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Helen Keller, British wrestling and writing – Siobhán Kane talks with musician, author, and one of the creators of The North Sea Scrolls, Luke Haines.

Helen Keller, British wrestling and writing – Siobhán Kane talks with musician, author, and one of the creators of The North Sea Scrolls, Luke Haines.

 

Fatima Mansions and Microdisney‘s Cathal Coughlan, The Auteurs, Baader Meinhof, and Black Box Recorder’s Luke Haines, and music writer Andrew Mueller have decided that our “past or present…can’t be right” so they are here to tell us that “it isn’t“.

The North Sea Scrolls, or self-described “evening of revelations” by these “reluctant prophets” sounds mad and wonderful; narrated by Andrew Mueller, and featuring original songs by Coughlan and Haines, they will, through song and spoken word answer such questions as “Could it be that the guttering violence of Northern Ireland is caused by terrorist tribute acts from Australia?”, “Who is Tony Allen?” and “How did Tim Hardin end up commanding a nationalist militia in Cornwall?” – questions that have long been burning a hole in our philosophical pockets.

Taking in everyone from Martin “The General” Cahill and Cynthia Lennon, The North Sea Scrolls is a project about what could have been, and what perhaps has been in an alternative universe. Left in the hands of Coughlan, Haines and Mueller, the project and imminent evening (and record), looks set to be a mixture of clever brilliance and irreverence, and a reminder that our imagination is a truth in itself, and perhaps a better place, where Joe Meek is Minister for Culture, and Morris Men are “a Cotswoldian thugee cult”. History is more interesting if we write it ourselves, or perhaps get contrarian songwriters to help, and there is none more contrarian than Luke Haines; the man who turned up to accompany David Peace at signings’s of Peace’s book The Damned United, called for a “National Pop Strike”, named his own box set Luke Haines is Dead, turned up in comic book Phonogram (by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen – Gillen calls Haines a “Dickensian character”) as a guide to the spirit world, and routinely writes some of the most acerbic and funny record reviews (among other things) for The Guardian – Siobhán Kane talks to him.

 

You and Cathal must have been aware of each other, but were eventually brought together by Andrew Mueller, how did everything evolve?
I have known Andrew for about seventeen or eighteen years, he was the person to put me on the front cover of The Melody Maker, and interviewed me so long ago, and a few years later we did an Edinburgh show together where he was interviewing me and things like that. Gradually he became a friend, and he was good friends with Cathal, and as you said, we were aware of one another. I hadn’t heard his music properly until quite recently, I must admit, because his music came at a time when I had almost stopped listening to new stuff, which was in the early eighties. It sounds nuts, but it was when everyone was trying to have bands and it was too much like a busman’s holiday listening to other people’s stuff, so I missed out Microdisney and Fatima Mansions at the time.

What happened was that Andrew had a party and Cathal was there and I just went up to him and started talking about David Crosby [laughs] because I was going through a massive David Crosby phase at the time. The thing about “the Cros” is that it is deeply wrong, do you know what I mean? Some of his things are just so wrong, that I do kind of like them. There is the box set, with that song ‘Tamalpais High (At About 3)’ and there is a quote from him where he says something like [effects a good Crosby impersonation] “everyone thought it was about getting high on Mount Tamalpais, but it was actually about everyone standing at Tamalpais High School waiting for the girls to come out” and you think “oh no!” but it’s so Crosby [laughs]. I was talking at Cathal for about fifteen minutes about Crosby, and Cathal, being the very polite man that he is, just sort of smiled benignly at me saying “yes, yes, I understand”. Then Andrew said “why don’t you two get together and write something” and there was no reason not to, so we did.

Did you find it difficult collaborating together? You are both such singular writers.
We got over that, because last time I collaborated was in Black Box Recorder with John [Moore], and at my age now I don’t really want to write with anyone, and I don’t think Cathal does either, so we said basically that he would each write songs and keep out of each others way, that he would learn my songs, and I would learn his songs, and we did it in that sense, and Andrew’s narration before each song is the same, we just kind of kept out of each others way. It is a truer collaboration because we haven’t compromised at all. When you collaborate with someone else, sometimes people want to change things, people get pissed off, and what you actually end up with is a slight compromise. So this way we have thrown all the cards on the floor, and however it falls is the way we play it. I wouldn’t dream of telling Cathal how to write a song, because he is perfectly capable of writing fine songs, if I didn’t like what he had written, and I do like it, the problem would be with me, so it is more a case of “this is what we have damn well done!”.

Andrew has said that you and Cathal have always “created songs that exhibit a difficulty with received wisdoms”, that you are contrarians really. The North Sea Scrolls is a real reflection of that, and is almost operatic in its rendering of an insane alternative universe, very different to the kind you were taught in school.
I don’t really remember that much history, but we were taught the Second World War, but not recent history, it was quite bog standard – the Magna Carta, 1066 [laughs], Industrial Revolution, the guy that cured Smallpox and the blind person, oh yes, there was an obsession with Helen Keller, [laughs] that’s my formal historical knowledge – it is all centred on Helen Keller. Any questions about Keller, I’m your man. I am a pretty self-educated person anyway, I never took kindly to academic establishments and always wanted to do my own thing, so half of what I have learned has been nonsense that is mangled into my own head.

In this alternative universe, you have Joe Meek Minister for Culture, and feature epic characters of history like Martin Cahill, alongside less well known individuals like Tony Allen.
Yes, and we have Tim Hardin the folk singer becoming an MP, because he actually did come over to London in the sixties because you could get heroin on prescription, so in The North Sea Scrolls he becomes an MP, and we take it to its logical conclusion, but the whole thing is pretty fucking wild.

Did you always envisage the project to be something performed live?
It was always going to be a live thing first and foremost, it is almost like a cabaret, hopefully it is funny, but also there is something that gets the mind going as well. It is just a trip really [laughs]. For me it was about looking back perhaps inevitably to a time when it seemed you were allowed to do things differently. The music scene seems very constricted now, I think if you are a solo artist, or working in a collaborative context like this it doesn’t have to be. I haven’t heard the album, but I liked when that guy from The Divine Comedy did that concept album about cricket [The Duckworth Lewis Method], those are interesting ideas, rather than “oh we’re in a rock and roll band and go up and down the country in a van and play gigs, man” it’s not interesting enough. I am interested in albums like Robert Calvert made, that album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters about the German government being sold duff aeroplanes by the US government after World War II as a source of revenge for the second World War, all true, and Calvert made that album with spoken word on it.

Even though the album is supposedly dead I am not going to buy into it, we are actually going to record The North Sea Scrolls around Christmas and it will be out sometime next year, and it will have all the spoken word stuff on it and will be about an hour and a half long or whatever, and maybe you won’t listen endlessly to the spoken word, but it has to be all there- this ambitious thing, flawed as it may be. I am into the idea of flaws in music anyway, it makes it more interesting.

It’s bound up in that Beckettian thing of “fail better”.
Indeed, yes. That is one thing perhaps that we have tried to have, a little bit of Beckett in our music.

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