Written by Jen Dan 20 July, 2016
Mancunians Nick Alexander and Dominic ‘Dom’ James, the founding members of long-running psychedelic rock/folk band Politburo, divulge deep details about their upcoming sophomore album, Barrington Way, due out August 19th on Leonard Skully Records, their intriguing musical mindset and backstory, and everything in between. Get ready to be entertained –
Louder Than War: Hey there, Nick and Dom! It’s great to touch base with you about your upcoming sophomore album titled Barrington Way, the sweeping lead single of the same name, and your string of live gigs lined up for this August. Where are you all now and what are the vibes like?
Nick: We’re holed up in our studio, as per usual. We’re already looking past this tour in some ways. There’s an enormous amount that we’d like to record… I hate the idea of songs lying fallow. It’s kind of a neurosis. – A competitive neurosis. Otherwise, the vibe is good. Everyone is very pleased with Barrington Way, so far as I can tell.
Dom: I’m excited about the gigs. We’ve not done a string of dates like this for a while and there’s a couple of shows which I think will be special, such as the Stanley Park bandstand in Blackpool.
Cool! Now, you’ve existed as Politburo since 1999, but the band member roster has changed quite a few times since then. What is the current full line-up for Politburo and what instruments do each of you play?
Nick: Well there’s me. I’m playing rhythm guitar and singing lead vocals. It’s worth noting that everyone plays different stuff in the studio. For example, Dom is a great piano player. But on stage, you have Dom on drums, Steven Joseph on bass, Phil Meredith on lead guitar, and John Loveguns on guitar and synths. To be honest, both Phil and John play lead parts, so I’m not going to christen one or the other as ‘King of Guitar’. But the roster has been very fluid. Not because we’re particularly ruthless. It’s just that… I’m doing this for different reasons to most people. It’s easy to get fed up with me (and Dom).
Barrington Way is a tasty pie made up of a variety of 1960s-steeped, psychedelic rock/folk slices. When and why did you decide to dive into the vintage, psych side of rock/folk music?
Nick: Well, it was after consuming vast quantities of hallucinogens, essentially. We did it the old-fashioned way. I’d never been into drugs. In fact, I was something of a puritan. But I was fascinated by magic and mystery. I’d been raised as a Catholic, so I had these esoteric ideas, like the tabernacle containing the literal body of Christ, sitting alongside watching Saturday morning cartoons. I was seeing an American girl for a while. She was a real straight-edger. When our relationship was crumbling, in an act of curiosity and spite, I blew a bunch of cash on a dozen or so bags of mushrooms. And I can say that they had a huge effect on me and the art we made. I don’t know how psychedelic the music actually sounds. Maybe more than I would like, maybe less. I don’t even like the term. It brings to mind a kind of authoritarian, new age propaganda. I often see the music as being a kind of attempt to make the magic real. I mean… that works better for me.
“Barrington Way”, which closes out the album, is an epic and hybrid number that actually sounds like you attached two different songs together – or at least switched up its ending a whole lot. I think it’s brill and I enjoy how you dispel the initial drifting psych mood with the sudden introduction of a crisp and upbeat tempo. What were your thoughts behind the composition of this tune? What inspired its creation?
Nick: There’s always a hard, physical reality waiting for us when we awake. I mean, I think there is. In fact, the line between the real and the unreal seems more vague than that. The song does change style dramatically, but one part can’t exist without the other. We’re receiving our imaginations from somewhere and they affect everything. Even buying a tin of baked beans. I liked the idea of urgency arising out of the visionary state. There’s a kind of confusion… “I have this knowledge, but I don’t know what to do with it…on the street, in the pub, at work…wherever.” The song came out of a peculiar wander through the English countryside… I talked to some inhabitants of the meadows and woods. The bees were very interesting, in their way, humming a conversation. When I came to document the experience (in the form of a song) however, I was on the bus, headed into the city and I felt so distant from this journey I’d made, so separated and surrounded by hard reality. So the song came out of that dichotomy. Like Kubla Kahn.
I noticed that one of the songs off your forthcoming album, “C’est Moi”, is available on your Soundcloud page. Who is the female vocalist singing lead on it? It seems she also appears on “Carolene” and possibly some other songs off Barrington Way?
Nick: She does indeed. That would be Chloé Sancho, a singer-songwriter from Toulouse, France. I met her in a bar in Manchester and we really got along. I wanted to have an air of the exotic on the album and she gave us that, I think. She seemed to be from another time (and definitely place) and it was an honour to work with her. I hope we do so again. She’s got so much style, it’s ridiculous.
What are some of the lyrical themes that appear on the album? Who is the songwriter in the band?
