: Wales did you proud though – even though you don’t care
Cian: Well, I care but I’m not a fan.
Gutto: We’re Welsh football fans. We’ve had more important things to think about (Wales have just narrowly lost in the playoffs for the European Championships). We’re a nation of three million playing against Russia and it’s 1-0 over two games
Gruff: I’m glad they’ve missed out cos we’d have all been seriously depressed (watching Wales lose in the tournament)
MC: What do you think the Welsh fans would have brought to the European Championships?
Gruff: A sense of the unbelievable.
Cian: I think if we’d actually made it the Welsh fans would have been thinking ‘this could be the only tournament we’re ever gonna go to’ and that would have made it special.
MC: Are you fans of Sparky (Mark Hughes, then-Wales manager and now with Manchester City)?
Cian: Yeah of course. The guys just an absolute solid, steady minded guy
Gutto: Cos when he took over they were on the verge of being the worst Welsh team in history. Something like 11 defeats in a row, but the backbone of the team is the same as it was then so he’s turned it around.
MC: I’d be happy to support them more but Craig Bellamy plays for Newcastle United and as a Sunderland fan it sticks in my craw…
Gruff: Aye, I understand. But he was out in the States having an operation on his knee unfortunately so he didn’t make the playoffs. But Sparky is also one of the only existentialist managers in football at the moment. He’s a big fan of Camus… which is unusual for a football manager.
MC: Wasn’t Camus a goalkeeper?
Gruff: Exactly. So he’s found an intellectual tradition in football
MC: So you think that’s they key to their recent success?
Gruff: And their loss… and the pain…

MC: I guess we should talk about your new album, Phantom Power
All: Oh yeah, aye…
MC: Super Furry Animals have always been a politicised band if not overtly political. How do you feel about people picking up so much on the politics on Phantom Power? Is it all George Bush’s fault?
Gruff: I dunno. It was recorded over a very strange time where we were confronted by images of war anyway you turned and a war that was being fought in our name as British citizens, which is highly embarrassing. We travel the world on British passports and we have a Prime Minister who’s making completely illogical decisions… it’s completely insane and he’s dragging millions of people down with him to some gutter level that’s dictated by oil companies and it’s just really depressing. It ended up affecting the whole mood of the album and the lyrics.
MC: It’s still quite an uplifting experience listening to Phantom Power though. Do you hear that when you listen back to it?
Gutto: Yeah, you know we sing sometimes about dark subjects but I don’t think we’re a dark band. It’s not depressing. It’s better to shout about it than go all quite and be miserable.
Gruff: It’s balanced out by songs about dogs and tennis players and road trips…
MC: We played Golden Retriever on our show the other day alongside Poodle Rocking by Gorky’s.
Gutto: Excellent – well you know there’s a big dog movement going on at the moment.
MC: Worldwide?
Gutto: It’s just a Welsh thing
Gruff: Snoop Dogg in America as well, he’s representing ‘Dog Rock’ in the States. And Nate Dogg. Erm, I could go on. Elvis? With Old Shep…
MC: Hound Dog?

Gruff: Fucking hell yeah – he was big on dogs wasn’t he?

MC: You worked with Mario Caldato, Beastie Boys producer. How did that come about and what did he bring to the album?
Gruff: He mixed the album. We started recording with Gorwel Owen who’s produced a lot of our albums, doing live tracks with him, but he wanted to spend some time off at home in his garden with his wife, but he was willing to give us two weeks. So we recorded some live stuff at Rockfield Studios (in Wales) where Black Sabbath and Queen and Hawkwind used to record as well as Stones Roses and people like that. Then we took all the tapes back to Cardiff and did a lot of work in our own time on a computer. We stuck all these organic sounding songs into a computer and then a guy called Tony Doucan came along to finish it off.
MC: Did Mario bring any hip hop influences do you think?
Gruff: Well, I’m well into his records by Money Mark, you know? He deals in song writing like we do but also electronics and he just brings an interesting texture to the songs and he doesn’t clean it up too much. He makes it powerful and it’s really interesting to see him work. He’s very friendly with effects, dub effects, and we didn’t really want him to add beats - just keep the texture and the warmth and not polish it too much.
MC: Cian, you’re the techno wiz of Super Furry Animals, was it interesting for you working with Mario?
Cian: Everyone in the band, when they’re in the studio, no-one has a set job as such… FUCKING HELL!
MC: Cian’s just been attacked by a giant lizard… oh it’s a bird…
Cian: ARRRRRGGGH! Sorry, erm, everyone in the band has erm… I’ve forgotten the question…
Gruff: We had everything in the computer and we avoided tape so it was interesting working with him in terms of … you know… we … erm… (Gruff loses the plot completely and it all tails off…)

More in Part 2 tomorrow: in which we hear about Bobby Brown, deciding whether to sing in Welsh or English, how to bankrupt a record company and Super Furry aircraft carriers

Monday, 27 April 2009

Super Furries Am Byth!

