So my third novel Felix Romsey’s Afterparty was officially launched last night at the very wonderful Mario’s Cafe in London’s famous Kentish Town. Many thanks to all who came down, especially to my awesome readers Damian Samuels, Jan Hewitt, Nick Coates, Guy Whittaker and of course our MC Michael Ogden.
In this Instagram-fuelled, selfie-driven world in which we live, the publication of a book can be somewhat lacking in funky assets. There are no action-packed photos of gigs or festival appearances, no phone snaps of ker-rayzee tour bus antics, no fascinating, intimate behind-the-scenes footage of recording studio creation.
All you get in bookland, if you’re lucky, is the occasional rubbish picture of a computer, with Word open at some unfinished page of text (usually accompanied by the hashtag #amwriting).
So it gives me great pleasure to finally have something to take a photo of. Through the door this morning came a box of THIS, and frankly I’m gonna enjoy myself.
Those who supported the campaign – THANK YOU – and you should be receiving/have received your books right about now…
Bloody weird caper, plane travel. There you were, enjoying a balmy fifteen-degree afternoon in Istanbul, then you zoom up half a dozen miles in the air, streak along for a couple of hours and bugger me, you’re in Moscow, where it’s almost the same number of degrees below zero and the snowdrifts are deeper than the last James Blake record.
We’re late. We land on time, but travelling around with a team of eight dudes and twenty pieces of luggage means you’re hardly the nimblest of movers, especially through customs. From hitting the tarmac to us emerging from the terminal into snowy Russia it’s well over two hours, but hey, at least we’ve nothing important to do. Like appearing on a late-night TV show watched regularly by 100 million people.
Oh yes. The good people at Вечерний Ургант (Evening Urgant), Russia’s answer to Kimmel/Fallon/Colbert etc, have invited us to rock up and blast through “Looking Too Closely” as the end credits roll, but with each anxious phonecall to our liaison Almira they’re probably beginning to wish they hadn’t bothered. A one-hour delay becomes 90 minutes, becomes two hours, becomes two and a half. It’s rush hour, and Moscow is one hell of a big place. As a Londoner and as someone who has visited Tokyo, I have respect for very big cities. I eye the little blue dot on Google Maps, simultaneously marvelling and seething at quite how slowly it’s moving, even when our fur-hatted driver manages to floor it along a relatively empty road for a few moments. Almira receives another frantic call. Due to lack of time, can we cut down to one drummer? I glance at our second drummer Nicky and we glumly nod our consent. Guy our bassist grins at me, as only he can grin. “The rest of us can decide which drummer we use, right?”
In the end, the magic of urgency comes to our rescue. We pile into the TV studio – a BBC-type affair with a slightly disappointing lack of things to laugh at – hurl our instruments at the stage and before we know it, I’m pretty much clicking my sticks in our singer Fin’s general direction and we’re live. “This is a song about somebody else,” Fin sings, to the populations of Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok and – in all likelihood – Minsk and Bishkek. To supermarket shelf-stackers in Smolensk, primary-school teachers in Rostov, Arctic fishermen in Arkhangelsk, nuclear scientists in Kol’skaya and goatheaders outside Irkutsk tuning in live from their yurt. Four minutes later we’re done, and we’re thirsty, and it’s a Thursday night, and we’re in goddam Moscow.
They say Moscow’s a city where you can get anything you want. Well, whenever I appear on television, I have this bizarre craving afterwards for a caviar-covered hamburger with a gold-leaf bun. Another of our Russian liaisons, Vitaly, knows just the place. We’re whisked across central Moscow to his friend’s restaurant Burger Heroes, and duly plied with ice-cold beer and strange Russian takes on the great American meaty snack. Nigel our monitor man has his topped with cherries, Chris our guitarist chooses smoked onions and chocolate, Guy goes for, um, bacon and cheese, while tour manager Simon and myself get our laughing gear around the curious gold’n’caviar combo which rolls in halfway between an opulent dessert and a gaudy Fabergé bauble. We demolish all the food and beer in sight, poke our heads round the corner at a freezing Red Square, and then our first day in Moscow is finally declared over.
It’s odd, being in the same place as an international news event. I was in Hollywood one year at Oscar time, and the helicopter taking aerial shots of the red carpet was the same helicopter I could hear buzzing around outside our apartment window. Today, waking up in the hotel and flicking the TV to BBC World, the concerned-looking Moscow correspondent stands a couple of hundred yards from where I’d stood last night, just outside the Kremlin, feeling the same cold and trudging the same snow. So far on this trip no one’s mentioned the “escalating diplomatic crisis” between the UK and Russia. Downstairs in the lobby, I try it out on Vitaly. He shrugs amiably, muttering that he might have seen something “on page eight or nine of the newspaper.”
