On 1 March 2019, I hosted a Rough Trade in-store discussion with Gary Asquith, Dorothy ‘Max’ Prior and Mick Allen from Rema-Rema.
The occasion was the release of Fond Reflections by 4AD, an overdue collection of demos, live recordings and Wheel In The Roses, the band’s solitary 1980 12-inch. That EP has taken on an almost mythical significance in the margins of accepted post-punk histories, and not just because it would ultimately prove to be the launching pad for the careers of musicians that would leave a mark on the ensuing post-post-punk music – guitarist Marco Pirroni with Adam & The Ants, Allen and the band’s Mark Cox with The Wolfgang Press, Max with Psychic TV and Asquith with celebrated future Mute group Renegade Soundwave. That was important, but just as important was that it gave the nascent 4AD, according to its founder, Ivo Watts-Russell, the label’s identity and the high musical watermark to which they would constantly aspire to.
It felt like that event and release in 2019 were both part of a concerted effort to usher in a better appreciation of the importance of Rema-Rema, seeing them move from music’s fringes to somewhere more central, alongside contemporary bands that seem to dominate the post-punk narrative. It was a chaotic, awkward and frankly nerve-wracking evening, made significantly worse by Asquith and Allen arriving late, but it was also touching. Asquith, in particular, has been active in both preserving and promoting the fleeting legacy of Rema-Rema, frequently describing it as his favourite project he’s ever been involved with, and those fond affections for the band that started his career was abundantly clear that night at Rough Trade.
Toronto film-maker Marco Porsia has now made a decisive move that will assuredly imprint the significance of Rema-Rema on a whole new audience. His documentary film, What You Could Not Visualise, follows his celebrated 2019 film about Michael Gira’s Swans (Where Does A Body End?), and features his signature forensic approach to exploration. Porsia’s film is currently crowdfunding, and is expected to be released in 2023.
For the film, Porsia interviewed the band and Ivo Watts-Russell, as well as those personally influenced by the band’s brief legacy – Steve Albini (whose Big Black covered Rema-Rema), Foetus’s JG Thirlwell and Cabaret Voltaire co-founder Stephen Mallinder.
Porsia also interviewed me for the film, which saw a return to Rough Trade West to once again stand behind the counter and reflect on that important band and what they represented.
Watch the trailer below and visit the crowdfunding campaign here.
Mute and Mute Song artists took over the IKLECTIK Art Lab near London’s Waterloo on Friday 20 May 2022 for a night of electronic music adventures.
Alexander Tucker’s MICROCORPS project offered faltering, industrial beats that usually formed out of a noisy, joyous sprawl of rapidly switched patch cables, over which he was prone to howl processed, wordless missives. An element of surprise dominated Tucker’s set, with sounds and rhythms cutting out suddenly just as you’d figured out how to shuffle along. A final segment found Tucker accelerating a beat so harshly that it rapidly left gabba territory and more than likely broke Moby’s ‘Thousand’ record with its pacing before abruptly stopping.
Simon Fisher Turner presented nowhereyet, his sounds – inchoate melodies, processed cello, clamorous beats – set to a slideshow of London photographs by Sebastian Sharples. There was something eerie about Sharples’ photos, appearing to show a mostly empty, lockdown-era vision of the capital. We cross-cross from Spitalfields to the bombed-out sanctuary of St. Dunstan in the-East; from monolithic skyscrapers to snow-covered residential streets; from Canary Wharf construction to a deserted Bond Street. Fisher Turner’s music seemed to carry the same sort of alien, mournful sparseness; it’s as if the sounds and images, to paraphrase the enquiry ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’, pondered the question as to whether a place devoid of its people can still be considered a place at all.
Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones resurrected their occasional Sunroof collaboration for a celebrated collection of modular synth improvisations, released last year as Electronic Music Improvisations Vol. 1. For their Iklectik set, they were seated opposite one another in a manner reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage’s 1968 chess game, the board and its pieces replaced by innumerable boxes of flashing lights and tangles of coloured cables. In contrast to the pieces on their album, the set was intensely rhythmic, with grids of spare, almost skeletal beats instead of carefully-wrought, sinewy sequences. Miller and Jones have been friends and sonic adventurers together since 1982 and the symbiosis between them as they teased rhythms and patterns from their kit without ever seeming to communicate with one another was a testament to that enduring partnership.
