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Welcome to the official Distractions website. We will be aiming to record the history of one of the greatest, but least heralded, of all Manchester beat groups.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bittersweet soul sensation

From the always excellent Unpopular by Alistair Fitchett:

 Unpopular Advent 2012 - Day 15: 

The Distractions, Factory Star & The June Brides

The Distractions - ‘Wise’ from ‘The End Of The Pier’ (Occultation)

Factory Star - ‘Olympian’ from ‘New Sacral’ (Occultation)

The June Brides- ‘A January Moon’ from ‘Between The Moon And The Clouds’ 7” (Occultation / Slumberland)

If you were to make a list of contemporary record labels that have consistently delivered remarkable quality over the past few years you would be hard pushed to find anyone more worthy of the top slot than Occultation. Their commitment to Wild Swans alone would ensure their place in any right minded heart, but in 2012 they released a trio of discs that demanded attention.

Firstly, former Factory Funsters The Distractions returned with their second album after more than a quarter of a century and it was worth its wait in gold. ‘The End of The Pier’ was filled with suitably rounded and reflective middle-aged melancholia mixed with sharply observed and deftly coloured stabs of passion. Guitarist Steve Perrin laced razor blades through daisy chains whilst Mike Finney cemented his position as a Reggie King for our generation. A bittersweet soul sensation. 

Martin Bramah’s latest set meanwhile resonated with the spirit and sound of the best of his earlier Blue Orchids offering ‘The Greatest Hit’. ‘New Sacral’ offered six sharply refined, avuncular and angular ripostes to the modern world. A glowering triumph of burbling, magical-realist urban psychedelia.

And what of The June Brides? Phil Wilson and his band of merry pranksters proved they still have the moves to charm a weary soul. There is surely an argument to be made that says The June Brides are the sound of a modern English Country music - by turns brittle, gritty and full of comforting warmth. A national treasure and no mistake.

(c) Unpopular.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hidden History

The Manchester District Music Archive has recently launched its online exhibition, City Fun - The Hidden History of Manchester's Post-Punk Fanzines, curated by Abigail Ward and Dave Haslam.  Truly a treasure trove of Distractions articles (some of which we've shown previously, 1, 2, 3), here's a couple about the Factory single in volume 1, issue 11 from 6th November 1979:


The Distractions

The Distractions current single on Factory Records is now being promoted and advertised by Island Records though remains on the Factory Label.  The bands' next single is two recorded tracks from the TJM EP and will be out in November/December, the tracks being 'Doesn't Bother Me/Maybe It's Love' [it was actually One Way Love] produced by John Astley/Phil Chapman (Jags single).  Island are fully satisfied with The Distractions and will now be recording their album in January.

THE DISTRACTIONS  (Factory) by Andy Zero

‘Time Goes By So Slow’ / ‘Pillow Fight’

Time Goes By So Slow written by Adrian Wright and Pillow Fight by Mike Finney/Steve Perrin – on the original 5,000 labels it’s the other way round – a mistake creating an instant collectors item for those that ‘collect’ things.  Now there are 20,000 copies pressed.  All the facts for freaks.

‘Time Goes By So Slow’.  A melodic lilting ‘love(?) song’, “I wonder why you had to go,” vocals delivered emotively, the bass and drums thud and guitars riff and jangle, the organ floating lightly behind.  A great song.

‘Pillowfight’.  The words start jealously, “What did you dream about last night/Bet it wasn’t me”.  The bass goes up and down, fast paced the drumming crisp and solid, the two guitars jangling/riffing in a style encompassing and surpassing Cliff Richards/West Coast psychedelia/that cotton pickin’ down home sound – but this is Manchester 1979 and it could be 1985 but what’s the odds.  And the backing vocals moan accusingly satirical while the organ flirts on the edge of consciousness.  Two original, well crafted songs, modern, I think they’re brilliant.  The sound is clear and well mixed, the production is well criticised.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

30-year break

Here is the second part of that great Blurt interview by Dave Steinfeld with Steve Perrin, Mike Finney and Nick Halliwell:


The Distractions

(c) Nick Barber efsb at flickr.

A 30-year layoff hasn't dimmed the Mancunian post-punkers' enthusiasm or talent.

BLURT: Tell me a little about what each of you was up to during "the 30-year break" -- either musically or otherwise.

