“Violet” By H Bird.
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Those old clichés with regard to time accelerating as you get older seem remarkably prescient at this juncture in my life. The endless, sun dappled summer holidays of yore are nothing more than a distant nostalgic reminiscence, and six weeks can now pass in the mere blinking of an eye. Nowadays it would appear that no sooner have I applied sun block on scorching summers day and pottered about the garden, I return indoors to find the family decorating the Christmas tree! There are of course those amongst us who subscribe to the view that time itself is like a spiral and with each passing revolution time accelerates as you progress to the centre. Others believe that the dominant position in our lives of TV and modern technology has meant we are leading the sort of lives in which we experience less memorable content to reflect upon, and thus time appears to be shortened.
This phenomenon may also be due to the fact that we are just so bloody impatient, and like spoilt children we want, and generally get, everything right HERE, right NOW, be it via the click of a mouse button or by glancing a languid finger across our I-pad screens. If ever a service was appropriately named then surely “On DEMAND” reflects our ego-centric desires better than most. We are no longer acquainted with that stomach churning rush of anticipation or sense of yearning that is so often experienced by those who wait.
It could be argued that technology has actually enslaved us and our seemingly insatiable, rapacious, appetite for content and instant gratification has meant we experience everything at a faster pace but to a lesser degree. Therefore instead of liberating our time and setting us free, new technologies mean we feel under intense pressure to actually do more and thus we actually have less time to spend on the things that really matter. We no longer indulge in the thrill of the chase or the lingering, teasing, delight of foreplay, we just haven’t time in our hectic schedules and so like automatons, we quickly consummate and move on. And it all seems somehow so empty and joyless.
The Point ?: (and I rarely have one)
Because of this perceived lack of time I decided to attempt to conduct shorter “bite sized” interviews with musicians until I had managed to somehow slow down the fabric of time itself, or at the very least, manage it more efficiently. But I reckoned without Aug Stone who, whilst discussing his latest musical project H-Bird, made me realise, ‘actually what’s the bloody rush?’ Why not just slow down and give things you love or feel are worthy of your attention some quality time? Stop just listening to music and actually experience it again!’ Conversely Aug also managed to eloquently furnish us with all the information we could wish for, from just five questions.
The Music :
H Bird have recently released their début album ‘Operation: Fascination’ via Corporate records– it’s an eleven part pop opus that weaves it’s way through misty-eyed love, accidental romance, heartbroken comedowns, wistful nostalgia and looks toward brighter tomorrows spent dancing under the stars. Inspired by James Bond, The Avengers, Martinis, Guinness, Brit pop and Gin, ‘Operation Fascination’ is filled with bitter sweet, perfect pop tunes of the kind that haven’t been heard since the likes of St. Etienne graced the stage. And it’s music that is deserving of your time, an album whose subtleties and eloquence are revealed more fully if it’s given your full attention. Pour a Martini, don a smoking jacket (or a cat suit, possibly both) and experience the literate bitter sweet pop that is ‘Operation Fascination’. We had a chat with the loquacious Mr Stone (Ok, when I say we chatted, we mean he chatted ;) ) about H-Bird and beyond !
VP: How did the band members meet, given your music I expect a suitably romantic story, possibly under the clock at Carnforth station, or a brassiere in the shadow of the Eiffel tower perhaps? If it was actually at the infamous Whiddon Down Little Chef , please feel free to embellish and even lie.
AUG : Legend has it (and confirmed by the press release for the 2006 “Pink Lights & Champagne” single) that “The three members of H Bird met when, quite independently of one another, each was attempting to steal the same spaceship to fly directly into the sun. For a moment they decided to join forces, though this rapidly degenerated into an argument over what would provide the soundtrack for their journey – Yazoo’s “Upstairs at Eric’s”, Dusty Springfield‘s “A Girl Called Dusty”, or Saint Etienne‘s “Tiger Bay”. Pulp and Shostakovich were suggested as compromises, but in the midst of doing so they heard the great engines and the opening chords of Duran Duran’s “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” blare from behind them, thwarted. Aug Stone (guitars, keyboards) nodded his approval of the chosen record whilst Kate Dornan (vocals) shrugged her shoulders and suggested they form a band instead. Kasia Middleton (keyboards) has since been heard to comment, “It’s a good excuse to drink lots of tea.”