Dom: Usually Nick writes a song on his acoustic guitar and then he’ll present this song to the rest of the band at a rehearsal. The rest of the band will add their own parts and the final version of the song starts to take shape. Through this process, we can end up with something very similar or something totally different to the original acoustic song. Other members of the band sometimes bring their own ideas as a starting point, and the same process will happen. Every now and then a song will be born out of a jam. We’ve been playing a song called “Blue Star” for about two years now (It’ll be on our next album.), and even after two years this song is still mutating slightly every time we play it. Nick pens the lyrics.
Nick: As for the lyrical themes… There’s a lot of love in there. Pure, twisted, platonic, romantic, and all-encompassing. Confusion is another theme. So is madness, I guess. Some are stories, some are impressions of something I can’t really explain in writing or conversation.
Where is or what is Barrington Way? Is it a specific road from your childhood? Is it a mystical path in the mind that guides towards enlightenment? Or maybe something in between – or further out there?
Nick: Well, there’s a place that exists mainly in my dreams, though it occasionally bleeds out. It has its own geography and its own topography. It has its own inhabitants, its own way of doing things. It’s beautiful and it’s terrifying. When I say ‘bleed out’, I mean that sometimes it seems to become a part of this world, one way or another. It doesn’t care about time or space. It emerges in my childhood memories, it emerges when I’m writing music. It emerges, quite suddenly, when I take a wrong turn in a place I don’t know well. Is it enlightenment? I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet. It’s incredibly powerful and incredibly dangerous to visit. It fascinates me. I just gave it that name, straight from a dream. It’s interesting to me that you mentioned childhood. That’s just so obviously coming from it, isn’t it?
Nick and Dominic, you have a tremendous, on-going ‘rollercoaster ride’ history as Politburo, where you started out as a dark and intense post-punk band with a chip on its shoulder against the whole 1990s Brit-Pop scene. Not to stir up the muck too much, but why was your ire directed at that type of music (or/and attitude) or was it focused only on certain bands?
Nick: Speaking for myself, I can say that I felt powerless for lots of reasons. Back then, I couldn’t play to save my life, so I think there was this jealousy. But also, I felt like they were making irrelevant art. I was a weird kid and I liked Joy Division, David Bowie, The Teardrop Explodes, and Pere Ubu. Elemental music. There was nothing elemental about Brit Pop. It had no soul that I was able or willing to see. It felt like the musical establishment. I hauled that baggage with me into our own career. I was driven to acts of extreme recklessness on stage. I wanted to shock people (which is laughable now, but not so hard as one might think). Other local bands thought we were nuts, so I turned my anger upon them. I felt like they were weak ‘musos’. I guess I burnt a lot of bridges in those teenage years. That said, there was a manifesto. We did think we were doing something radical. Of course, we were heavily into the Situationists, Lettrists, Valerie Solanas, and just about anything we thought was transgressive. There was something there, we weren’t just pissed off kids. We liked to intellectualise rock ‘n’ roll. Speaking for myself, I’ve changed quite a lot since then. But I can’t say how accurate my perceptions are.
Dom: We were always outsiders, but I never thought that was a bad thing. In Manchester certainly, there’s always been bands hyping themselves up and then there’s always talk of “the next big thing”. In the 2000s, Manchester had this big music convention called In The City. All of this was always outside of our reach for one reason or another. However, it was presented frequently in the media and because we were just spectators and young and naive, it did feel like our existence as a band was being invalidated. Of course it wasn’t being invalidated, it was other people just using what they can to sell records and shows. In the end, you learn how to be strong and you learn how to do as many things as possible yourself. We’re a very DIY band.
From what I’ve read, creating debut album Sally and Prinss Revisited in 2012 took its toll on the both of you. Was the creative and recording process for Barrington Way a better experience? I hope so!
Nick: Yes, definitely. It still took longer than we would have liked. There were so many bugs and features to work through. Sally & Prinss saw some cherished friends leave the band and we had to work out exactly what we were trying to do. I mean, we must have recorded and produced that album, like three times, only to scrap it and start all over. The force which inspired it was demanding and petty. Barrington Way had its fair share of that, but we were a much tighter musical unit, not just technically, but also in terms of our relationships.
Dom: We’ve now also figured out how we go about the recording process. For Sally & Prinss there was a lot of experimentation with recording techniques. Now that we have a better idea of what we’re doing, it’s easier to get to that 90%-finished stage.
Nick, you experienced an epiphany, if that’s the correct term, during the darkest days of Politburo, where you ‘saw the light’, so to speak, that has led you on the path to this moment. Is this mysterious influence still at work on you and does it inform the songs on the album?