He’s inadvertently summed it up perfectly: no one cares. We’re here to play music. We receive nothing but warmth from the people on this trip, and nowhere does this feel more tangible than at the shows we play. First up is Moscow’s Arbat Hall, a generously proportioned ballroom with a disco ceiling and a thumping festival stage. We’ve never played a show in Russia before, and ticket reports have been sketchy. Who will show up? One hundred, two hundred people? The doors open at 8pm and six hundred very cold people stream into the room. We hit the stage, and the reaction is volcanic: the product of ten years spent not visiting a country, but putting out albums which increase the anticipation in the meantime. The audience sing along with every word. Smiles are everywhere. One fan holds aloft a white Fink T-shirt for practically the whole show. Another has a banner on which they’ve painted “The world needs more Finks.” Have you any idea how great that feels? Trust me: it feels very great.
But after the warmth must come the coldth. From this hot two-hour gig we head to the freezing but wonderfully named Leningradsky Station for the night train to St Petersburg. Depth of temperature aside, and with the benefit of writing this in my cosy kitchen in Hackney, the night train experience is actually rather short on anecdote. The train departs and arrives on time, the cabins are clean and warm, the carriage is quiet, the guard isn’t a chain-smoking alcoholic nutter, and if the train does possess a packed bar where dangerous amounts of vodka are being merrily knocked back, we don’t find it. A perfectly sensible way for us to get about, then, but at the risk of tempting fate for our next visit, I could handle a touch more of the crazy.
St Petersburg I’ve visited before as a tourist, and for those who haven’t, it’s definitely all it’s cracked up to be: a beautifully designed festival of lavish churches, vast palaces and evocative plains of frozen river. It’s closer to the vibe of Helsinki or Copenhagen than Moscow or Kiev, and the venue for our show, fittingly, is the kind of well-worn indie rock theatre we’re used to playing in places like Antwerp and Leipzig, with the added bonus of a smoking section like a movie crack den. Our promoter Sergey is one of those heroes who’s managed to carve himself our a career in an uncertain, developing musical territory, and we take to him immediately, not least because of the kick-ass stage team he’s managed to assemble. He has also, for our dressing room, purchased the strongest mustard in the history of mustard, and some incredibly weird but delicious soft meringues with an apricot filling that, conveniently for me, almost everyone else in our touring party thinks are horrible.
The St Petersburg show is another stirring experience: over five hundred brilliantly attentive and appreciative punters abandon their warm apartments for a cold trip to see a band they’ve never seen play before, and we feel like newly-crowned kings, again. In a café around the corner before the show, Fin, Chris and myself meet two girls and a guy who’ve come all the way from the Urals, in Central Russia, to see us. That’s two thousand kilometres. Another friend of ours, Ariel, has come from Kiev, and she also saw us last night in Moscow. These things hit you, hard, in an endlessly pleasant and humbling way. We blast through the show, nail a vodka, and reluctantly pack up. I can safely say that all eight of us wish the trip were longer, perhaps took in a couple more cities, and we long for a return trip, if we’re lucky. But for now, Fink’s debut mission to Russia has been a freezing but gloriously warm success.
For all his adult life, my dad has kept a diary. The entries are brief, but it’s a diary nonetheless: the key ingredients of his day, presented without analysis or reflection, consistently, for the last sixty-odd years. Sometimes instalments can be as simple as: “Went to work, had meetings, lost at squash”, but they’ve been enough to settle family debates about, say, how long we lived in a certain house, or which year we went on that sailing holiday. As the spaces are necessarily uniform in size, the entries are no more detailed or expressive when events of a (you’d hope) greater significance occurred: the day I was born, for example, is recorded along the lines of: “Went to work, had meetings, lost at squash, wife gave birth to son.”
There’s something beautiful about a diary. Reading someone’s thoughts from years ago can be almost spooky, like a time machine. Some diarists don’t ever return to their old journals, while some do, with mixed feelings. Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff, a diarist prodigious enough to publish three volumes of his own, tells me a recurring realisation is “how little I appear to have learned in life” – but then, any fan of his songs will know he’s always been a sharp self-critic.
I’ve tried many times to keep a diary. But even one as simple as my father’s requires discipline: those few quiet moments at the end of each day when you’re neither stressed-out, drunk nor putting your child back to bed for the tenth time. Being a talkative sort of chap I find it hard to summarise my day in just a sentence, so usually I attempt the long-form version, where I try to explain all my gadding about in entertaining prose. This is fun – for about four days (usually January 1st – 4th). Then I miss a day. Then another. Nothing makes the heart sink like having to write those brain-thumpingly dull words, “It’s been a few days since my last entry… lots to catch up on!” Ugh. Shoot me now.