This must’ve been 2005 or so, and all the stranger when Kate and I realized who each of us were. Back in 2002 our two bands – Lifestyle (my band from Boston, MA, whose main man Sean Drinkwater first suggested to me that “Seven & The Ragged Tiger” would be the perfect album to listen to whilst flying directly into the sun) and Fosca – were supposed to be doing an east coast tour of the US together, which unfortunately fell thru. I got to know Kasia thru Kate as they were friends from university.
July 28, 2005 seems to be a historic date on the H Bird calendar, the Luke Haines/John Moore/Vichy Government gig at the ICA. All three of us were in attendance and it was there that I gave Kate the demo of “Pink Lights & Champagne”. I had been looking for a singer forever, and Kate and I had even talked about writing some music together, but I had no idea she could sing. You don’t think someone who can play every instrument would have a great voice as well! But sometime that spring I went to see Scarlet’s Well and she sang lead on a song and I was very impressed. And literally as I was handing the cd over to Kate, she introduced me to Alex Sarll, who became a big supporter of H Bird in the early days and a very good friend. There were many people who were there that night that I went on to make music or write comedy with.
(Although some parts of this answer may seem embellished, I assure you we did not meet at the Whiddon Down Little Chef ; )
VP: Your debut album has just been released “Operation Fascination” can you tell us a bit about it , its themes , and what sort of overall sound you were aiming for ?
AUG : Sultry romance, harrowing heartache and a good deal of drinking is how I was describing it in the early days. But only once it was finished and I went back and looked at it as a whole did I notice certain themes – the colour Violet keeps popping up, lights, vespers are mentioned a few times. Vespers is just a word and idea I’ve always liked, nothing religious about it, I just like the sound of bells announcing the evening.
The lyrics to me were very important, as I believe lyrics should be. I’m always amazed that people can get away with a bad line just because the melody carries. I think “Sour Martinis” and “Allodynia” are two of my best lyrics and I’m very proud of them. I still haven’t gotten around to reading all of “Finnegans Wake” but I remember when a friend of mine introduced me to it when I was 21, he described it as ‘every word has two meanings, so there’s two stories going on at the same time’. And I think I may have misunderstood him a little, as at any rate the multiplicities of meaning in “Finnegans Wake” seem to approach the infinite. But I’ve always really liked that idea of telling two stories simultaneously, and while it doesn’t quite go that far, “Sour Martinis” has some lines where the lines can go two ways, all based on drinking puns – “from the look upon your face, last night capsized” and “you think you need to chase her but I’ll give it to you straight”. And I quite like that.
I’ve always said that there’s something about a really great pop song that’s akin to the feeling you get when you first kiss someone you’ve really fancied for quite a while (hence the song title “First Kiss Lips”). I always strive for that when I’m writing pop songs. And I do feel that way when I listen back to “Operation: Fascination”, which is really nice. On the other side of that though, with the sad songs, it was important that they were just as strong, feeling-wise, as the joyous ones, really evoking utter heartbreak. Kate used to introduce “Allodynia” live as ‘the wrist-slashing song’. Heh. Ian Catt (who recorded the album) said as a whole the album is “a map of a party”, and I think that’s a very good description.
And speaking of the overall sound, I knew we really needed Ian to achieve what I was going for. I’ve always loved 60’s girl groups and 80’s electronic pop, so I immediately fell in love with Saint Etienne when I first heard them in the mid-90’s. I remember tears coming to my eyes the first time I listened to “Hobart Paving” and I wouldn’t argue with anyone saying “He’s On The Phone” was the greatest, most uplifting song ever written. I first came to London in 2003 to record my “Girl Talk” ep with Ian (by rock stone, all the old rock stone stuff is available for free download on the Corporate Records site – http://corporaterecords.co.uk/ ) and it was just great working with him. I knew he’d be perfect for what I wanted to do with H Bird.
The spy theme is also prevalent on the record. I’d always loved Bond since I was a kid and when H Bird started I had just re-read all the novels because I was working on a story about James Vagabond, star agent of the Drunken Secret Service (am currently working on turning this into a comic) so that was all fresh in my mind. ‘Sour Martinis,’ ‘Pink Lights & Champagne,’ and ‘Dear Dead Days’are all Bond chapter titles. I had also just really discovered The Avengers and absolutely fell in love with it, that stylish fantasy world. The title “Operation: Fascination” comes from something Mrs. Peel says in the episode “What The Butler Saw”. “Danger Makers” is also the name of an episode. I tend to work a lot from titles, keeping a running list of good ones and then work from there. “Allodynia” is a medical term that a taxidermist friend of mine once used on the internet and I immediately wrote it down because I liked the sound and the meaning (“pain from stimuli which are not normally painful”), kept it for years and then finally thought it would work perfectly for what I was going for in that song.
