The Fitzroy Tavern in Central London was once a regular drinking establishment for bohemian writers like George Orwell and Dylan Thomas (who no doubt put plenty of money behind the bar), so it seems a fitting place to arrange a meeting with psychedelic three-piece of Arrowe Hill’s lead songwriter and founding member. And to drink quite a lot while we’re at it.
Adam Easterbrook’s lyrics are rife with references to poets, films, legends and literature, with topics like ghosts, ghouls, addiction and death often being a focus. The band’s sound is a mix of blues, psychedelia, punk and rock’n’roll, with comparisons having been made to groups as disparate as the Beatles, Teenage Fanclub, the Byrds, Pink Floyd, Guided by Voices and Oasis. If of Arrowe Hill have proved one thing over the last ten years and four albums though, it is that they are very much their own band, following their own rules.
Easterbrook himself is not a dark or overtly morbid man, but an amiable and welcoming chap who quickly offers to buy the first round of drinks as my brother (and fellow Pennyblack writer) Mark Rowland and I enter the bar early one Saturday afternoon.
We are here to talk about of Arrowe Hill’s new album ‘A Few Minutes in the Absolute Elsewhere’, ahead of their appearance at Pennyblackmusic’s next Bands’ Night on 20th March, and about the history of the band as they enter their second decade.
Adam returns with our drinks, and we start the tape recording and begin to chat. Adam produces a copy of the new album for us to look at (available on vinyl for £18 or as a download for the more frugal consumer). The artwork is very impressive, and as we look through the postcards and pull-outs that come with the record, Mark kicks things off properly by actually asking a question…
MR: Can people still get hold of your past releases?
AE You can get the first album on Amazon, you can get the third album on Amazon, the second album’s deleted – or should I say, “out of print” – and the fourth album’s just about to come out, but then that’ll be out of print and you’ll only have the download. There’s a few singles kicking about various places. It’s short-run stuff though isn’t it? That’s the problem and once they’ve gone, they’ve gone.
The second album, ‘Hexadelica and the Speed of Darkness’, the vinyl of that sold out in a fortnight, and we only had 69 copies pressed up. When we got them it was like, “Fuck man, this isn’t enough; we’d better do a fucking CDR as well!” That was a month before it was supposed to come out, so it was like right, we’ll do some artwork for that, move all the bits around, get some CDRs pressed up – so at least there was a different format.
But we’d always play with formats. I mean, the first and the third albums were on CD, the second album was lathe-cut vinyl and CDR – which came from fucking New Zealand. There’s a guy out there, John King I think; he does mostly New Zealand punk bands, but some lad I know turned me onto him, so we did a really short run, lathe-cut album. He invented this process – he cuts the stuff on a fucking lathe! So that was on lathe-cut vinyl and CDR, and the new one’s on vinyl and download.
Someone wrote about us on Head Heritage, and he’s like “the fucking formats, you can’t have them all in a line on your shelf!”
JR: I think I got your first album (2003’s ‘The Spring Heel Penny Dreadful and Other Tales of Morbid Curiosity’) in HMV.
AE: How much did they charge you for that then?
JR: Something ridiculous I expect. HMV will sell a four CD George Michael box set for about 5 quid, and then if you want to get anything by say, Melt Banana or of Arrowe Hill, the prices are jacked right up
AE: But I think that’s how they make their money though, isn’t it? A bit of culture – it’s going to cost you money. The higher brow, the more you’ve got to pay for it.
It’s funny actually; on the last album, ‘Dulce Domum’, I went into that HMV and the Virgin on Oxford Street and I put copies on the shelves. Didn’t tell them, just put them on the shelves. So obviously, if someone picked it up they’d think “It hasn’t got a fucking sticker on it”. You can’t scan it, but I just thought fuck, it’s worth it. I just put three in the rack. They all went; I don’t know if they just took them out and put them in the bin or what, but I don’t really give a fuck. It was like the reverse of shop-lifting – shop-giving! “Yeah, here y’are, have some stock. Go on, have it, we don’t mind! For free!”