The evening was interspersed with DJ sets from Nik Colk Void, ranging from juddering techno through to a memorable after-hours moment where she dropped Mudhoney’s socially-undistanced anthem, ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’.
See Sebastian Sharples’ photos of the night at Instagram.
Prescience weighs heavily on Jono Podmore’s latest Kumo release. The three track EP was inspired by the Chinese year of the tiger, which began in February, and a conversation that Podmore had with his students at a tai chi class he was teaching the same day. When asked what the new year would bring, he believed it would be characterised by conflict; how sadly true it was.
In a typically calculated manner, the three tracks on his new release were composed using ancient Chinese harmonies. Being no musicologist, I’ll take Podmore’s word for it, just like I had to with the mathematical theories that begat his 2020 Euclidean Patterns release. What is immediately evident, even if you don’t know Chinese musical theory, is his intention to highlight that the tiger does not immediately need to refer to conflict.
Each of the tracks here is named for a different tai chi form, but are highly evocative in their own right. ‘Tiger Lies Down’ shimmers with heat haze and gauzy optimism, a recurring two-note melody having a calming, soothing, centring quality while a delicate outline of a rhythm provides a sense of firmness and purpose. Here the tiger is our inner spirit, full of latent potential and awakening into the world with sharp focus.
‘(Retreat To) Ride Tiger’ is that store of energy suddenly released, a crisp and clattering beat relentlessly moving forward beneath clusters of twisted tones, springy sequences and euphoric bursts of almost orchestral grandeur. There is defiance here – not anger, not an adversarial quality, but a determination and resolution.
‘Carry Tiger To The Mountain’ is about transcendence. Riding a tiger is easier than carrying one. Metaphorically, this is about overcoming obstacles and limitations. This is delivered by sinewy sine tones, clouds of white noise and a metallic arpeggio that slices through any sense of calm that may have existed at the start of ‘Tiger Lies Down’. If ‘(Retreat To) Ride Tiger’ was a call to action, ‘Carry Tiger To The Mountain’ does something similar, despite being free of rhythmic guidance, through a constantly fluctuating structure of unsettling sonic flourishes.
With Three Tigers, Podmore has once again shown himself to be a masterful arranger of conceptual, deep-thinking electronic music.
Nous Alpha is a duo of Christopher Bono and Gareth Jones. A Walk In The Woods is their second album together and was released on May 7 2021, just ahead of Gareth’s third album in less than a year, his collaboration with Daniel Miller as Sunroof. I was asked to write liner notes for the release, which have been re-produced below with the kind permission of Our Silent Canvas.
A Walk In The Woods is the second album by Nous Alpha, a collaboration between multiinstrumentalist Christopher Bono (Ghost Against Ghost, Bardo, Nous) and noisemaker Gareth Jones (Spiritual Friendship, Grizzly Bear, Depeche Mode). Like the immersive Without Falsehood, their 2019 debut album, A Walk In The Woods was created at Our Silent Canvas’ converted barn studio in the Catskill mountains during Fall 2019.
Nous Alpha is a partnership almost five years in the making, beginning when Christopher asked Gareth to help mix two tracks for his project Ghost Against Ghost, which appeared on the 2017 album still love. “It was a huge task,” recalls Gareth, “but out of that intense experience Chris and I forged a spiritual bond and a musical relationship.”
Nous Alpha emerged through Christopher and Gareth’s desire to work together on a project that would exist as a parallel to NOUS, Christopher’s loose collective of diverse players with improvisation as its cornerstone. From the beginning, it was agreed that they would always work together in person, eschewing the obvious convenience of distance collaboration between New York and London. Without Falsehood was formed from a series of ‘duet improvisations’, governed by a constraint that any further contribution needed to be a second duet improvisation, resulting in a suite of layered, and yet uncluttered, tracks.
For A Walk In The Woods, they set themselves different constraints. “We had some specific ideas about this second album,” says Christopher. “We decided we’d work on a tempo grid this time around, rather than being so very freeform in our approach, and that we’d limit the length of the songs.” Working this way made the sessions for ‘A Walk In The Woods’ more electronic than its predecessor. Where Without Falsehood used acoustic textures and familiar instrumentation, A Walk In The Woods abandons those elements and adds synth passages, evolving melodies and skeletal, hypnotic rhythms.