STEVE PERRIN (SP): It was actually two 15-year breaks as we played together for a while in the mid-1990s. Apart from that, my only involvement in music was briefly working for an independent record label in Italy in the late '80s. Otherwise, I've spent more time writing academic papers and a PhD thesis than I have writing songs. It's good to be writing songs again.

MIKE FINNEY (MF): I had a band called the Secret Seven straight after The Distractions in 1983, but it was short-lived. [Later that year], I recorded a vocal track for the first Art Of Noise single. It was originally called "Close to The Edge," but came out as "Close to the Edit."  I'm the Edit!

I was [also] in a band called The First Circle, with Alex [Sidebottom] as drummer and some of Mancunian band Dr Filth. Sort of country-rock, as was the vogue in the mid-‘80s. Then I stopped singing until Steve and I restarted The Distractions in '95, stopped again and restarted in 2010. In the meantime, I am currently employed as an International Trade consultant for the Croda Chemical Group. A global company but UK headquartered.

Nick, you're credited with getting The Distractions back together even though you weren't a member of the original band. Tell me a bit about how that happened -- how you got Steve and Mike to agree to another album and perhaps what The Distractions meant to you in the first place.

NICK HALLIWELL (NH): The Distractions have been one of my favourite bands since 1978; beautifully crafted songs and one of the all-time great singers. I wrote something about them on the Granite Shore website, Mike contacted me [and] then put me in touch with Steve. I was bemoaning the fact that one of the finest English singers of our generation had made so few records and Steve said, "You've got a label. When it makes you a million, stick him in a studio."  I suggested I could spare a few hundred quid straight away [and] asked him if he'd write a couple of songs. [Steve] conferred with Mike, then got back to me saying, "I'll be in the UK in June!" So I booked a studio. At some point along the way, the two of them told me it'd be a Distractions record - that had to come from them rather than from me. We recorded the "Come Home" EP in Liverpool in two days in June 2010, having met for the first time at the studio. Hearing Mike sing the song I'd written for it was a very special moment.

The next logical step was an album. Steve wrote about half of it and sent the demos to me, I chipped in with a song ("Wise"), then [we] came up with a few more between us. It was important to have something cohesive, so Steve and I worked together closely. I tried to pick up on the themes he'd established in his songs.

Tell me how The Distractions first came together and also a bit about what the music scene in Manchester was like during the mid to late ‘70s.

SP:  Mike and I met on a college course and he kept singing, so I suggested that we form a band in an attempt to shut him up. That worked -- but only briefly. We were messing around for a while but when punk started to happen, it gave us an outlet as a number of small clubs started to put on punk nights.

It was a very small scene in Manchester, though -- I would guess no more than 100 people to start with [and] very incestuous. We found a bass player because Pip applied too late for the job with Buzzcocks.  So Pete Shelley passed on [his] phone number to us.

MF: Steve and I met at college in 1975 in Stockport. We were on the same course on day release. We used to go to the pub afterwards and I would sing along to the jukebox -- Buddy Holly, Roxy Music, Elvis, whatever was playing -- and Steve said we should start a band. He says it was just to shut me up but I think it was because he could see the girls in the pub swooning.

Mike, who are some of the vocalists who you count as inspirations or personal favorites?

MF: It's quite a mix, really. My very early childhood favorites were Elvis, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, followed by John Lennon ("This Boy" is still a favourite). Then somebody played me Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha, Sam & Dave, Levi Stubbs [and] Sam Cooke and I knew what they meant.

On the new album, The End of the Pier, several of the songs deal with aging, the past and/or a sense of time running out. Coincidence or not?

SP:  We finished recording "Nobody's Perfect" on my 23rd birthday so all the material on there was written between the ages of 20 and 22. When I started writing songs for "The End of the Pier," the one thing I knew for sure was that I couldn't pretend to be 22. Having said that, I wasn't initially sure what the album was going to be about. Most of the songs came from musical ideas and a couple of them started out with completely different sets of lyrics. Then I had a conversation with Nick about Mike's voice in which one of us -- I can't remember who -- said that if we were going to record him at his best, we had to do it now as the voice changes due to bodily developments. That seemed to spark something off and all this stuff started pouring out.