Helo pawb. Croeso i wythnos Super Furry Animals ymlaen Bathdy Cwstard (that’s meant to be ‘Hello everyone, and welcome to Super Furry Animals week on Mint Custard’ – but probably isn’t even close…)

Rejoice, for the Super Furry Animals have a new album out. After listening to the magnificent
Dark Days / Light Years all weekend I had intended to write a review, and share my tuppence worth on why people should go buy.

But then I got to thinking there is an inevitability that yet another gem by one the world’s most creative, consistent and generally fantastic groups will again receive glowing reviews, make lots of fans excited and happy and then disappear from public view until December where it will appear at #8 in every list of Albums of the Year. At this point list-makers will once again bemoan that the Super Furries
should be the biggest band on the world, people don’t deserve them and they don’t get the sales or attention they should.

If I may engage in football parlance, I have learnt through painful experience that teams that sit deep in defence don’t score many goals. I’ve therefore decided to go on the offensive, employing an attacking Furry formation with a view that scoring lots of goals early on will give the boys confidence as the campaign wears on, and lead them to greater glory. Or something like that…

Therefore I am celebrating the Australian launch of Dark Days / Light Years by dedicating this small corner of the interweb to all things SFA for the whole week. Please don't expect any partiality or logic (unless it is of the fuzziest nature). I ask Furry fans and non-Furry fans of the world to join us in celebrating the simple fact that the Super Furry Animals exist. And to forgive my terrible forays into the Welsh language…

Dark Days / Light Years: the scores on the doors

In the absence of my own review of Dark Days / Light Years (in summary: it’s all quite wonderful, apart from Crazy Naked Girls which is a bit too Spinal Tap doing Led Zeppelin for me and let’s people get away with dismissing SFA as stoner kids) the best summing up I’ve seen was in this
Pitchfork review which gave a score of 8.3 out of 10 but said why quite nicely.

The normally effusive Guardian gave a couple of cursory reviews but still gave
4/5 in one and said it might just be their best record in a decade in the other. NME gave it 8 out of10 but did that ‘Best Album since Rings Around the World’ type review which just shows that people didn’t listen properly to Love Kraft.

BBC Music doesn’t give scores but said it was a ‘fantastic set that’s all brain-filler and no buzz-killer.’ A few reviews have picked out that this is a proper old-fashioned album, meant to be listened to from start to finish, with the Quietus noting that the songs are ‘sequenced with the deftness of a DJ set.

Tiny Mix Tapes is less convinced, thinking that some of the songs are excessively long, a view shared by Culture Deluxe. I honestly disagree; the longer tracks are more about building a mood or groove than just being long for the sake of it. Tiny Mix Tapes also repeats the bizarre (but reasonably common from reviews I've seen of older SFA albums) opinion that this would be an excellent album by anyone else but the Super Furries who should know/do better. Surely a great album is a great album. Would you listen to it any less because your expectations were higher?

Anyway, back to the Furry-friendly:
Popmatters keep the average up with 8 out of 10, as does Coke Machine Glow with a 77%, sharing my review problem by admitting ‘at the risk of sounding redundant, this being Super Furry Animals, there just isn’t that much to dislike.’

So there you go; the people they say YES! If you’ve done a review and would like to post a link or just know of a good one then please drop me an email or leave a comment and we’ll spread the good word together.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 1 of an interview I did with Guto, Cian and Gruff in 2004 and other Furry goodness.


Only a year late, but I found the album Angles by Dan le Sac v Scroobius Pip at the weekend for a snip and decided to take a punt. I loved the single Thou Shalt Always Kill – as much for the bleepy silliness as Pip’s post-millennium Howl!/The Revolution Will not be Televised rant – and was pleased that the album was of a similar quality and actually much better than the ‘new Streets’ reviews that people were lazily banding around. It’s got more in common with the work of Abdominal and DJ Format, with clever lyrics bonding with interesting and diverse beats in a way that makes you question why it’s not more popular.