Naturalistic elements, used as the basis of what could be called organic improvisation, were created by performing with found objects in the dense woods of the nearby Catskill Mountains, and the outbuildings around the studio. These foraged fragments form the seeds from which each track grew: stones and rocks are the foundation of beats across the whole record; a tranquil pond provides the sonic jumping-off point for the noisy ‘Blackwater’; ‘Bike Wheels’ uses the distinctive mechanical sounds of a bicycle as its base layer.
If their walks in the nearby woods provided the impetus for the tracks, the trees surrounding the studio also supplied the duo with a means of escape from cabin fever. “We developed a ritual,” remembers Gareth. “We had a gong hanging up in the studio, and when either of us felt it was necessary we would go and bang the gong. That meant we’d either sit and meditate or go on a circular walking meditation through the trees around the studio building. We would walk, stop, contemplate and breathe. It was the most positive and creative way to reconnect.”
This sense of spirituality is another critical ingredient in how A Walk In The Woods evolved. “I see it as our own version of shamanism,” says Christopher. “There was a definite trance state that happened within the studio space while we were creating, and this offered an opportunity for transformation. Channeling that energy became critical to what happened on this album.”
The result of their constraints, discipline and ritualistic approach to the creative process is a body of work steeped in harmony and balance – of beauty and melancholy, of technology and nature, and of two like-minded spiritual beings in creative lockstep with each other. It is an album that is utterly unpredictable, where a track like ‘Fox Hollow’ can be graceful, yet also showcase a dizzying back-and-forth exchange of ideas.
A Walk In The Woods feels like a contemporary Walden-esque rumination, evoking a sense of selfdiscovery and unity with one’s surroundings, but one where modern technology is added to Thoreau’s concept of simple living. On ‘Fibonacci Failure’ we hear rippling sequences and turbulent, constantlyevolving rhythmic passages that sound like a sudden rainstorm heard from inside a cabin. The watery tones and chanting we hear on ‘Golden Lemon’ has the euphoric, hopeful quality of a Fall sunrise. And on ‘Virtues’, we hear Christopher and Gareth calling out a list of affirmations set to stirring melodies and washes of gathering electronic clouds.
From the sampled field recordings that it began with, to its many, often turbulent, sonic juxtapositions, the nine electronic tracks on A Walk In The Woods delicately reflect back the stillness and drama of the natural world.
– Mat Smith, Electronic Sound
Listen to A Walk In The Woodshere. Watch the videos for tracks from the album at YouTube below.
A Walk In The Woods by Nous Alpha was released May 7 2021 by Our Silent Canvas
Sometime NovaMute artist Simon Begg remixed this single from Lamb’s third album, What Sound (2001). The mix finds Begg in wild trip-hop style, delivering a relentlessly chunky break positioned just fast enough to straddle the frontier with drum ‘n’ bass. Over that beat, Begg drops in abruptly obscured vocals from the original, randomised sounds and whooshing filtered synths to create a sense of urgent euphoria. The mix was available on limited 12-inch and CD formats of the single, and can also be found on the 2CD collection Lamb Remixed from 2005. The mix was titled 5.1 Futures, which was presumably an error given Begg’s use of the name S.I. Futures for a slew of memorable NovaMute releases.
Exhibition Of A Dream by former Einstürzende Neubauten noisemaker FM Einheit was originally released as a triple vinyl set under its French title L’exposition D’un Rêve in 2018. The release was made through Lisbon’s esteemed Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian and coincided with Einheit’s exhibition at the gallery.
Try as I might, though, I can’t fathom what the exhibition actually was. It may be the final record, and it may also have been the act of the record’s creation, its live performances in Lisbon and separate recordings at Einheit’s own Steinschlag studio. The exhibition may also have involved drawings of mandalas in the gallery’s empty spaces, but how these are connected to the playing of the music is somewhat beyond my two-dimensional artistic brain. You can read more about it at the website of Studio Bruyant, who facilitated the exhibition alongside Einheit, and if you can figure out what the mandalas have to do with anything, or you were there, please contact me.
Instead, in an effort to stay on more certain ground, let us focus on the music. Except that here too, nothing is especially certain. The packaging of a new 2xCD remaster by Cold Spring says as much as it doesn’t. We know that the twelve tracks are Einheit’s interpretation of dreams offered by musicians Band Of Susans founder Susan Stenger, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge; it includes dreams transcribed by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and by artists Susie Green and David Link. Others were involved, but their dreams are strangely anonymised, creating a sort of amorphous impenetrability and mystery that leaves more questions than answers.