Also, it was a conscious decision to make an album with a coherent theme as "Nobody's Perfect" doesn't have that; it's just a collection of songs we had at the time.

MF: We're older and time is not getting any longer.

How were the recent gigs in Salford?

MF: Fab! Thoroughly enjoyed the gigs. It was great to see so many friends, a lot of whom I hadn't seen for 30 years [and] also seeing Steve as I only see him once a year.  My 10-year-old son was wearing my silver jacket that I hadn't worn since playing [New York City club] Hurrah! in 1980. He got onstage to prove it! Both my sons got to see me do what I love most and I never thought they would, so [that was] a huge bonus.

Apart from those few '95 gigs, we hadn't played since 1980. We did "Time Goes By So Slow," "Waiting for Lorraine," "Leave You to Dream," "It Doesn't Bother Me" and "Valerie" together for the first time in 32 years. It was a good feeling. Joni Mitchell was half right: Whilst you don't know what you've got till it's gone, you don't really know until you have it restored.

NH:  Everyone I've spoken to has been very complimentary and it feels like an achievement in retrospect. I've been mixing the recordings and we're astonishingly tight considering we only had one short rehearsal the day before. The current line-up has one hell of a rhythm section in Arash Torabi and Mike Kellie, Steve and I have an uncannily shared sense of timing and Mike was on jaw-dropping form.

What are the other three former Distractions (Pip, Alec and Adrian) up to these days? Also, is it true that Adrian was the writer of "Time Goes By So Slow"?

SP: Yes, Adrian wrote "Time Goes By So Slow," but whoever designed the label [of the single] got the credits the wrong way round and we've been trying to sort that out for years. He's not involved in music anymore.

Pip continues to do solo stuff which can be heard on MySpace. Alec leads the Republic of Swing samba band, which is a serious live proposition.

MF: I haven't seen Pip for 15 or 16 years but I believe that [he] is living in Warrington (between Manchester and Liverpool). I haven't seen Ade since way back in the ‘80s, but I spoke to him briefly in '95 when we had a get-together to record [some songs and do] three or four gigs. Three songs that came out on the Occultation "Black Velvet" EP were from that time. He was contacted again in 2010. Whilst he still didn't want to be in the band, he sent copies of some live recordings, which we enjoyed hearing again.

One of my favorites from "Nobody's Perfect" is the opening track, "Waiting for Lorraine." If you would, tell me a bit about the inspiration for that or any memories you associate with it.

SP:  In Manchester, the early punk scene was closely tied [in] with the gay scene largely due to the fact that only gay clubs would let in unconventionally dressed individuals. If I remember correctly, I had three consecutive girlfriends who decided after a relatively short time in my company that they preferred women. This left me rather confused but at least I got a song out of it.

Any plans for the immediate future -- either as The Distractions or individually?

SP:  We've tentatively talked about a third -- and probably final -- album. It has a working title and I think I know what the subject matter is but nothing is actually written yet. I'm guessing that Nick will make a Granite Shore album first on which I'm hoping to do some backing vocals.

MF: No plans individually, but I'll be happy to do some more with the boys if [they] are available.

Neil Storey, the man behind Hidden Masters, was the press officer at Island Records all those years ago. Me and Steve have known him since 1979 and he's been a fan and friend for a long time. He plans to release a retrospective of The Distractions next year with all the old records and some unreleased stuff he's found in the Universal vaults. I can't wait to hear them!

NH: As far as The Distractions go, it's up to Steve and Mike though I'd love to do another album. I'm now working on a Granite Shore LP, I'd also like to do some more producing and there's Occultation Recordings to run. We're reissuing the Wild Swans album, "The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years," next year, with a vinyl version at long last, and there are a few other projects in the pipeline.

What was it like recording and performing together again after more than 30 years?

MF: The recording seemed very natural. After Steve left in 1980, well... it was never really quite right when he wasn't there, so we just picked up where we left it.

SP: It felt completely normal. It's the rest of life that feels pretty weird!

(c) Dave Steinfeld, Blurt.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Time goes by so quickly

There was a fine interview with main Distractions, old and new - Steve Perrin, Mike Finney and Nick Halliwell - on the Blurt site earlier this month.  The lengthy introduction from Dave Steinfeld is a good read in its own right:


The Distractions

[L-R: Perrin, Finney and Halliwell.]