We won’t be doing that with the new album – you can fucking buy them! I know it’s expensive, 18 quid, but that’s the thing we’ve got nowadays. Music’s pretty much fucking worthless, because you can get it for nothing, can’t ya? So it’s like, alright if you want that for buttons. You can buy it off fucking Amazon or iTunes for 7 quid. If you want the object – this actually exists! This is a three-dimensional object that will exist for as long as you want it to. So, it’s 18 quid because it’s fucking worth 18 quid.
If you spend money on a record, you’re going to fucking listen to that record. You’re going to appreciate it aren’t you? That’s the fucking problem now. I mean, pop’s always been like that – you listen to it for 6 weeks, non-stop and then you bin it off. And that’s fine, but this is going to cost you 18 pound, and then you might be more inclined to treat it with a little bit of… not respect, I don’t want to sound really po-faced. But do you know what I mean? If it’s fucking worth something, then you’ll take more care over it and you’ll listen harder.
You’re going to have to approach that whole listening thing completely differently if you’ve paid for an album than you would if it was free. So, I know it’s a bit expensive – and believe me, we won’t be running off to Monte Carlo with the proceeds – but it covers what it cost to make the actual record. It doesn’t cost recording or any of that.
We could’ve put badges in there, we could’ve put t-shirts. It’s the ‘Sergeant Pepper’ thing isn’t it, you know? By the end of it they wanted to put it in a fucking box; the head of EMI’s like “Woah, easy lads! No fucking boxes! You’ve got your fucking Peter Blake cover, don’t take the piss”
JR: I know what you’re talking about. Maybe it’s not disrespect, but when you download music, it’s often particular songs rather than whole albums.
AE: Exactly, that’s so out of fashion now, to do a record as a whole piece. I accept that most people these days will go “I want that track, I want that track and I want that track”, and that’s fine; I have no problem with that whatsoever. But, as a person who creates music it’s still my job to make a whole fucking thing. The whole thing’s great. It’s like a picture, it’s like a painting. Picking a track is like saying “Oh I really like that little corner down there” – but the painter’s still got to make the whole fucking painting, and I’ve still got to make a whole record. If you want to just take bits out, that’s fine, but I’ve still got to make the record.
The way it used to work – say you were a bit flush; you went out, you bought 6 LPs, and there’d be a couple you’d go “Fuck, that is amazing!” and you’d batter the fuck out of them. The others, you might not even listen to them, but they’d go into the record collection. Two years later, you go “Oh, I forgot I had this”. You put it on, you go “Fucking hell! That’s amazing!” Now, are you going to do that with the downloads? Probably not.
JR: It’ll be in a file somewhere on your computer. You won’t know where it is, and you’ll forget you’ve even got it.
AE: Yeah, because it doesn’t actually exist; it’s not taking up space in your life and your room. It’s in a little box on top of a cupboard or in your coat pocket.
There are only a few whole records on my iPod. I’ve got all my records at home, but my iPod – I’ve just got one of those Nanos, and the only albums I’d say that are full would be ‘The White Album’, ‘Beggars Banquet and ‘Let It Bleed’. And obviously, my own stuff, but that’s just so at least if got it if the house burns down – I’ve got it all. Oh, there’s one other band: Stereolab. They’re allowed because they’re too fucking good not to, you know?
JR: So, of Arrowe Hill have been going for about ten years now, is that right?
AE: Yeah. We put our first record out in 2000 and we actually got together in May 1999. We’ve had numerous line-up changes. We seem to have solidified now – or ‘congealed’ might be a better word for it. I still think every record sounds different; I don’t think we’re making the same record every time. There’s an organic – dare I say that word – development of the sound. We don’t make leaps and bounds. It just sort of grows like mould in your flat. “Oh yeah, I see of Arrowe Hill are still flowering in the corner there, in the darkness”.
Our first gig was in Bristol with Guided by Voices – and it was downhill all the way! It was like “Right this is it lads, you’ve blown it now. Your first ever gig, you’ve played with your favourite band. It’s going to be crap now”
JR: How did that come about? That’s a pretty prestigious band to be opening for in your first ever gig!