In some cases, the ‘dreamer’ reads out their dream; in others, Einheit, another vocalist or the Gulbenkian’s choir does; in still others like the filmic, industrial western theme that is ‘FFW’ or the Can-esque ‘The Dungeon’, no one does. Like dreams themselves, the effect is disorientating and otherworldly: it reminds us that there are good reasons that dreams live in our subconscious. To expose them to the outside world places them into a sort of naked vulnerability, and what made sense in your deepest sleep makes zero sense during waking hours; disconnected from reality yet informed and made strange by it so as to become unreal.
So here you can expect lewd imagery, strange interactions, odd stories that have no ending; vivid, emphatic stories as disturbing as ‘The Gift’ by The Velvet Underground or as filled with nonsensical non sequiturs as a Kafka novel cut up and reassembled by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin during a heavy night in their Parisian flophouse. In some cases – as with Lee Ranaldo’s ‘Alpine Traum’ or Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s ‘Creation Re/Created’ – their dream-stories are entirely in keeping with their usual aesthetic, and could have appeared on any of their various albums. For Ranaldo, this reunites him with the Beat-y spoken word style that dominated his contributions to early Sonic Youth albums, pre-dating finding his singing voice comparatively recently. In Gen’s case, his delivery is somewhere between lysergic work-out and a career in Open University lecturing that sadly never existed in the version of the omniverse we knew him in.
The album’s musical accompaniment is, like all dreams, varied and unpredictable, fond of wandering off down oblique pathways. Performed by Einheit (stones, springs), Volker Kamp (bass, brass), Saskia von Klitzing (drums), Susan Stenger (flute, bass) and her Band Of Susan bandmate Robert Poss (guitar), each of the twelve tracks here is as different as the next, ranging from mutant jazz and funk to militaristic parade ground pomp to noisily contemplative post-rock to inchoate noisescapes. The players are adept at the masterful pivot, comfortable going off in whatever direction Einheit and the dreamers suggest they should go in.
Cold Spring’s reissue of Exhibition Of A Dream arrives at a point where all of us perhaps feel like we’ve been living inside someone’s most impenetrable dream; where we find ourselves mutely looking back on the events of 2020 with the same weird feeling that you get when you wake up into that vague interzone between sleepy fantasy and the menacing horrors of the day. Truth be told, as strange and unsettling as some of these moments are, their intriguing mystique remains less terrifying than the world that we’ve endured over the past year. Lest us forget that dreams are the only places we have been able to dependably travel to, wrapped in the virus-free safety of our sleep.
Exhibition Of A Dream by FM Einheit was released by Cold Spring on February 26 2021. Thanks to Gary.
Drones appear throughout the early history of music, across many cultures. They reflect nature’s most elemental hum, the chord that threads its way through creation, said to be the sound of the universe as it stretches out into the infinite unknown. Channelled in Indian spiritual music, through the battlefields of Scotland and on through the minimalism of pioneers like La Monte Young and Phil Niblock, the drone is a universal constant in music, one that instils a sense of vibrating in perfect synchronicity with the energy that surrounds us.
For Spiritual Friendship – the pairing of hip-hop beatmaker and producer Nick Hook (Run The Jewels, 50 Backwoods, Gangsta Boo) and fellow producer and noise maker Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, John Foxx) – the idea of creating a suite of drones was not informed by their own shared spiritualities or an awareness of the transcendent properties these sonic devices possess; instead, it was the electrical hum of a hot tub the pair were sharing one balmy night in Asheville, North Carolina that coincided with a eureka moment from Gareth.
The pair were in Asheville in the summer of 2017 for a week-long residency at the Moog Sound Space. Previous collaborations between the pair had taken place either at Nick’s studio in Brooklyn or Gareth’s studio in London, whereas for what became DRONES they were sharing an apartment together in Asheville, and the experience of being away from each other’s normal equipment proved to be inspiring. They decided to build a fort out of vintage synthesisers in the upstairs performance space at Moog Sound Space and create a number of individual drones, each one representing one of four chakras – the root chakra, the sacral chakra, the heart chakra and the crown chakra.