Because, let’s be honest, there usually isn’t an awful lot to write about. One of the ironies of diary-keeping is that during the really interesting times, we’re probably too busy or tired to record them properly. And yet, the great diarists have always carved out a moment to do so. Alan Clark, whose diaries(regardless of one’s opinion of his politics or personality) are fascinating and hilarious, records in meticulous detail the hectic days leading up to Thatcher’s downfall, when he must have been dashing about, gossiping and backstabbing with the rest. The answer is obvious: some sort of reward is needed. Clark must have known they’d be published eventually; on dull days, the thought that he was effectively writing a hire-purchase autobiography must have spurred him on. But other, less mercenary rewards exist. Some people find diaries help to order their thoughts, make sense of tough events, even to make decisions. The sound artist Scanner, a scarily consistent diarist (“500 words a day in a hardbound Moleskine diary since the age of 12, always in fountain pen, never a day missed even when I’m on a plane to Australia”), tells me “writing them is a step towards releasing the ‘stuff’ from the day,” adding firmly, “I’ve no intention of ever sharing them with anyone else.”
Admirable. So why can’t I do it, then? The only time I’ve successfully kept a diary was when I lived in Copenhagen for a few months in 2000, and that was because I was a) bored and b) miserable, and on balance I’d prefer not being bored and miserable to keeping a diary. The truth is: although I consider myself more disciplined and less superficial than these current times, I’m really just as fickle, attention-seeking and in need of instant gratification as anyone, and if I write anything more involved than a shopping list it’s always with the faintest feeling that one day someone else might read it, and no one’s going to want to read my diaries unless I become enormously famous, and even then it’d be years before anyone would be arsed to publish them. Oh… if only there was some kind of invention that let us record daily activities and thoughts for the public at large to view instantly.
Yup – I’m going there. In its own frivolous and slightly annoying way, I’ve actually been keeping a diary (*checks date I joined Twitter*) since February 2009. I know all that stuff about mainstream social media being old hat, and the evil empires owning all my personal information, and I’m not ecstatic about it either, but social media can be a diary too, and quite a good one. Entries can be a little oblique, for sure, but there’s a certain poetry to posts like: “Tube strike = muppets on the bus” and “Strange discovery of the day: I enjoy painting skirting boards.” Delving back, I can tell I was happy in November 2011 (“German yoghurts are awesome”) and that I was angry in April 2016 (“Piss off you Brexit twats with your Obama hashtag bullshit”). It doesn’t possess quite the user-friendly immediacy of my dad’s, but with a little detective work you can tell I was in Holland on April 28, 2013 (“Just discovered that The BFG is called De GVRhere”), that I was on tour in Italy on January 28, 2015 (“I’ve been stood next to a petrol station for the last 2 hours with nothing but a 2000 year old aqueduct to look at”) and, should it be debated, I can pinpoint that 2010 is the year we held a big outdoor birthday party (“You know you’ve grown up when there’s a bouncy castle in the garden… and you’ve hired it”). Oh, there’s laughter (“My follower count goes up and down like a horny Yorkshire terrier at a ladies’ coffee morning”), there’s TMI (“Coffee always makes me want to do number 2s”), and, predictably, there’s much futile musical observation (“One day I’m going to pay a musicologist to calculate the exact distance between Neil Diamond and Richard Hawley”). All in all a fascinating experience, and every bit as entertaining as the “genuine” diary I once managed, which is mostly me complaining about having to get up at 3am to deliver Danish newspapers.
Just wait. It won’t be long until entire books are compiled from people’s tweets. Actually, this has happened already: bookseller Simon Key’s We’re Asleep Dad is based entirely on his parenting posts, and very funny it is too, but I’m hoping for A Year In The Tweets Of Boring Roadie or – if a publisher can handle the swear-count – The Collected Tweets Of John Niven. As a social document, they’ll be studying it in the year 2300 as we now study Samuel Pepys, you mark my words.
Twenty-six years ago this year, I met a nice boy from Brighton’s famous Hove by the name of Damian. He seemed harmless enough, apart from an upsetting habit of pronouncing Velcro “velcrove”. Over the next couple of decades we shared various experiences: him singing “Common People” for a ramshackle cover band I presided over; me leaving him and all his worldly possessions in a van for two hours outside Shepherd’s Bush Empire while I was inside moshing to Ben Folds Five (I forgot to give him the keys); him being my best man in New York; me being his worst man in Hollywood. I had my music, he had his acting, and we met somewhere in the middle to compare notes and receding hairlines.