One track in particular, Tommy C, made me appreciate someone with fresh ideas who doesn’t feel that they have to talk about the same old shit all the time. It’s essentially a tribute to how funny Tommy Cooper was, set against an argument that casually using the word ‘beautiful’ just leads to it being devalued. It describes the audience’s reaction to the (almost) true story of Cooper’s death of a heart attack on stage in 1984 (they laughed and applauded) with Pip challenging ‘Now tell me one fucking thing that's more beautiful than that... Cos' I’m sure I can’t think of one.’

I’m always up for a list, especially one that can’t be disproved or have any genuine purpose, but I just ended up reminiscing about nice moments in my life, and frankly it was all a bit sweet and gushing. That said here are a couple of times when the right thing just seemed to happen and my heart (and those of a few other people) was lifted:

Pulp headline Glastonbury (1995): my missus went to Glastonbury in 1993 where the headliners included Midnight Oil, a reformed Velvet Underground, Robert Plant, The Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, The Kinks and Van Morrison. You get some sense therefore of the beauty of the seismic shift that occurred in just two years that led to Jarvis standing before 50,000 people telling people that ‘if this lanky git can make it then you can too’ before launching into one of the
finest renditions of Common People you’ll ever see.

Dennis Taylor beats Steve Davis: bizarrely this was the first sporting memory that came into my head when I thought of beauty, despite Dennis Taylor’s memorably style-free upside-down glasses. Taylor won the
1985 World Snooker Championship with the last black of the last frame against Steve Davis, who was then the all-conquering Manchester United robot-man of snooker. Taylor’s cue-aloft, finger waggling celebration and fucking HUGE smile still makes me tear-up. And it’s snooker!

Maxine McKew wins John Howard’s seat in Bennelong Elections suck. Great idea in theory but the bad guys always win. Some might say that they’re all bad guys, but there will always be those who care more about the people they represent than others. McKew’s victory in Howard’s backyard was all the sweeter because it had been said that if she won then so would Labor, and so it was. In the end Howard actually looked relieved, but not as much as the rest of us. See also UK Election Night, May 1997 and the US Presidential Election 2008. However history has these things ending up, it doesn’t take away the joy of how it started.

Sunderland 4-1 Chelsea, December 1999 After winning the Championship in 1998/1999 with a record number of points, Sunderland’s first game back in the Premier League was away to Chelsea. It’s fair to say we got twatted, 4-0, and were immediately listed amongst the favourites to get relegated (this is in the days before our very presence in the Premier League made us favourites to go down). Beautiful then to gain revenge four months later at the Stadium of Light and not just win, but play Chelsea off the pitch so comprehensively that it was 4-0 at half-time. Beautiful that the goals came from Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, whose goals had got us up from the Championship, and beautiful then that SKP’s second could still win
Goal of the Year.

Arriving with the coffin at my Grandpa’s funeral to a guard of honour by the remaining few men from his army regiment. This is nothing to do with glorification of war. I don’t believe in it, and neither did my Grandpa. He didn’t talk about bravery or causes or military might, just the friends and comrades who made up his regiment and who he met up with once a year. He attended their every funeral, and when it was his turn, they were there for him. I don’t know what I felt that day; pride for him I suppose, pride for all of them, pride to be there as a member of his family. I don’t even know if I was entitled to feel pride in something I had nothing to do with, but I did, and it was beautiful.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Sarah Millican's Not Nice, Melbourne Town Hall

I caught Sarah Millican as part of the Gala show on Channel 10 that showcased Melbourne Comedy Festival acts at the start of the month. She was just about the only act that piqued my interest, partly due to her North East accent but mostly due to a very funny routine about a romantic shower-a-deux that ceased to be sexy when she realised it had essentially become mutual washing. She has gone on to be one of the success stories of the Festival, selling out most of her nights at Melbourne Town Hall and being nominated this week for a Barry Award.

Sarah Millican’s Not Nice is a show about the questions people ask themselves when a long term relationship ends. It’s based on her own experience of divorce and her unexpected return to singles life. Millican is a natural story teller and it’s hard not to laugh at her tales of absurd and unhelpful advice and words of (supposed) comfort she received from her friends and family post-break up.

More squirrel dear? Sarah Millican takes in brunch

The show is also a story of moving on and embracing being single (and then reattached) in these anything goes post-millennial times. It's sprinkled with tales of sex toy shopping, dating, comfort eating, underwear with messages and not liking kids. On this last point whilst considering unappealing offers from parents to come over and hang out with their offspring, Millican counter-offers ‘would you like to come over to mine and watch me kill a wasp?’