The project referenced their debut album together (SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP, 2016) which comprised base elements of drums, drones, field recordings and sequences. In Asheville they decided they would make a series of albums isolating each of those individual elements. DRONES would be the first to be created, but to date only one of the pieces Nick and Gareth recorded during that week has been officially released (‘Root’, issued on Alternative Medicine as a limited edition cassette in 2018).
“I was pretty scared at first,” admits Nick as he recalls their Asheville sessions. “I’m a wild ADD, hyperactive kid. I didn’t really understand how to do this. Gareth was like, ‘We’ll just set it up and let it breathe,’ and that’s what we did. When I heard all the harmonic interactions that could happen in a single drone, it felt like I was listening to free jazz.”
“Each of the drones is simple,” adds Gareth. “We chose to honour each of the chakras with a drone note. We didn’t do any deep mystical research into the actual tuning – we just used the conventional scale for the drones. We set up a whole bunch of oscillators from Moog, and we borrowed a rig from Make Noise, who are also based in Asheville. It was important to us that we could fuse equipment from two companies who have been so inspirational to both of us. Just as Nick says, it all interacts with itself, almost as if there’s this gentle swaying between each of the frequencies, and these unexpected rhythms and melodies begin to emerge.”
The process for each of the new pieces would be the same: they would set up the drone around a particular note, meditate together for fifteen minutes, stand up and then hit record, allowing the ground tone they’d created to evolve and develop. The pieces, typically lasting around 45 minutes, were executed with no conversation between Nick and Gareth. They relied entirely on instinct, and the kind of shared deep listening and non-verbal cues normally the preserve of improvising players as they altered the sound they’d constructed using volume controls and filters. Each piece was created completely live, with no overdubs, each one displaying a commanding resonance and a restless, ever-changing hypnotic energy.
“We turned it up as loud as it would go,” recalls Nick. “The guys at Moog were excited to hear their gear being used at very high volumes. They got to hear our drones rumbling and howling for eighty hours that week, while they were downstairs building the modern versions of what we were using upstairs, by hand. It was literally like a farm-to-table ecosystem.” At the end of the week’s residency, after sequestering themselves away in the synthesiser fort they’d built with very little contact with the outside world, the pair invited friends from the Moog and Make Noise workshops into the space for a special final live performance. They would go on to perform further live drone events for friends in Manhattan and a immersive two-and-a-half-hour drone, based around the solar plexus chakra, at 2018’s MoogFest.
To launch the new Calllm ambient label, Nick and Gareth felt it was time to complete the DRONES project with two pieces referencing the remaining chakras – the throat and the third eye. “Pushed by the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, the end of 2020 and a realisation that we hadn’t seen each other physically this year, we decided to create these last two drones remotely,” explains Gareth. Nick created the basis for the third eye chakra and Gareth created the basis for the throat chakra. They then each added to the other’s creation remotely, thus finalising the suite of drone recordings they envisaged in Asheville.
Beginning on February 1 2021, all seven DRONES will be made available as a weekly series of digital releases through Calllm. Each release will be accompanied by a Spiritual Friendship drone performance on YouTube and Twitch accompanied by live watercolour painting by Calm + Collect illustrator Hydriaillustrations and guided meditations from Quazzy.
2017 drone suite Root (46:40, C) Sacral (57:24, D) Heart (37:00, F#) Crown (41:49, B)
2018 MoogFest performance Solar Plexus (2:21:43, E)
2021 drones Throat (43:39, G) Third Eye (44:16, A)
DRONES release schedule All live performances are scheduled for 1100 EST / 1600 GMT
Root – digital release February 1 / live performance February 4 Sacral – digital release February 8 / live performance February 9 Solar Plexus – digital release February 15 / live performance February 16 Heart – digital release February 21 / live performance February 23 Throat – digital release March 1 / live performance March 2 Third Eye – digital release March 8 / live performance March 9 Crown – digital release March 15 / live performance March 16
“I sure could use a holiday, but I don’t know where I’d spend my stay. Can’t afford it anyway. That permanent vacation.”
Jim Sclavunos – ‘Holiday Song’
‘Holiday Song’ is the debut solo single from producer, early Sonic Youth member, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds stalwart and Grinderman co-founder Jim Sclavunos. A pretty rumination on getting older, realising your best years are long behind you and a reflectiveness on your character flaws, ‘Holiday Song’ is delivered as a plaintive piano-led ballad, somewhere between jazzy lightness and folky earnestness. Sclavunos adopts a resigned, weary tone, yet one that is laced with a wry levity in spite of the song’s weighty themes.