VP: What sort of bands and artists have been your biggest influence and why ?
AUG: Well, obviously I’m a huge fan of Saint Etienne, influencing me down to recording with Ian Catt. I always loved their whole approach – how their surroundings, especially London, were such a big part of the records, how it wasn’t just limited to music but film and art were such a big part of it as well. And I loved how they’re so committed to making things special, like the fan club stuff and cds for different events. I always tried to make each H Bird gig special, we never played the same set twice, always introducing new songs, which sometimes were a nightmare to get ready in time.
I loved how much they would talk about the city and I made a point of going to Mario’s Cafe as soon as I moved to London. In fact, when I first moved here, I remember going to Seven Sisters, Mile End and Ladbroke Grove looking for places to live as these were all areas mentioned in Suede, Pulp and Blur songs. Ha! I think one’s surroundings and how one chooses to look at one’s surroundings are a huge influence on the music one makes. The initial inspiration behind H Bird was that one day in late autumn I was out walking along the Portobello Road and I bought these two polka-dotted teacups (one green and blue, the other red and pink) and then went home and listened to Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile”. I thought to myself “I want to start a band that sounds like that today”. Shortly after this I heard Dolly Mixture and Girlfrendo for the first time, both of whom seemed to go along perfectly with the spirit of what I wanted and both of whom I still really love.
This all would’ve been late 2003 and it was earlier that year, in the summer, when I first discovered él Records. I was in the Notting Hill Music Exchange and came across the Bad Dream Fancy Dress “Choirboys Gas” LP and Always “Metroland” 12” and both looked so wonderful to me, I bought them immediately, even paying £13 for the BDFD having never heard of it before. But it was so worth it! Everything pop music should be – really catchy, fun songs about love and lemon tarts : ) But the thing that really impressed me about él was the care that was taken to completely make up these imaginary pop worlds, all the sleeves always looked so good and so interesting. And the fact that most of the bands were just made up, didn’t really exist, were just creations of Mike Always’, just increased the wonder of it. I thought this was all so great and definitely had a big influence on how I thought about things for future projects. My music before that seemed to be about girls a lot, as in girls I knew who had broken my heart and I had already decided that that was getting a bit old and the idea of a world of make-believe I’ve always found very appealing. So while most of the H Bird songs are about love, they weren’t written about anyone in particular or even with anyone in mind. And I do think they’re stronger for that, they seem to convey a lot more than if they were in fact real.
I always seem to have a clear idea of what I want a project to be. So talking about influence is a little tough, especially as you get older. But what I’ve found with all the new bands that I discover who I really love is that they’ve all, and this is true for all artists, created a world that’s all their own. And it’s familiar enough for you to want to enter while at the same time full of enough strange delights to keep you there. My most significant discovery of the past many years is David Devant & His Spirit Wife. It’s such a shame no one’s really heard of them in America, I never did. And so I rather missed a lot of it, but having been doing my best to catch up. I first saw Mikey as Mr Solo at a gig at The Windmill in Brixton in 2006 with Luxembourg (who were my favourite band at the time. I now make music with David Shah as The Soft Close-Ups, I still find this strange but in an awesome way) and by the end of the first song – “Home Sick Home”, with my last name held on the video screen ; ), I was completely sold. I went and got everything I could – Mr Solo, David Devant, Carfax. I really think Mikey Georgeson is one of our greatest living songwriters. I don’t understand why they’re not huge. The music just has everything – it’s incredibly catchy, while at the same time rocks, is sonically interesting, and the lyrics are just incredible, a great sense of fun whilst at times also being quite dark, and that’s like life really.
So to talk of influence, I think I really need to go back to being a kid, the excitement of first discovering pop music. When I was really little, I remember my mom playing all her 45s from the 60’s, all the great girl group stuff that I still love – The Supremes, The Shangri-La’s, The Chiffons, The Jellybeans. And then the early 80’s had MTV first coming along and all the excitement surrounding that, and my cousins were all 6-8 years older than me and their excitement about music really rubbed off on me. I remember being very young and staying up all night watching MTV because my cousins really wanted to see The Kinks’ “Come Dancin” video again. And all that to me is best epitomized in Van Halen. Everything about them was just so over-the-top and brilliant. I always loved Eddie’s guitar playing, his tone is lovely and his playing is always very tasteful, very melodic. I think people often confuse him with all the awful gun slinging guitar playing that came in his wake, but Eddie himself was always very musical. The songs were just such great pop songs. And David Lee Roth, well, what can you say about him? He was the life of the party and excitement was what he was all about. So yeah, all my really fond memories of being a kid, and experiencing that wonderment of just being able to run around, laugh and play are all accompanied by some song blasting out of a radio somewhere in the picture. And I still feel that same joy now with really great music.