In 2010, he overlooked years of general disappointment by entrusting me with the music for his debut short film, Fish!. (You can read about it here). Two years later he came to me again, this time asking me for ten times as much music for a short film called The Five Wives And Lives Of Melvyn Pfferberg. Thinking to myself, “he’s bound to change the title at some point”, I again accepted the challenge. (You can read about it here.)
So it gives me gargantuan surges of inappropriate delight to announce that at long flipping last, everyone in the world can part with a small amount of cash and download the damn thing from your favourite online entertainment retailer onto your block of technology du jour. It’s a pretty damn fabulous film, with many opportunities to chortle your ass off. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the theme song (at the end of the film, for those who want to cut to the chase), composed by me, played by Nick Coates, Merlin Shepherd and me, produced by Max Gilkes (Brighton’s answer to Trevor Horn) and sung by none other than Melanie Chisholm, known these days as Melanie C and for at least part of her life as Sporty Spice.
Happy New Year! I haven’t been in touch for a while, and unlike many I-haven’t-been-in-touch-for-a-while messages I have a totally definitive and non-ambiguous excuse for it… I WAS ON TOUR. A bloody great long exhausting but actually quite brilliant European tour with Fink, in support of our bloody great Flood-produced sixth studio album Resurgam. At the risk of sounding like a prize plonker it would actually be quicker to tell you which European countries we didn’t go to* than the ones we did. I had a madcap thought that somehow during this mammoth roadtrip I’d be able to finish the 2nd draft of Felix Romsey’s Afterparty, but this was fanciful in the extreme.
But now I’m back… and on Friday night I finally emailed the brand-spanking new version of the novel to my wonderful Unbound editor (who funnily enough came to see Fink play in Zurich, so she knows I wasn’t just gadding about). So we’re back on track… Felix is one giant step closer to being a fat wad of bound paper in your hand.
Three things I must mention. One: you’ve no idea to what extent crowdfunding – i.e. knowing 161 people have already invested in the book – inspires you to make the book better. That’s a completely unexpected by-product of the process. So, once again, thank you. Two: travelling around Europe, I met several people who’ve contributed to the crowdfunding. Hearing them say, “So – how’s the book going?” really gave me a kick up the backside and helped speed me to my laptop the second I walked through my front door at the end of the tour.
Finally, three: a quick early shout out to the four people who’ve already read the manuscript. You know who you are. Your suggestions and obvervations on these early versions of the novel have been invaluable, even if, in some cases, I’ve completely ignored them. Criticism, epecially from friends, is great for cementing ideas in your head. And as I’m pratictically bald, I don’t even need to worry about the cement ruining my hairstyle.
As usual – if you know anyone who’d like to contribute to the crowdfunding, there’s still time to get your name in the back… so please follow THIS LINK…
Have an absolutely walloping New Year – a year in which you will certainly be holding a copy of the book you have helped to bring to life, FELIX ROMSEY’S AFTERPARTY. Hurrah!
*Russia, Ireland, Moldova, Iceland, Bosnia, Turkey, Greece, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco and (funnily enough) the Vatican City
It was the message we’d been waiting for. There’d been talk of Flood – one of the few contemporary producers for whom the word “legendary” isn’t an exaggeration – taking on the new Fink album for some months, but it was a cold February afternoon when my phone finally beeped with the confirmation. I’d been driving across town to pay some duty on a guitar I’d had shipped over from the States; I contemplated the grey flyovers of the North Circular amid the gusts of thin drizzle. “Yep, that makes sense,” I thought. “It’s about time Fink did a London album.”
We’ve always felt that music should resemble the place where it’s made. We recorded our last two records in Los Angeles, and it shows: it’s there in the slick power of the drum and vocal sound, the attention to detail, the haunting, almost tropical guitar melodies that recall cigarette breaks outside in the warm Californian night. I dearly love Perfect Darkness and Hard Believer, but this time we needed grit. This time, if Berlin planted the seeds of the songs, London was the greenhouse in which they thrived. And how London did we go. To achieve peak London in 2017 you don’t go to the East End or Lambeth, you go to West Willesden, a place so staunchly ungentrified that it makes Dalston look like Knightsbridge. It’s right here that Flood and his equally-celebrated-producer pal Alan Moulder preside over the Assault & Battery complex, part of a dying breed of “proper” recording studio and a shrine to a certain strain of British-influenced alternative rock that Flood and Moulder have enabled. Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Killers platinum discs splatter the corridor walls, while the studios drip with history (“That’s the modular synth used on Violator“… “Oh, those are Curve’s flight cases in the chill-out lounge”… “You need a glockenspiel? Sure, we have Joe Strummer’s old one”). Faced with such richness of heritage, and with the equipment and live spaces being a dream come true, and with a generous seven weeks at our disposal, a problem entirely new to Fink presents itself. For the first time, we have absolutely no excuse to suck.