For ‘Holiday Song’, Sclavunos’s celesta and vocals are joined by Dave Sherman (piano), The Pogues’s Spider Stacy (tin whistle), Gallon Drunk’s Terry Edwards (flugelhorn) and Sarah Lowe (backing vocals). Nick Cave describes the song thus: “Beautiful and complex song and a sweet and generous offering. Really beautiful and true to the bone!”
Profits from sales of the single go to the Music Venue Trust’s Grassroots Music Venue Crisis Fund, established to provide financial support to venues impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more about Music Venue Trust, click here.
Holiday Song by Jim Sclavunos is released January 1 2021 by Lowe Amusements Records. With thanks to Sarah.
It’s that special time of the year where the sounds of well-worn Christmas hits from yesteryear fill playlists and people begin to debate whether ‘Fairytale Of New York’ really is the best Christmas song of all time.
With some help from my good friend and Mute afficionado Jorge, I here present a trawl through the back catalogues of Mute artists past and present to deliver an alternative compilation of seasonal songs; songs that range from the traditional, the just plain festive and on to the downright tenuous. Jorge has meticulously prepared a Spotify playlist containing everything we could get our hands on, though for some of the songs you may need to hope Santa brings you a Discogs gift voucher. For your optimal listening experience, Jorge’s should be listened to while wearing this year’s limited-edition Mute Christmas t-shirt and drinking one of the cocktails from Erasure’s Snow Globe box set.
I often think of Erasure at Christmas, mostly because I remember receiving a 7″ of ‘You Surround Me’ in 1989 in my stocking. The year before, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell narrowly missed securing the coveted Christmas number one slot with Crackers International, an EP which led with ‘Stop!’ but also included the moving ‘She Won’t Be Home’ (renamed ‘Lonely Christmas’ on the slightly dubious The Erasure Christmas Gift 7″); elsewhere on the EP, the duo delivered a spooky version of the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ complete with authentic choir-boy vocals from Bell, while two years before the pair did a relatively throwaway take on ‘Silent Night’ for the US Yulesville promo LP. The limited formats of the ‘Am I Right’ EP (1991) featured a festive Me Company design of Christmas trees with a photo of a young boy holding presents, while Andy Bell co-hosted Channel 4’s Camp Christmas in 1993, with musical accompaniment from Vince. Andy also featured in a short film called I Hate Christmas as a market stall worker.
2013 was the year that Erasure went all-out Christmas with the celebrated release of Snow Globe. The album collected a number of classic Christmas songs, including ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in updated splendour, as well as some of Vince and Andy’s own tracks. The limited-edition box – or should I say the obligatory limited-edition box, since if Mute did one thing in 2013 it was to ensure that their avid fans went without their turkey after spending out a small country’s GDP on ever more elaborate and expensive box sets – included a bauble, balloon, a packet of sweets and some Erasure-themed cocktail recipes.
Other artists who’ve covered Christmas songs include Echoboy, who released a special split EP with Six By Seven for a Christmas show in Nottingham in 1999 which included a very alternative version of ‘Silent Night’. Richard Hawley also delivered a very easy listening take on ‘Silent Night’ for a special one-track CD given away to people who attended his show in Sheffield in December 2006; during winter gigs and on radio Hawley has also covered ‘Blue Christmas’, made famous by Elvis Presley, but I haven’t heard a recording of that yet (if anyone feels charitable enough at this time of giving to send me one in the name of research, please get in touch).
In the wake of their 2008 album Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp found time to record a beautifully jaunty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ for a US Starbucks compilation, while former Blast First act Sonic Youth recorded a sketchy and somewhat unpleasant version of Martin Mull’s ‘Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope’ for a 1996 compilation, which is definitely one for completists only.
