2014 was a bad year
23rd October 2015
It’s a strange old world. Full of coincidences and serendipity. Packed full of highs and lows, sideways steps and reversals. No more so in the world of music.
A couple of years back I was in a bar in Castlefield in Manchester, July 2013 to be precise, a place I don’t normally frequent, mainly due to the serious lack of pubs selling decent beer in the area, no Holts = No Go for me. For those of you that don’t know Castlefield, it’s a new City Centre development of flats, restaurants and bars nestling between the east Salford border at Ordsall/MIddlewood, and the northern edge of Moss Side/Hulme, a sorry testament to over-development and embourgeoisement, all middle class and aspirational and frankly mostly depressing.
The Courteeners were wailing away in the Castlefield Bowl a few hundred yards away, it was packed out, young girls were vomiting on benches outside the Bowl entrance, there was a heavy police presence. We moved round to Barca to get away from it all.
The sun was shining, the beer was flowing, what a perfect scenario for a young rock band called Sam Smith & Co to stamp their identity on the middlemass of Manchester, you would have thought. I reviewed it all in a gushing fan-boy way and prophesied in Landau-like manner some sort of epiphany. The epiphany, no matter how deserved, never occurred. Names got in the way. Mostly notably, to quote Neil of Bouquet of Dead Crows, “is that the bloke that sounds like a cow mooing?”, “Sam Smith” the brand got in the way, and record company lawyers got a bit involved. Sam Smith & Co got lost in the miasma of Cowell-world.
Move on thirteen months, a change of plan, a change of direction and a new name. Excitement ensued, New tunes were revealed and they were special. Teasers on video and bandcamp were excellent. Sam become Franky (Jameson) and a gig was planned at The Castle on Oldham Street. They were called The Parish Church Fire. And then it went quiet, the gig was cancelled. Life had got in the way.
14 months after that hiatus the talent that is Sam Smith/Franky Jameson/Franco Bandini emerges from a dark chrysalis with a new sound, a new manifesto, and his best work to date. There had been discussion about the potential for German Shepherd to release something, and then things went quiet for a while, However September saw the arrival of some demo songs which were remarkable. I often get quite jaded sitting listening to some of the material I get asked to review and play – but these songs were very special indeed. They made me stop and think, they moved me. We had to release these songs, no question about it.
And so you have four new tracks from Franco Bandini. Now all of these names can be quite confusing so for the purposes of the rest of this piece please assume I am talking to and about Franco.
What we have hear is a remarkable set of songs which mark a huge transition from the punk/rock approach of the previous two bands to a stripped back, angst ridden, tortured blues soaked ballad format. If you are not immediately grabbed and impressed by this music then I fear for your eternal soul.
You can pre-order it now and it will be released in full on 23rd October. There’s no vinyl or CD version so don’t bother asking if there will be one. Unless of course we sell a lot of these digitally and we can afford to fund it.
The promo prepared for the EP says the following:
A twenty first century outsider figure, Franco Bandini possesses a style of deceptive simplicity, full of emotional immediacy and tremendous psychological point. Among the releases that have comprised his career, Bandini’s crowning accomplishments were, for many, his hard rock work under the name ‘The Parish Church Fire’. An impoverished young Lancastrian-Mancunian, Bandini, armed with no high school education and the insane desire to write music, escaped his suffocating hometown of Atherton to seek glory in a dystopian millennial-era Manchester. He arrives with big dreams but he finds the reality; a city gripped by nostalgia. He now makes music for the people who lurk in the outskirts of this commercial hell.
An ‘Acoustic EP’ containing no acoustic guitar, ‘2014 Was a Bad Year’ is a record made by an outsider for outsiders. After achieving a modicum of success with a string of punk musicians, Franco Bandini has retreated on this record to explore a sound more in line with his dark, depraved inner voice. Tales of murder, abandonment, alienation and suicide adorn the 15-minute extended play and the music reflects these lyrical themes. Recorded over just two days with no other musicians, the four songs are a nod to the great-underrated author John Fante (his novels ‘1933 Was a Bad Year’, ‘Ask the Dust’ and ‘Wait Until Spring, Bandini’ providing obvious inspiration). The artwork depicts John Fante himself, with an added semicolon used a symbol of hope for those suffering with depression, anxiety and thoughts of self-harm, the underlying engine room of the themes presented on this record.
Of the 9 songs recorded by Bandini in the session, 4 appear on this release courtesy of German Shepherd Records. With the idea of creating something raw, all songs were completed with minimal accompaniment, no overdubbing and no more than 2 takes were attempted on any of the tracks throughout the recording process. The result is a broody EP that provides a true representation of the emotions felt within the recording process; no glitter, no sparkle, just Bandini in a room with a microphone.