Quickly, ground rules are laid down, as suggested by Captain Flood. Our songs are seen as merely sketches: anything can happen. Keys, tempos, time signatures and lyrics are all hurled up in the air. Where they land is often an unusual place. If a version doesn’t work, we do another. And another. Straightforward rhythm guitar, but for exceptional circumstances, is banned. Ride cymbals and hi-hats aren’t exactly welcomed, nor are layers of backing vocal. A swear box is installed, with a quid charged to anyone who utters a prohibited word: radio, rough (recording), single (“I don’t give a shit which song might be a single,” says Flood), demo (the demo is simply “the first recording” – and each recording counts). All designed to amuse us, open our minds and shit us up: a common technique of Flood’s. He makes sure you’re as comfortable as possible, then throws you a curve ball. Example: a few weeks in, I’m sat in one of the live rooms playing a conventional part on my acoustic guitar; Flood comes in, tunes all the strings to a different chord, puts me through a horrid transistor amp, hands me a slide and tells me to avoid E flat – difficult, seeing as it’s the song’s key. After scratching around like a rank amateur for a few minutes, I look up at him despondently.
“May I play it another way? I’m not very adept at this.”
“In that case,” Flood grins, “you may not.”
I develop a routine. I leave home, Overground it to Kensal Rise and settle myself in a nearby café, where I sit with a posh coffee, gaze at the traffic and listen to something inspiring. A favourite album, a vintage live session, an interview. Podcasts come in handy: Adam Buxton’s interviews with the likes of Jonny Greenwood, Spoon and the documentarian Adam Curtis all put me in the mood for profundity. Then I drain my brew and stride to the studio, ready to make a masterpiece. We work twelve hours a day, on average. Do I enjoy it? Of course, although enjoy is the wrong word. It’s addictive, compelling, stimulating… without ever being easy. Day follows day follows week follows month. Progress isn’t exactly slow, but it’s difficult to tell how well we’re doing until… we’re done.
Flood is a visionary, a skilled technician, a joker, a raconteur and an utter gentleman. What you often discover when meeting people of his calibre – in any profession – is that they’ve reached their giddy career height largely on the strength of their characters. You don’t get to produce PJ Harvey, Foals, Warpaint and U2 by being a cantankerous, precious asshole. In many ways one of Flood’s greatest skills is in the ancient art of people management: from Nick Cave and his recalcitrant Bad Seeds to the undulating ego waves of Depeche Mode, there ain’t a single rock band dynamic Flood hasn’t encountered after forty years in the business. He knows precisely how to make every single person in the operation feel invaluable, from Fin, through Guy and myself, all the way to people who just dropped in to play percussion on one song, even the guy who fixes the cables and answers the intercom. This is how you become a world-renown rock producer, not from just knowing the right knobs to tweak. He’s also an expert in putting a team together: John Catlin the engineer and Richie Kennedy the assistant engineer (vastly underplaying titles both) are inspirational, making us feel that anything we wish to do is possible. I hardly hear the word “no” in seven weeks. Time and again I retire to some far corner of the studio to experiment on a certain track: within fifteen minutes, John or Richie magically appear with a mic on a stand and say, “Ready? Let’s put it down.”
Seven weeks come screeching to a halt all too soon, and we have a record. Listening a few weeks later is an odd experience. Although true, I’m not going to dwell on statements like “it’s the best thing we’ve ever done”, because (thankfully) I always say that. But I think I can report that we’ve never been more honest on record before. Everything we wanted to try on these songs, we tried. Sometimes we were right first time. Sometimes not. But Flood has emptied the contents of our heads all over the vinyl grooves and the results are, if nothing else, fascinating. Fin has never sung better, accompanied by his own piano and Fender Rhodes prowess, which spins the songs at a totally new angle. Guy’s bass provides its usual unwavering support, but he’s also been tortured in completely new ways (on one track Flood gaffered a contact microphone to Guy’s neck and commanded him to hum for a couple of hours). And me? Well, if the 22-year-old Tim could hear some of the drumming and guitaring I’ve managed to slap onto this body of music, I think he’d approve; and that outcome is always at the back of my mind, I’ve discovered. Catharsis, vindication, and the creation of music: all simultaneously. See? Who needs a shrink when you can make a Fink record with Flood in London.