There is something undeniably unique about the sense of humour in the North East of England and it was hard for me to separate Sarah’s telling of her plight from her geographical roots. Having lived there for many years I felt a natural warmth towards her, despite some of the jokes erring into the world of ‘men and women: they're different.’ I also couldn't help but think of a couple of other comic icons of the North East; Middlesbrough's Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown and Newcastle-based adult comic,

Whilst Millican has nothing in common with the childish and old school casual racism and sexism of Chubby Brown, some of her more bawdy comments about sex would have sat comfortably in one of his routines. The fact that such jokes seem fresher and more appealing from the mouth of an attractive woman says as much about the evolution of political correctness as much as the material itself.

Perhaps a kinder comparison is to
Viz which is less malevolent but purposefully puerile to the point of genius. Their ongoing Roger’s Profanisaurus – a collection of reader-suggested swear words and euphemisms from around the world (but mostly from Northern England) could have provided a few choice responses to her request for the audience to suggest alternative names for (ahem) lady parts. That said her punchline – that the show’s title is not all that it seems - provided a nice subversive twist that as she said ‘would make me Mam blush.’

Sarah Millican has the charm and the personality to have a long career in comedy and Sarah Millican’s Not Nice is a nice end to a chapter in her life. There was a real mixed crowd there to see her, including a lot of people well past fifty, and she made us all laugh so she clearly has the every woman touch. Personally I’d like to see her stretch out a bit more and see what makes her laugh – because I think there’s a whole lot more to this lady than the sum of these particular (lady) parts.

Sarah Millican's Not Nice is on at the Melbourne Town Hall until Sunday 26th April. You can follow Sarah's very funny blog

Dot versus the Tw*ts

'TimesFashion on Tw*tter – be our 10,000th follower.' I saw this today on the Times website and it got my blood churning a bit. A link led to earth-shattering revelations such as ‘flares a no go in the rain’ and ‘it's the perfect weather to wear a big cardi as a coat - teamed mine with leggings, tunic and pumps.

Setting aside the ego and vanity issues associated with thinking that strangers might give a monkeys about the minutiae of your life (and it is minutiae as ‘tweets’ are limited to 140 characters per post) there is something disconcertingly ugly about the language involved in Tw*tter.

Media commentators have long spoken of celebrity being the new religion, but ‘Be our 10,000th follower’ sounds like an invitation to join a new world order. It would seem that a decade watching regular Joes and Joans on Big Brother et al have left people believing that if we all act like celebrities then we too can have followers. And why not turn it into a popularity competition too?

I’m aware that there is hypocrisy in someone who writes a blog anonymously and pointlessly in the hope that someone will have the occasional gander, attacking a social networking site. However, I still keep coming to the conclusion that Tw*tter is one of the worst ideas that mankind has ever spewed up. Most bloggers at least try and have something to say and put a bit more effort in than just describing the colour of their pants. Tw*tterers are almost encouraged to say the first thing that leaps into their heads, like Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show.

It was therefore nice to see the whole shallow phenomenon neatly summed up by June Brown, the grand dame of English soap operas, better known to the world as Dot Cotton. June is up for a BAFTA award this week for a thoughtful and moving Alan Bennett Talking Heads-like monologue on Eastenders last year. If she wins she’ll be the first soap actor ever to take home a BAFTA. At 82 she’s no doubt seen a lot of guff in her time, but the freshness of her distain for the Tw*tterers
as revealed in this week’s Guardian made me smile:

"What on earth do they call it - Twitter?" She repeats it witheringly. ‘Twit-ter. That's what it is. Telling everybody what they're doing! And talking about themselves in the third person. 'June is about to go to the lavatory.' 'June has just changed the sheets on her bed, don't ask her why.' I mean, really." Her fellow BAFTA nominee Stephen Fry Twitters all the time, I tell her. "Does he? Oh, I'm ashamed of him. He's such a lovely man. Such a clever, lovely man with a nice relationship. What does he need to do that for? He should read a book.” Hear hear Dorothy, hear hear.

Winter: like Summer but Colder

I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, but I was recently obliged to buy a pair of what can best be described as ‘sports leggings’ to stop me freezing my little bottom off whilst riding my bike to and from work. With the changing of the seasons what was once a sleepy stumble from bed to bicycle via toothbrush for a gentle two-wheeled amble across Melbourne in the morning sun now feels like being held hostage in the freezer section of Coles in my underpants.

I have attempted to keep whatever dignity is possible for someone of my stature in skin-tight jerkins by wearing shorts on top, but this just leaves the impression that I’ve just been eliminated from America’s Next Top Superhero for not having a cape.