VP: What have been the bands highlights and low lights of 2010 ? What of plans for 2011?
AUG: Finishing the album was obviously a huge highlight, though after it was all done I remember being in a really strange place. Having worked so hard on it for so long, well, I wouldn’t call it a low light, but it was an unexpected sense of…I’m not even sure what to call it, I just felt odd for quite a while, sad that it wasn’t there to work on anymore. I took me forever to get it mastered and start the process of releasing it.
I have many fond memories of recording it though – creating the sound that takes us from the 2nd chorus of “First Kiss Lips” to the bridge, doing 6 mixes of “Violet”, the only thing different between them being how the chorused guitar pans between left and right on the chorus, Kasia mishearing the “come court disaster with me” of “Danger Makers” as “kumquat disaster”, it’s really impossible for us to listen to that line now without falling about laughing.
Kasia’s in L.A. now, writing music for films so we don’t play live anymore. But Kate and I were playing the songs acoustically the other day and it would be nice to do them for a radio session or just record them to give away.
There’s a lot of stuff I’m working on that will hopefully see the light of day in 2011. First off is an AUNTIE single with Mikey Georgeson singing one song and Dave Goolkasian of the Elevator Drops singing the other. Two of my favourite singers. The Elevator Drops were one of my favourite bands in the 90’s and Devant are my favourite band now so I’m absolutely thrilled about this. And two of my best songs, I think. I’ve got a novelty dance song, like they used to do in the 60’s, called “Smoked Duck” that just needs to be mixed and then a video shot with everyone Smoked Ducking of course. David and I will hopefully be finishing up a Soft Close-Ups album. I’m also working on another Lullaby Oscillator e.p. I’ve got a ton of songs lying around that need to be recorded; it’s nice getting other people to sing them too. Besides music, Steve Horry (586, 18 Carat Love Affair, If…) and I are working on a comic called “The Beekeeper” that I’m really excited about. And Jamie Manners (The Vichy Government) and I have plans to shoot another Oxford Dons short film if not more.
VP: If you could go back in time to your 14 year old self and give them some sagacious advice, what would that be ?
AUG: I was 14 when I discovered The Smiths! The year before I heard the Sex Pistols for the first time, which led to The Damned, The Ramones, The Clash, The Slits. Having always loved music, this was all very exciting, all this new stuff to explore. Because at the time – the late 80’s in suburban Connecticut – heavy metal was all that was readily available. I still love stuff like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (I always wanted H Bird to cover ‘Livin’ After Midnight’), but there really wasn’t a lot of good stuff about. And new avenues always excite anyway. So it was 1990 and Johnny Marr was getting some attention in all the guitar magazines for his work with The The. And reading the interviews, it was just so different from anybody else. So I made a list of The Smiths albums and rode my bike down to the local record shop. And they only had the first one, on tape, which I eagerly bought and cycled home. And I remember lying on my bed and putting the tape in my walkman and just being blown away by “Reel Around The Fountain”, such a lovely melodic song, with that touch of sadness that always appeals. And as soon as it was over, I immediately rewound the tape and listened again, and again, and again. It was about a month before I heard the rest of the album because I loved that song so much and couldn’t get enough of it!
And, as typically happens, in my later teenage years I found myself getting depressed way too easily due to bad teenage luck with girls and, you know, “really identifying” with Morrissey’s lyrics. I remember thinking it was nice to know that other people felt that way but at the same time I don’t think it was terribly good for me. I mean, I would go through long periods of not really playing music or just being really anti-social, which I regret now. Luckily I had practiced a hell of lot before that. So my advice for my 14-year-old Smiths-loving self would be pay even more attention to what the guitar player is doing and less to what the singer is saying if you don’t want to spend your late teens just moping around in your room ; )
- Music Review: Duran Duran – Big Thing (2010 Reissue) (blogcritics.org)
- Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory (thefword.org.uk)