For Can completists, the veteran Krautrockers put out an ultra-twee take on ‘Silent Night’ way back in 1976 on Virgin in the UK. The Residents launched their audacious avant-garde music career with Santa Dog in 1972, a double 7″ single mailed out to various people featuring four tracks by various pseudonymous artists, all of whom were actually The Residents themselves (whoever they are). The band have released several other versions of Santa Dog since 1972 – in 1978, 1998, 1992 (‘Show Us Your Ugly’), 1999 (Refused), 2006 and 2012 (SD12). Way back in 1956, occasional Blast First artist Sun Ra co-opted the alias The Qualities and issued the doo wop 7-inch ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Backed with the sincere blues of ‘Happy New Year To You!’ this curiosity remains one of the most surprisingly accessible pop releases in the expansive Ra catalogue, and proof that they celebrate teh holidays on Saturn just like they do here on Ra’s adopted home.
Einstürzende Neubauten stalwart F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann recorded an album called Merry Christmas which Paul Smith‘s label put out in 1994, but it isn’t at all festive and, besides, it was released in May that year. Still, the album’s sleeve of a hand-drawn tank reminds me of troops putting down arms during World War II, so maybe there’s a connection to the festive season somewhere on this album after all. Mute US duo The Knife recorded a song called ‘Reindeer’ for their eponymous album in 2001; as if the song wasn’t festive enough already with its lyrics about Santa, The Knife issued a version with Christmas bells (renamed ‘Christmas Reindeer’) in 2006 as a free download. Holger Hiller’s eponymous last album for Mute in 2000 included the track ‘Once I Built A Snowman’, while Ben Frost’s 2017 album Music From Fortitude opened with ‘This Is Not Christmas’.
Andreas Dorau, he of one-time Mute group Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, has recorded two Christmas songs. ‘Weihnachten Ist Auch Nicht Mehr Das Was Es Mal War’ is a bouncy electropop track that appeared on Staatsakt’s Santo Klaus sampler in 2016, and just over ten years earlier, he released the track ‘Weihnachten Im Wald’ as a limited-edition of 100 CDs for a Carhartt jeans promotion. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s 1992 Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch paired together two excellent tracks – the wild rockabilly gestures of ‘Big Yule Log Boogie’ and the ‘Blue Christmas’-esque ‘My Christmas Wish’.
Josh T. Pearson became the first Mute artist to deliver a whole EP of Christmas songs, with his maudlin Rough Trade Bonus disc getting released in 2011 as a Rough Trade shop exclusive accompanying his Mute debut, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. This year, Pearson issued a new song, ‘2020’s Silent Night Hindsight’ straight to YouTube, and a more perfectly cynical take on a shit year you will be hard-pressed to find.
In 2012, Canada’s Ladan Hussein, variously known as Al Spx and later Cold Specks covered Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Christmas Evermore’ for a Christmas compilation, complete with brass and obligatory messages of peace and hope and a bit of Diamanda Galás-esque tremulous wailing. The debut Cold Specks album, I Predict A Beautiful Expulsion (2012) also features the stirring track ‘Winter Solstice’.
Looper‘s 2003 album The Snare features the haunting and evocative ‘New York Snow’, while the ‘Intro’ track on M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has dreamy lyrics about walking in snow. Way back in 1982, Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric‘s included the sparse ‘Winter Kills’ and an orchestral version of ‘Only You’ was used in a Boots TV ad in 2017. A year before Upstairs At Eric’s, future Mute artists A Certain Ratio recorded the irrepressable long-form funk track ‘Winter Hill’ for their To Each album, while, some twenty years later, Nick Cave& The Bad Seeds released the wintery ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ in 2001, regrettably the closest the songwriter has yet come to recording a seasonal song. Surely there’s a Christmas album in St. Nick somewhere? Moby‘s never done a Christmas track either, though he did remix arch-crooner Tony Bennett’s ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ in 2007, but the track was only ever released as a promo.
Maps, known to his parents as James Chapman, kicked off his pre-Mute career as Short Break Operator, including the haunting ‘Some Winter Song’ as the first track on his debut EP from 2003. In fact, of all the Mute roster, Maps is easily the most prolific Christmas-loving artists. He recorded the frosty ‘Sparks In The Snow’ for his second single, went on to cover East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ for a promo CDr and released ‘Merry Christmas (My Friend)’ straight to Soundcloud in 2013, which is among the most atmospheric things Chapman has ever recorded.
Later still, 2016 Chapman’s collaboration with former Mute artist Polly Scattergood, On Dead Waves, yielded two Christmas songs in the form of a cover of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and the track ‘Winter’s Child’ that closed the duo’s only album together. This year, Polly Scattergood released her own Christmas track, ‘Snowburden’, which followed this year’s career-defining and intensely personal album In This Moment. The new song found the singer somewhere between Laurie Anderson-esque sound art and sensitive balladeering.