Still, I’ve been a lot toastier which is really all that counts but it all serves as a stark warning that my first Melbourne winter is just around the corner. This reminded me of a
recent post by Kate on the Monday Project blog in which she listed reasons to be excited about a Melbourne winter. So in the interests of sharing, here are some of my own:

  1. Pasties and cheese and tomato toasties as a way of life
  2. Wiping condensation off the hairdryer in a morning to avoid electrocution and feeling like someone wiping fingerprints off a gun
  3. Wearing winter coats that make you look like the Beatles in Help!
  4. Only nine hours difference between us and the UK which means that football is back on at a sane hour of the evening
  5. Going to places that only thrive in summer and enjoying the silence
  6. Riding bikes in the dark and imagining the light rays as your own personal bat-signal or light-sabre type device
  7. Sitting in caf├ęs with gas fires on to save on heating bills at home
  8. See you later wasps and flies. Hope you become extinct in some freak winter hibernation accident (but a natural one that no one expected and not some form of insect genocide)
  9. Respite from having to wear shorts and thongs thus regaining some of the dignity lost during summer
  10. Going for a walk on the beach on a grey day with your walkman on and singing Everyday is like Sunday by Morrissey out loud
  11. The smell of real fires coming from real chimneys like in Mary Poppins
  12. Boots that are made for walking (and that’s just what they do)
  13. Losing a few days of your life watching DVD box sets in bed
  14. Curry as both a food and bodily heating device
  15. Hoping, despite scientific and historical evidence, that it will snow

Monday, 20 April 2009

Never Trust Robots

In 2006 a wise and brave man called Andrew Johnson risked his life to expose the phenomenon of an evil robot invasion on Earth through the medium of song. He also made this short film, presumably so that deaf people would also be alerted to the threat. Andrew's advice was simple and clear - never trust robots. Even the cute ones.

People of the Southern hemisphere, I bring terrible news. The invasion we were warned about by Mr Johnson has reached our shores. Innocent people are going about their business: buying chips, eating chips, thinking about chips, and all the while little robot eyes are trained on us, plotting their next move. Like how to get our chips.

Whilst I lack the medium of song, dance and video with which to fight the robot menace, I do have a shitty camera on my phone, and whilst I have memory on my card I will document their invasion of our land so that you might know their faces and be alerted. Comrades - remember, some are cute, some are in disguise, but all of them are after your chips. Possibly. Never trust robots.

Christmas disguise, Brunswick Street, Fitzroy

One Eyed Jack, Wellington, New Zealand

Apartment Stalker, Prahran

Brilliant camouflaged but the cheesy grin gives him away, Melbourne City

Dusty, possibly deactivated (or out of batteries): Fairfield

Johnny Five is Alive, North Fitzroy

The Hideous Face of Technology Gone Evil, Sydney Big Day Out

If you see robots in our streets and would like to join the good fight of man versus machine, please don't hesitate to send in your pictures. Together we can make a difference.

Steve Coogan, the Forum, Melbourne

As a bit of a fan, Steve Coogan’s first appearance on these shores has been bizarre to observe. Revered in the UK as a result of over twenty mostly fantastic years on television and latterly film, Coogan was until recently almost anonymous in Australia. Initial publicity touted his turns in the Michael Winterbottom movies 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story as a reason to go and see him, but these were critical and not commercial successes. Coupled with the fact that the shows in which he made his name have never been shown on free-to-air TV and his low profile is easy to understand.

And yet, it goes further. There is an irony in the fact that for a long time Coogan fought to remain out of the public eye to the point of obsession. His characters involved use of wigs, make-up and prosthetics, many intended to make him look older than his years. He didn’t do interviews or quiz shows either, something which created a Peter Sellers-like air of mystery in the UK. Robbed of a story the tabloid press filled the vacuum with tales of lurid excess; fast cars, cocaine, a rampant ego and wild encounters with Hollywood stars including getting Courtney Love pregnant and supplying Owen Wilson with drugs. The line between truth and tittle-tattle has remained a little blurry, especially following a stellar performance in Jim Jarmusche’s Coffee and Cigarettes in which he sent himself up as an insincere careerist arsehole.