Keen to learn more, and so some things could be clarified I asked Franco about life music and, naturally, football, given his abiding love of Manchester United FC:
Where was the EP recorded? and when? Is it just you performing?
I recorded it one Sunday morning in my home studio. In total, I recorded 9 tracks, 5 of which have been delivered to German Shepherd Records (4 for the EP and one for a compilation) and I’m still mulling over what to do with the other 4. I wanted to do the entirety of the recordings in one take, which didn’t work so I stretched to no more than two, which thankfully did. I didn’t want to involve anybody else at all so I dug deep into my vaults, found some songs and completed them and also wrote some new ones. I also didn’t want to use any acoustic guitar, just to see if it could be done initially. This worked out and I’m so glad it did. Even the sketchy solo on ‘Ask the Dust’ wasn’t done with an acoustic, it is my unplugged telecaster with the microphone gain turned right up to pick it up from across the room.
What led you from the harder rock/punk sound of Sam Smith & Co and The Parish Church Fire to this new sound? The Parish Church Fire had a lot of promise and I was genuinely excited by the sound – it seems a pity it wasn’t taken further?
Those two bands and the way they faded to black are what happen when you rely on other people, especially in the case of the latter. Obviously Sam Smith & Company could go no further because of Universal Music Group’s ignorance, which is regrettable in itself but with The Parish Church Fire, just as we were finding our feet, I had a full scale mental breakdown and just couldn’t go public with any of my music for over a year. The new record is about mental illness so it is important that I talk about that. The semicolon I placed on the artwork is a symbol of hope for people suffering with depression, anxiety and thoughts of self harm. I physically couldn’t go public with any of my music during that period as a result of my own conditions, despite trying. I joined a thrash metal band at one point during that period which just didn’t work (The Whiskey, Guns & Bridges Blues and Videotapes have their roots in those sessions) and then I made ’2014 Was a Bad Year’ to draw a line under it. I made it completely by myself because I didn’t want to work with other musicians.
My new sound is still “hard” in my eyes. I found this great quote from Tom Morello when I was in Nashville last year which helped me see everything differently. “Folk music – the music of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, early Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger – could be as heavy as anything that comes through a Marshall stack. The combination of three chords and the right lyrical couplet can be as heavy as anything in the Metallica catalogue”.
Being where I was both geographically and mentally certainly helped me make more sense of it and I’ve carried it with me since. I’ve recently sold my massive guitar rig that I carried on tour with Sam Smith & Company and am I at all restricted from making “heavy” music as a result? Absolutely not, the songs speak for themselves musically and lyrically.
There is a lot of raw emotion in the songs, quite angst ridden in places, where did this come from?
It came from the place I was in; reading a ton of dark literature, drinking too much beer, eating too much pizza, taking too much valium and listening to heavy metal all night in a chair in the centre of a dark room. The lyrical content and the subsequent meanings are to be decided by the people that listen to them, the music is where the story is for me. Channeling that Morello quote, I tried to get the essence of something you’d hear on a Slayer record without using the same tools as Slayer. In my mind, I delivered this in spades. I’m proud of this record, it has been, by far, the easiest to make by virtue of how it was made and also because it was no labour of love like my previous two. It had to happen like that in hindsight.
The last track ‘Ask the Dust’ presented itself unbelievably. I have absolutely no recollection of writing that song, I was just trawling through hundreds of songs in my “demos” folder and there it was. I “blacked out” for a period of about 7 months in the pits of that depression and I barely remember anything from it. Now I’ve found a ton of songs that I don’t remember writing from that period and Ask the Dust seemed to fit better than any of the others.
Are there any specific artists that inspired this new sound? in terms of a stripped back change in direction the obvious comparison, knowing your fondness for the man, is Springsteen’s Nebraska. But i’m also thinking of Steve Earle’s album of Townes Van Zandt covers, some of the rawer Americana that Southern Lord have put out recently (Steve Von Till etc) and Mark Lanegan – when he is on form.
Obviously Nebraska, as Springsteen is the centre of my universe. I’ve always loved Country, Americana, Blues etc but something about spending a lot of time in the southern states last year really rammed it home. I did a road trip in the name of Springsteen which took me to Chicago, Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Washington D.C. You can’t visit those places as a musician and not be inspired to make something similar. This was supposed to be a Country EP in honour of that but rather than force that style upon it, I decided to just let it flow when recording and the result is ‘2014 Was a Bad Year’. It isn’t country at all!