Nick: Yes. That encounter informs every waking moment. There are ‘others’ out there. Some are friendly, some are hostile, and some couldn’t give a shit about us, one way or another. What their purpose is, I cannot say. I will say that communication with these others is pursued via the path of shamanism, magical thought, and art and that communication is the key to our future as a species. But even that’s not terribly important. There are wheels within wheels… For example, even a multi-verse of possibility is just part of a larger cycle that incorporates consciousness and being as the cogs in an almost clockwork routine. In that sense it feels like a prison. Or maybe a game. If people prefer to think of this as psychological, with a meat basis, they’re more than welcome. But I think that’s reductive and inaccurate.
As far as epiphanies go, there’s not much better than discovering a reason for art beyond ‘become rock stars’. There is a reason, a powerful reason, which is why I’ll never stop and we’ll only become better. From a selfish perspective, it’s a Philosopher’s Stone…. You create the art and feed it back into yourself… then you create more and so it goes, a loop. Each time I emerge changed. Hopefully for the better. But not always. Those are the pitfalls of art. Art kills and drives mad, as surely as it inspires and grants joy. Let’s not lose sight of that. In fact, to do so ruins the experience and renders it puerile nonsense.
From what I understand, in the 2000s you connected with record label owner Professor Leonard Skully and you all had a hand in artistically revitalizing an area of Manchester (the M1 1DB postcode) with your 11STSQ music studio, the Kraak Gallery, and Skully’s record label. Is that the case? Can you give some details about what this section of Manchester was like before its renaissance and its current ambience?
Dom: Yes. The area around Stevenson Square was being abandoned by the rag trade. This was around 2007 and it was possible to rent a place for next to nothing. A lot of those abandoned places have now turned into bars or cafés. When we first moved into the studio, the previous tenant had left loads of bulky textile machinery as well as an amazing collection of vinyl records from India. In the evening time, Stevenson Square was serene. We started hosting parties there and now the whole area is a hub of activity.
Nick: We were lucky to have the Professor’s guidance. His belief in us, and our belief in him, pushed us to do more than just ‘be a band’. We let our art ‘bleed out’ and affect the area itself. This is magic, in the truest sense. It’s not all been for the positive. Like I said, there are pitfalls. But we’ve seen what is possible. Basically, anything.
Can you go more into the importance of your relationship with Leonard Skully?
Nick: Leonard is like nobody I’ve ever met. He’s got this rigorous academic core, but his interest lies in art. I would never criticise him. He’s pushed us into nonsense more times than I can count… but we’ve learned from it every time. He’s part and parcel of things I’ve already talked about. He came when we needed him and I’m incredibly grateful. Our relationship is vital. He made us see the beauty in other people’s visions also and I think that’s really important.
Who designed the beautiful, Klimt-like album artwork for Barrington Way?
Nick: That would be Fruschian Void, an artist spotted by the Professor. She’s unbelievably good. I consider her a part and parcel of everything that happens here. She connects to things… and doesn’t seem to really realise most of the time. But that’s fine. Google her and you should find a huge amount of her work online. It’s pure sorcery.
You’re veterans of the performance stage and have several gigs lined up in August. What does the setlist look like? Will you be mixing in any older songs or will you concentrate on the new stuff?
Nick: It’s going to cover music from the past few years. I’m always pushing for new stuff, so most of it will be challenging people. But then, it’ll be fresh to nearly everyone that hears it. I don’t live in some kind of weird bubble, where everyone is panting for our next hot release. But that really doesn’t matter. This is an exciting set and I think people will appreciate how excited we get over it. I can ask for no more. Listing the names of songs would be an exercise in futile egoism. People will pick something up from it.
How would you like the rest of 2016 to spell out for Politburo in terms of the plans and vision you already have?
Nick: I want to get to Europe. I’m hoping that enough people notice that we’ve made something special. From there, we get to have more adventures. And maybe, just maybe, we can manifest something harder to explain. That’s the Professor’s vision, that’s our vision.
Also, work begins on the third album. It will be even better. At least by our standards. All of this is just an attempt to interact with a wider, heavier universe. The best thing would be for somebody to see us and form their own band or make their own art. Everything is alive and waiting to be interacted with.
Dom: Yes, mainland Europe should be within reach this year. We have a few friends who live in different EU countries, so when we put a tour together, we’ll probably be leaning on their shoulders. A North America tour would be great too, but right now it’d cost too much money to get over there.
For more info about Politburo:
Lead single “Barrington Way” at Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/politburo/barrington-way
Official Site: https://politburo.co.uk/home/