AE: We were massive Guided by Voices fans and still are obviously. They’d just signed to Creation to do one album and our bass player was working at Creation, got pally with Bob Pollard, and we all then got pally with each other. It just went from there really.
‘Bee Thousand’ is a touchstone record for the early start of the band. I mean, I can’t say enough good things about Bob, because he’s got such a good way with people, he really puts you at ease. He’s just a fucking boss, boss, boss bloke. He was really kind to us; he gave us that gig and we were really appreciative. And they actually stood and watched us, with the other four people! There was more of them than there was in the audience. But it was a fucking boss gig.
Our third gig was in fucking New York – and we’ve never been back! But that was ten years ago now. So we’ve been going for a long time, but on the edges you know? It’s all on the peripherals. At the edge of town, where all the interesting things happen! Rather than the precinct of pop, we’re on the side-streets of psychedelia.
JR: It’s interesting that you mentioned ‘Bee Thousand’, because I was going to talk to you about that album, particularly in regards to your first record; there are definitely comparisons to be drawn between the two.
Adam: I think ‘Bee Thousand’ and our first album, I can say with complete assurance, are massively influenced by ‘The White Album’. The running order, the sequencing – I mean that, to me, is a massive touchstone record. Not just because of the songs, but the way it was sequenced. Because sequencing is as important as what you are sequencing. Julian Cope’s commented on that. He said it was one of the most psychedelic things he’d heard in a while because of the juxtapositions. And he’s right; that was kind of intentional, but kind of unintentional
But you’re absolutely correct with ‘Bee Thousand’, definitely; the way the songs clash into each other and overlap, and the little weird bits that come out of nowhere and go back there. But I would say that that’s probably as influenced by ‘The White Album ‘as we were.
I think we had more of a Guided by Voices influence in the early days. Don’t know if it’s there so much now. See, that’s the thing – when is an influence just that you share a similar record collection to the person that you like? I mean I know that a lot of the records I’ve got, Bob Pollard has them as well. So as much as I’m influenced by Bob, I’m also influenced by Wire, and I’m also influenced by the Fabs, or whatever. So while you are listening to what they’re doing, you’re also taking from the same sources that they are.
And there’s Faust’s ‘The Faust Tapes’. That was another touchstone record for me on the first album, with the sequencing. The way that the songs are cut up – you’re just like “what the fuck’s going on here?” But I think that’s quite good. A little bit of confusion is a good thing for jaded ears.
JR: Well I completely agree with you on the importance of sequencing. Even if I’m just making a compilation for someone, I’ll spend well over an hour just deciding which song should go where.
AE: Well we’ve all served time in sequencing from doing mix tapes. I feel sorry for later generations who haven’t really experienced that, because you don’t really do it now. I mean, they make their lists, but do they make the tapes? You have to make it on a crappy fucking CD now, and I don’t give a fuck what you say, it’s not the same. You know, you’re sitting there with your finger on the pause button, and you’ve got all your recording levels, all that shit. “Oh no, that song doesn’t work.” You rewind it, you put another song there. It takes you all fucking night!
I learnt sequencing as much from doing shit like that as from listening to ‘The White Album’. With the first album, there must have been about 15 tapes of various combinations of songs, and I sat down and spent time compiling them. It takes a lot of work.
But it’s my job to make sure the whole fucking thing hangs together; it’s got to be coherent. Otherwise it’s just a collection of songs with some filler.
JR: Well in regards to that cohesion you’re talking about, is it right that your new record,’ A Few Minutes in the Absolute Elsewhere’, follows a storyline?
AE: It’s a loose storyline. See, we’re going to come onto the thorny subject of concept albums now. We’ve been skirting around it very well, but we must go inside the concept album question.
The problem that concept albums developed was in their slavish attachment to the concept – that’s where it goes wrong. You can go, “Ah, I’ve got a concept for the album! Now we can go and write the songs”. Wrong! That’s the wrong way to do it. Ask Ray Davies – listen to some of the Kinks albums from the 70’s. He gets his concept, and then he’s trying to write to that concept, and it’s a real cart-before-the-horse method.