Other influences, as always are Greg Dulli & Mark Lanegan. The album they did together as The Gutter Twins has always been my own personal Magna Carta on how to make music since its release in 2008. It seeps into absolutely everything I do somehow and this was no exception. And of course Cash of all incarnations. When I was in Nashville, I blagged my way onto the stage at the Ryman Auditorium (where they used to record the Grand Ol’ Opry and of course, the Johnny Cash Show), grabbed a guitar and performed Folsom Prison Blues which was incredible. I hope that one day, I will headline there and tell that story to an audience that probably won’t believe me! Good job I have a video of it…
Are you planning any more Franco Bandini projects?
Of course. This is me now. I legally cannot be Sam Smith anymore so I am Franco Bandini, wherever it takes me, for better or worse. My next releases may not follow in this vein, although I can’t really say at the moment. I wanted to make a statement with this record and it was relatively easy because my remit and my resources were in line with each other. If I wanted to make a bonafide country record (something which I have the songs for & did consider), I may struggle as I don’t own a pedal steel guitar and I don’t live in Nashville. I’d also need other musicians for more ambitious projects and I’m in ‘camp sound engineer’ when it comes to this…musicians are all fucking cunts
You’ve indicated that John Fante’s writing has been a big inspiration. Could you tell us a bit more about him.
In my one-chair-pizza-beer-heavy-metal sabbatical, I read a lot of fiction by a lot of great authors and nobody struck me harder than Fante. Bukowski cited him as an influence and, being an avid fan of his I checked him out and was mesmerised. I’ve read his works in the last 12 months which was a bit of a challenge as some of his novels were out of print but I got there in the end and to quote Bob Dylan “every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal. Pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you”. That’s how I felt about Fante and his limitations and I identified with it all. He is greatly under rated and despite losing his sight to diabetes, he continued to write by dictating to his wife before his death in 1983. Everyone should read ‘Ask the Dust’, the story of Arturo Bandini & Camilla’s non-romance. It’s so good that I wrote a song about it. I’d never do that for The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye but then again who would? Overrated toss.
You have said this is a studio project, although I think a certain DJ wants you to so some songs when you go in to see him. Have you abandoned live performance completely?
There will be absolutely no live shows (in Manchester at least) ever again. I tentatively accepted a gig in London in September which never materialised and looking back I’m glad. I struggled to captivate the smartphone obsessed wankers that stain my generation with the loudest punk band in Manchester so the odds of me doing it on my own with my guitar and piano are slim to none. Either way, I’d rather not find out. Besides, I’ve sold all of my gear so I couldn’t do it anyway.
I’ll probably knock out a couple of covers on the radio as I always do. Thrasher by Neil Young or Idiot Wind by Dylan…something long, designed to bore people to death so I never get asked again (I jest)
What music are you currently listening to?
At this present moment I’m listening to Seasons in the Abyss by Slayer as today is its 25th anniversary and with it being my all time favourite metal album, I couldn’t resist. More generally, iTunes tells me I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young, Afghan Whigs, Mastodon, Glen Campbell & Ernest Tubb this month which is just a snapshot of course. I recently fell in love with Chopin again, drunkenly declaring his style the invention of punk rock (in my eyes of course). I stand by that and I listen to his music more now than I did when I fell in love with him first time round. I went to Warsaw last year, maybe that has helped although, I must say that when I drive through Middleton it makes me dislike The Courteeners even more than I already do so its swings and roundabouts.
Louis Van Gaal – yes or no?
I absolutely adore him. I must admit, at the time, I wanted Ancelotti as I absolutely love that guy too but I read a book about van Gaal and I just bought into the whole thing immediately. He only runs into trouble when people lack ambition, work ethic and the discipline to succeed and because his methods are entirely built around total immersion in that “philosophy”, he has occasionally come unstuck. Incidentally, it reminds me of my two failed bands in some weird way. Had everyone else shared my drive & ambition they’d have had to bring back Top of the Pops just to indulge how successful we’d have inevitably become. I joke of course, but there is a shred of truth there. I’ll settle for a European Cup
Are you worried about Jurgen Klopp?
No. He got Mainz relegated, failed to get them promoted back into the Bundesliga, resigned, went to Dortmund and had a questionable record, spent half a season in the relegation zone, resigned again and somehow they are calling him elite. Had he got the United job after Moyes I would have been very disappointed and there is a reason why he didn’t get that job…because he isn’t good enough. He will fit in very well at Liverpool.