Whatever the reasons (and they could be purely commercial) Coogan has been on a bit of a charm offensive since his arrival in Australia. I was embarrassed for him at having to sit through an appearance on Rove (MacManus unable to help himself from introducing his guest with a big ‘A-ha!’ – the 1994 catchphrase of the indomitable Alan Partridge. Laughable really, since Rove himself is actually a worse TV talk show host than the purposefully terrible Partridge. Coogan also fared well on Spicks and Specks and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. However, it’s by his Melbourne Comedy Festival shows that Coogan will be judged, so I’m happy to report that his reputation can only have been enhanced by his time here.

The show at the Forum (a great place to watch anything) was set up like a coiled spring, with the first half comprising three characters and complete costume changes to build up the energy and excitement before launching Partridge onto us in all his awful glory for the bulk of the second half. The whole show was nicely punctuated by Partridge-like miscellanea about the theatre announced over the sound system.

Up first were Coogan’s first famous creations, Paul and Pauline Calf, pre-chav icons of the early nineties transported straight from the Manchester estate on Shameless. Despite drawing big laughs from the audience, both felt more like a journey back in time than anything from 2009. Paul is a student hating, beer swilling troglodyte from John Major’s Britain where he still appears to be, both in dress and manner. It seems like there’s nowhere for him to go, especially when Coogan trots out some of the same gags he did a decade ago. Paul can still raise laughs with the odd well timed fart-noise but he should probably be put to bed (in a drunken coma one assumes) for good.

Less so his sister Pauline (Coogan in mini-dress and prosthetic boobs) who, despite a bit of older material, proved that you can’t keep a good woman down. Where Paul is stuck in his time warp, Pauline has changed with the times, becoming stronger, more independent, a mother and changing her hair (and underwear) to match Jennifer Aniston’s. Her gags are old (essentially Pauline is a happy go lucky tart, happy to sleep with anyone and even happier to discuss it) but they are still relevant as attested by the crowd reaction.

One character who has improved over time is Tony Ferrino, the Portuguese lounge singer cross between Julio Iglesias and Tom Jones. Coogan’s first flop persona in the UK, Ferrino seems to work better in a live audience than on the TV. He also benefits from a very funny five minute video back story, telling a Rutles style mock-biography which brings the unfamiliar up to date. There are other Coogan characters I would rather have seen (the wonderful complex world of Tommy Saxondale, roadie turned pest controller for one) but Ferrino was a pleasant surprise and probably offered more of a show than Saxondale could have.

The star of the show, and by star I mean STAR in big gold letters with heavenly trumpets is of course Alan Partridge. Partridge is by far one of the best characters to have come out of British TV comedy, perhaps bettered by Basil Fawlty and only then because Cleese’s was such an iconic, gangly and manic performance. Both men share a genius for acute embarrassment, but what Fawlty offers in physical comedy Partridge counters via his non-gift for the English language. His doomed searches for clever words, meaningful metaphors, cutting ripostes, witty put downs and especially his hyperbolic descriptions of the mundane make Partridge endearing (pity is a strong emotion when you see a grown man so desperate and in need of help) and unwittingly funny. His yearning for the trappings of stardom sits uncomfortably with his total lack of empathy with a public who he generally treats with contempt, especially those listening to his radio shows.

Coogan knows Partridge intimately and knows the right buttons to press to ignite the crowd. Unlike with the Calfs, his respect for Partridge is shown in the effort that has gone into updating him and moving his life story on. Alan Partridge in 2009 is a self-appointed life coach and self-help guru, showing the path to a successful life, which has so obviously eluded him. Using a Wii-style motion-sensor glove to operate his laptop presentation Partridge blunders into the 21st century, accidentally revealing the contents of his hard drive to the audience – a nice mix of kinky porn and stills from the Antiques Roadshow. The performance makes nice use of the laptop as a gimmick, especially when Partridge is bored during a radio phone in and absent-mindedly starts checking his emails, unaware that the audience can see his every word.

There is always a temptation for any actor to ditch a strong character to save their own soul and sense of self. Amongst the holy trinity of socially awkward Fawlty and David Brent lived mercifully short lives, but Partridge is more subtle than them both. Perhaps as a result of their extended break, Coogan thankfully seems aware of how potent and funny his creation remains, something which everyone in the Forum audience could attest to. May rumours of an Alan Partridge movie prove true.