The way to do it – in my opinion – is you write a bunch of songs, and then you look for your concept. Because there’ll be certain themes, certain strands, certain chord progressions that keep coming back. Writing to a concept doesn’t work for me. I don’t think it works for anyone. Even Lennon said’ Sergeant Pepper’s’… isn’t a concept album. The first couple of songs are linked, but the rest of it could have been on anything – and that’s true.
With ‘…Absolute Elsewhere’, the first side starts with a song about a drowning man and it finishes with a song about a drowning man. There’s a narrative. It’s a very loose narrative, and I don’t want to fill in the gaps for people. I’m not going to come to you and say “Well hang on a minute; I wrote this so I know what it’s about”. What I think it’s about is fucking my business, and what you think it’s about is up to you. Once I’ve written it and it’s out there, it has nothing more to do with me.
In some ways, the people who create are the last people who should be talking about their own work, because they don’t always know what it means. I can tell you the songs are arranged in this certain order because it flows that way, and narratively it flows that way, but if someone else gets some other idea, I’m not going to piss on your parade and tell you that you’re wrong. Because that’s up to you, you’ve bought it.
But there is a loose narrative structure, and there are two different stories. I would say that side one is about a lad, side two is about a girl. In the last song, somehow, via the magic of cinema, the two characters come together, and there’s a…I wouldn’t say there’s redemption, but there is a conclusion to it.
I can’t help myself. I used to write prose. Just before the start of of Arrowe Hill, I’d started writing and I had to make a decision. It was like, right, you either stick with the writing or you do a band properly. The band thing happened because some friends of mine, we started to play together and it was like right, fine; I’ll do this then. I could have been ten years down the road of a fucking writing career by now, but I pushed it into music because that’s what we were doing and it was the right thing to do. The songs are stories in themselves, some of them. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. I always try and put – not a twist at the end, but you’ll know when you’ve got to the end of the story because the last line has got the little twist or the killer punch or whatever. But it’s very difficult to be succinct in a minute and forty seconds. But that’s the challenge, and it’s fun as well. I enjoy it.
MR: It seems to me that it’s quite visual writing.
AE: Yeah it is. I watch a lot of films, I went to art school. There’s a quote by someone about Pink Floyd that says you could tell they were architectural students by the music they make. You can tell that I studied advertising and graphics by the music I make, because it’s got strap lines. You start with an idea, you’ve got your blurb, and you finish with the first idea you started the piece with. The same rules apply whether it’s music or writing or fucking selling baked beans or whatever. I don’t want to say “You paint a picture with words” because it’s a terribly rubbish thing to say, but you set a scene, you pull the curtains back and you say “Right, this is what’s going on”. It’s like a little passion play, for a minute thirty six. So there is that visual aspect.
But again, that’s that psychedelic thing isn’t it? It is all in your mind, and I can say stuff to you and then see what it triggers. I mean, if I said to you “that death-like feeling about Sundays”, you know what I mean, don’t you? You don’t get it in London so much, but in the Home Counties and in the provinces, Sunday man – it is like suspended animation. It’s like you’re frozen in amber. From the minute you wake up, to when you have your dinner and you go to bed, it’s like a death. And whilst you enjoy it, you also don’t enjoy it. I love Sundays, but I also hate Sundays.
JR: That kind of morbid analogy seems recognisably of Arrowe Hill. Where do you think that tendency towards darker subject matter comes from?
AE: I was very close to my nan, and when she died – it was about 2001 – I became a different person, and my song writing reflected that. It got darker. And then the twin towers came down – that was your Kennedy moment for this generation. Everyone went “Oh God!”, and it was a real weird time that we’re still trying to escape from, but we just can’t. Maybe that’s why my stuff’s so fucking dark.
I mean, there was a darkness to the 80s, where I was living at the time in Liverpool anyway. In Birkenhead, there was recession; no jobs, heroin. You get to ’89 and the Stone Roses – it was like the fucking sun came out! There’s a fucking world out there, and we don’t all have to wear trench coats anymore and listen to the fucking Smiths. And then it was the 90’s, and it was a bit brighter.