Also this year, one of Mute’s longest-serving sons, David Baker – one half of I Start Counting, Fortran 5 and Komputer – released ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a charity single under his Joanna-tinkling alias Dave The Keys in aid of his local London boozer, The Lamb on Holloway Road. Inspired, in part, by ‘Fairytale Of New York’, ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ has the requisite mix of memories, festive bells and a Dickensian air of that which has been lost. Read more about ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ here.
Speaking of charity, here’s a shameless plug: in 2012, Documentary Evidence compiled MuteResponse, a double download charity compilation album intended as a tribute to Mute’s legacy, and also to rule off the first ten years of writing this very site. On MuteResponse #1, I was able to include one-time Credible Sexy Units act Vic Twenty‘s ‘Christmas In Korea (New Year In Japan)’. Angela ‘Piney Gir’ Penhaligon and Adrian Morris recorded the track years ago but it was never officially released until the MuteResponsecompilation. I first heard this track years ago during an interview with Morris, and I always wanted to make sure that others would get to hear it, and so I was delighted to let the song see the light of day. Incidentally, Piney’s done plenty of other Christmas songs, one of my personal favourites being the lovely ‘For The Love Of Others’ in 2009. You can find MuteResponseover at Bandcamp.
So we’ve surveyed the traditional and the festive – what about the tenuous? Look no further than Mute’s most bankable act, Depeche Mode, whose only obvious Christmas connection was Dave Gahan delivering a festive message on the aforementioned Yulesville compilation. However, a year earlier, Depeche’s Alan Wilder and Martin Gore penned the track ‘Christmas Island’ as the B-side to ‘A Question Of Lust’; it isn’t remotely festive, it was released in May that year, it’s named after an island in the Indian Ocean, but it’s got the word Christmas in the title and so, dubious though it is, onto the Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas playlist it goes.
Christmas is supposed to be fun, and so here’s a version of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Bombshelter Brigade, re-titled ‘Merry Christmas’ and taken from the 1988 compilation Christmas At The Bombshelter.
“The lights of the pub are shining. Though we can’t be there to hear, in spirit we’ll all be singing, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”
– ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ by Dave The Keys
In normal times, if you were to head down to The Lamb on London’s Holloway Road on a Thursday evening, you’d be sure to find a certain Dave The Keys tinkling the ivories and playing popular songs at the piano. Said Dave is Mute stalwart David Baker, one half of I Start Counting, Fortran 5 and Komputer, whose prowess with the pub’s upright piano might come as a surprise given how every iteration of his pairing with Simon Leonard has been almost exclusively centred on electronic music.
Well, these aren’t normal times, and The Lamb, like so many pubs across the country, is on its knees thanks to two lockdowns and financially punitive – though necessary – restrictions. In response, Baker has recorded ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a beautifully evocative song where all sales go toward The Lamb’s crowdfunding campaign to avoid its metaphorical last orders.
‘The Lights Of The Pub’ is the singalong around the Joanna that never was, carrying a gentle sway like the last song before closing time. The song is led by Baker’s piano, around which a softly fluctuating synth meanders, joining up with festive bells and a beat as crisp as a frosty winter morn. Here you will find a wistful nostalgia for more carefree times, deeply rooted in a sense of a London community that could permanently lose the centre of its community. Poetic reflections of Baker’s North London locale abound here; an ambulance screams down the Holloway Road; a desperate man sits outsides the Tube station; he sings of an empty train, an ironic inversion of the movement of people across the capital that he sang about in Komputer’s ‘Looking Down On London’.
“I’d been wanting to do a Christmas song for years, but never got round to it,” Baker explains. “I had an idea of doing a London version of ‘Fairytale Of New York’. It started off as ‘The Lights Of The Thames’ but it evolved into ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ when I connected it to the plight of The Lamb and many other pubs around the country. The Lamb is a lovely pub on Holloway Road in North London where I’ve been playing piano for singalongs on Thursdays for a few years now. Unfortunately, it is closed due to the current regulations so they launched a Crowdfunder which I thought I’d try and help out with.”
Support The Lamb’s Crowdfunder here. Buy ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ at Bandcamp.
The Lights Of The Pub by Dave The Keys was released December 4 2020.