Coogan seems far more comfortable in his own skin these days and closed the show with a jaunty Mary Poppins-type number about those tabloid rumours called Everyone’s a Bit of a Cunt Sometimes. Despite interviews in which he suggested that he probably wouldn’t perform the song because Australian audiences might not get all the references it proved a great finale and a more interesting riposte than having to explain himself to journalists. Tellingly it was a humble and make-up free Steve Coogan who took his ovation at the end and left quickly to huge applause from an Australian audience who definitely knew who he was.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Daniel Kitson, 3RRR Performance Space

I fully intended to attempt to write some kind of a review of Daniel Kitson’s current outpourings, currently to be heard in person daily at the 3RRR Performance Space throughout April. Having actually seen his show, I now realise that any words I might try to weld, beat, solder or stick together using flour and water paste would be utterly useless for describing what actually happened.

Without being so bold as to assume that anyone cares what I think, let me assure you that divorced from the delivery of Daniel himself, any attempt to explain the stories and events relayed last night would just end up achieving the opposite of my aim which is to make as many people go and see Daniel Kitson as possible.

With this in mind, I’ll limit my own thoughts to the following:

· Daniel, the joke about splitting the atom with your knob was indeed funnier than belied by the audience reaction. I nearly fell off my chair, unaided.

· Stories about poo always make me laugh. Especially when the word ‘poo’ is used.

· More people should go and see Daniel Kitson. He’s very, very funny.

Mad Men as Muse

Mad Men finally got a showing on terrestrial TV in Australia last night and I’ve been doing my bit to spread the word at work. It unearthed a few closet fans, including one lovely person who sent me a link to these incredible Mad Men homages by Ms Dyna Moe at Nobody’s Sweetheart. She's done a new design based on each episode of the two series so far, which is above and beyond the call of any muse. And they're all ace. I think I want them all.

All images copyright Ms Dyna Moe and can be purchased from Dyna herself here.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Rob Hunter's Moosecow, Portland Hotel

I’m not sure why, but until I moved to Melbourne I don’t think I actually understood what the Melbourne Comedy Festival was (despite the obvious clues in the title). Perhaps it was the NSW Tourism Board putting something in my lemonade to convince me it was all a bit crap and mostly involved watching Wil Anderson, Dave Hughes, Judith Lucy and that bloke off Spicks and Specks that everyone loves. Apart from me.

Up until this year my Melbourne Comedy Festival basically involved me sitting in Sydney waiting for Daniel Kitson to play (what I now realise to be) sideshows and tell us all about how much more of a nice time he had in Melbourne than in Sydney.

So, much like Morrissey recently discovering sex for the first time, I’m all wide-eyed and excited about what’s going on right now in these very streets. It was quite exciting standing outside the Town Hall on Thursday in front of a menu of acts on a blackboard and wondering what to take in. I even quite liked the spruikers and pamphleteers, one of whom was dressed like a bee, all trying to tell me that I’d have a lovely evening in their company. I felt quite wanted.

We plumped for a show by Adelaide comedian
Rob Hunter, of whom we knew nothing apart from his show was called Moosecow and his flyer had a nice Daniel Clowes- style picture of him dressed as said made-up beast. This stood up well compared to other flyers with pictures of people smiling inanely, looking grumpy or the legions of “if you liked Flight of the Conchords then you’ll love this” musical comedy acts.

The show was in a very small dark room in the Portland Hotel which immediately made us feel claustrophobic and a bit scared. We needn’t have worried as Rob and his friend ‘Joel’ (not his real name) were charming hosts, with Rob as awkward and self-conscious as ‘Joel’ was energised and manic.

This was an enjoyable hour, made up of lots of clever and nicely silly ideas, all backed up by non- sequitur set pieces and clever use of recorded sound and props. There was a gentle and homemade feel about the show with both performers using the third person and imaginary characters to insult each other and poke fun at the audience without ever crossing a line into nasty.

That said, I’d be lying if I told you everyone was laughing out loud the whole time. This wasn’t (as they kept insisting) because we were all confused but was more a question of delivery and pacing. Once it was established that this was a theatrical show and not just straight stand-up (reinforced by Rob’s admission that everything he said in the show was a lie) it became clear that only one of the cast (‘Joel’) was a strong enough actor to raise the energy levels and make us all believe this was something more than a couple of blokes with some funny thoughts. Rob’s slightly forced and awkward presentation (whether deliberate or just nerves) meant that some good ideas - and opportunities to explore them further - were rushed and a little lost.

This said, laughing out loud is not a prerequisite for me to enjoy comedy; sometimes I just enjoy being in someone’s company for a while and listening to their thoughts. This was one of those situations. Moosecow looks like the start of something that will end up a whole lot funnier and, if they get the balance right, perhaps more of a double act. It’ll be interesting to see what beast it mutates into next.