But the noughties, I mean fuck. Pretty much from the get-go, it got fucking weird, and it got weirder and darker, it got really fucking paranoid. And you can’t help but have that come out in your work, whatever you’re doing. If it’s not, then you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. People say “Oh fuck man, your stuff’s really morbid, it’s really dark” And it’s like, yeah, but it could never have been written at any other point in history. It could only ever have been written now.
I say all that, but you’ve got to keep hope alive. It’s a cliché, but it’s fucking true. I once described myself as a detached optimist in a very early interview. Some people say “You’re a real pessimist you, aren’t you?” And I say no, I’m a realist. But I still hope for the best to happen. I might write about death, and witches and demons and all that shit, but underneath it all, all I’m doing is shining a light in dark corners. I’m looking for the light as well; I want it to be better. But then I might do myself out of a fucking audience, because then they’ll start listening to the Stone Roses again. “Ah shit! No one wants to listen to miserable rock anymore do they?”
MR: I think with every other decade you can define it by the music, by a certain sound. With this last decade, that’s really hard to do.
AE: I think maybe we’re a little bit too close to it at the minute. There were no discernable, definable bands or movements that I could speak of. Apart from that emo became the goth of the 21st Century. That brushed forward look that we were seeing in Cleveland in 2000, and we’re going “Fucking emo pricks” – by 2005, every fucker looked like that! You’re like “what?!”
Apart from that, you can’t say it was brit-pop, it was grunge, it was glam, it was this, it was that... it wasn’t anything. It atomised. There is no ‘youth culture’ anymore, no unifying feature. The fact that we’re all different is what unifies us, if that makes sense. The atomisation of culture is what happened in the last century. But that’ll change. That’ll be seen as “then”. I’m waiting to see what comes next. That’s the interesting bit; where are we going to go from this?
JR: Well I suppose we should ask what you are going to do next. I understand that the next album is already starting to materialise.
AE: The next album was going to be one of two things, and it’s probably going to be neither of them now. I contacted Sean O’Hagan from the High Llamas, because I wanted him to hear the stuff. I basically wanted to get rid of the beat combo stuff and do it with strings, brass and acoustic guitar. I mean, I’ve been listening to the High Llamas since ‘Gideon Gaye’ came out, and I always thought that his strings were so sweet; he’s got such a good touch. I wanted to see what he could bring to my horrible flattened fifths and sour, weird chords. I wanted to do something that would be a cross between ‘Strawberry Fields…’ and ‘Death Letter’, the Son House track. To be somewhere between those two. And then I heard the Llamas’ album ‘Beet, Maize and Corn’ and I thought “Shit, you already did it!” I hadn’t heard that record when it came out. But he didn’t do it the way I would; mine would be a whole lot darker.
So I was either going to do that, or it was going to come straight off my four-track. Now the economy’s kicked in, or the lack of it, and I don’t earn enough to be able to pay Sean O’Hagan. I did approach him. He did listen and we have exchanged a few emails. I don’t think he can really get his head round what I want to do, so that’s probably… I mean even if he could, I can’t pay him now.
A friend of mine, Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene; when I told him I’d approached O’Hagan he said, “Well I’ll do your strings for you, but I’ll have to do them on midi”. So that’s still an option, you might get a couple of tracks. Because I don’t want to do the same fucking stuff all the time; I want to hear these new songs done like that, I want hear it on strings. It’s as much a buzz for me as anyone else who might get a buzz off of it.
The four-track idea, that could still happen, but we’re having such fun in the band doing the new stuff it would be a shame not to record it. Yes, it’s more of the same, yes, we’re not pushing the boundaries of modern music performance-wise – I’d like to think we were with our subject matter, our musical arrangement, our lyrical content.
It’s all dependent on money. All this stuff’s self-published. I haven’t got a publishing deal, I haven’t got a record deal – I pay for this with my money. That’s why it’s 18 quid as much as anything else; not to pay me off, but to pay for the record itself.
So that’s where of Arrowe Hill is at 2010. There’s a couple of roads it could go down. Half the new record’s written, and how it comes out into the world – we’ll have to see.
MR and JR: Thank you.
The photographs that accompany this interview were taken for Pennyblackmusic by Mark Rowland.