Moosecow is showing from 7pm throughout the Melbourne Comedy Festival at the Portland Hotel, Corner of Russell and Little Collins Streets, Melbourne.

Monday, 13 April 2009

When Childhood Dreams Go Bad

The Mint Custard garden is now 5 months old and despite lack of experience has brought a surprising amount of happiness. They may have been bonsai-sized, but carrots, onions, beetroots have all grown from seed to garden to kitchen table, and lettuces and spinach leaves have grown aplenty.

Next cab off the vegetable rank are the cherry tomatoes (which I suppose makes them the next cab off the fruit/vegetable rank depending upon your persuasions) and harvesting has already begun.

This is now a race against time, because I am under attack from an erstwhile friend of mine – the caterpillar. Yes, where once, thanks to the genius of Eric Carle there was mutual joy that such a small creature could happily much his way through not just leaves but ice cream, salami, watermelon, cheese and a lollypop – now there is the murderous atmosphere of former brothers at war.

I am not moved by his cute “inching along” type movements. I am no longer impressed by his ability to camouflage himself against any coloured leaf. I am particularly unimpressed at the speed at which he can eat through an embryonic tomato which I have loving cultivated from just a seed through drought and 46 degree days and (minor) earthquakes.

I have found myself alone amongst my pot plants; silent, stealthy and ready to pounce. I hear the words of Jules from Pulp Fiction bastardised in my head: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to eat and destroy my tomatoes. And you will know my name is the Gardener when I lay my vengeance upon thee...”

Of course, as a pinky-lefty commie pescatarian I can’t actually bring myself to execute my new foes (though I did accidentally cut one in half with a pair of shears). To get around this I have found that if you place them up high enough their lush greenness makes them highly attractive to passing birds. Especially when they are deep fried and wrapped in bread crumbs... Let this be a warning to you Mr So-Called-Very-Hungry-Caterpillar - (assuming you have internet access) - stay away from my tomatoes, motherf*cker...

Something to Believe In...

Reading the local newspaper in the park yesterday it was interesting to see that Easter had been reduced to just a couple of articles that took up half of page three. I guess after 2000 years of reporting pretty much the same story there isn’t too much more to say; either you’re into it or you’re not and two public holidays, another speech by the Pope and some chocolate eggs aren’t going to change your mind.

Personally I quite like meeting people with beliefs, as long as they’ve got them under their own steam. It’s more interesting discussing religion with someone who believes in something than just sitting around with a bunch of people going “religion? Meh...” That’s partly why I like John Safran, who quite spectacularly made the news yesterday by electing to have himself crucified (yes, actually crucified with nails etc) in the Philippines on Friday.

Safran is a talented and interesting writer and performer and could easily have stayed in the safe waters of celebrity bating or making shows about music culture. Fortunately for us he has embraced the idea that far from being a boring topic, religion is perhaps the topic. Whatever you believe in, someone else will either ignore you, pity you, disagree with you, be embarrassed by you or in some cases hate you. Safran is fascinated by the power of religion, with its rituals, hypocrisies, insecurities, lies, consistencies, inconsistencies, historical accuracy, comforts and hatreds. It’s good that we have someone so interesting and entertaining exploring these topics, and not just leaving such discussion to late night SBS and ABC serious discussion shows.

I have no idea what motivated Safran to want to experience crucifixion, but those seeking to dismiss it as a stunt should remember that his actions are consistent with his work over the past five years, and especially the SBS show John Safran vs. God. Over eight episodes he exposed himself to the myriad of world religions, organised and clearly disorganised and for his troubles received spiritual, physical and mental pain. He tried peyote in the desert, voodoo in Haiti, joined the Klan in America (despite being Jewish), was beaten as part of Zen Buddhist meditation and memorably underwent an exorcism in front of a Pentecostal church. There are clearly dramatic and highly watchable pictures to be gained from these events, but one also feels that having experienced them Safran is a little closer to being able to understand what motivates their practitioners and therefore maybe the world that we live in. One can only imagine that the act of crucifixion, something that none of us are likely to ever go through, would be a highly personal and powerful experience.

Much like Bill Drummond, my admiration for John Safran comes from his willingness to put his credibility, time, money, legal status (and now his body) on the line in the pursuit of an idea or an artistic endeavour. Many will be quick to reduce John’s act to attention seeking, but I think we’re fortunate to have inspirational people like Drummond and Safran around, especially in an era when Jade Goody is celebrated as a celebrity.

One comment though, if I may. John, what on earth was that wig about? If you’re going to get yourself crucified, make sure your hair looks nice.