A 30-year layoff hasn't dimmed the Mancunian post-punkers' enthusiasm or talent.


This past summer, while thumbing through an issue of Uncut one night, I noticed a very short piece about a band called The Distractions.  I had to read it twice to make sure it was the same band I was thinking of and that I wasn't imagining things.  Blessed with an excruciatingly limited discography and no members who went on to big things, The Distractions were obscure even in their native England.  But to a small but rabid group of fans, this Manchester quintet was considered one of the great lost bands of the New Wave era.  As recently as last year, I looked for news about them online and found very little, which led me to wonder whatever happened to the band members.

What a difference a year makes.  This item in Uncut said that a new album by The Distractions was imminent -- more than three decades after the last one!  I was stunned.

For the uninitiated... The Distractions were part of the late '70s post-punk scene in Northern England.  After a few singles and the wonderfully titled EP You're Not Going Out Dressed Like That, the band released their one proper album, Nobody's Perfect, in 1980.  The disc featured 14 songs and covered a broad musical spectrum. "Waiting for Lorraine," the opener, was an angry song about unrequited love in the form of an unreturned phone call, a theme revisited later on the album, literally, in the track "Still it Doesn't Ring."  Other highlights include "Looking for a Ghost," which UK journalist David Quantick once aptly described as "the greatest sleepwalking nightmare ballad ever," and a rocking anthem of independence titled "Untitled."  Most of the tunes on Nobody's Perfect were written by guitarist Steve Perrin, some in collaboration with singer Mike Finney.  But a couple were penned by second guitarist Adrian Wright.  The Distractions were rounded out by a rhythm section that may have had the best names in all of rock history: bassist Pip Nicholls and drummer Alec Sidebottom.

Nobody's Perfect was loved by almost everyone who heard it -- but unfortunately, few people did!  There are various theories as to why The Distractions never made it, ranging from the fact that a little band called U2 was signed by the same label (Island Records) around the same time; to, as another UK journalist, Ian Cranna once wrote, "bands fronted by overweight and bespectacled singers were not the stuff of which legends were made."  Whatever the case, The Distractions weren't long for this world and Nobody's Perfect remains one of the ultimate "cult" albums of the post-punk period.  Ironically, the band's best known song didn't even appear on the album. The wonderful single "Time Goes By So Slow," released in late 1979 by the tastemakers at Factory Records and a popular track on college radio here in the states, was their (relative) moment in the sun, an incredibly sad lyric married to an infectious melody.

Unlike some stories in rock and roll (say, that of The Tourists, an English band who came up around the same time as The Distractions and had very marginal success but whose singer was one Annie Lennox), this tale doesn't have a happy ending -- at least in the sense that the band members did not go on to achieve greater success after their breakup.  None of The Distractions ever became a household name and most of them currently have day jobs.  In this case, the happy ending is simply that three decades and change after Nobody's Perfect, they're still alive and well, and indeed they finally released their sophomore set, The End of the Pier, in late August.

The band's current lineup finds Finney and Perrin joined by Nick Halliwell, Granite Shore guitarist, owner of Occultation Recordings and catalyst for the reunion; bassist Arash Torabi of The June Brides; and drummer Mike Kellie, whose extensive resume includes stints with both The Only Ones and Spooky Tooth.

In contrast to Nobody's Perfect, The End of the Pier, while still a Distractions record, is a more concise, unified album.  There are only 10 songs this time around.  Also unlike Nobody's Perfect, the subject matter of these songs isn't quite as varied.  Throughout The End of the Pier, there's a sense that time is short; indeed, the first line on the album is "We're running out of time."  (Incidentally, Finney sings the hell out of that song, "I Don't Have Time," in a voice that recalls World Party leader Karl Wallinger.)  This theme is echoed in tracks like "Too Late to Change" and "The Last Song" which, appropriately, closes the disc.  Even the title of the album can be taken as a reference to time running out.  These days, it seems, time doesn't go by so slow.

The Distractions celebrated the release of The End of the Pier with exactly two live dates, in the Manchester borough of Salford.  This may seem strange but the fact is, it's miraculous that these dates happened at all.  The band members no longer live in Manchester these days; rather, they're spread throughout England, and Perrin is based in Australia.  So it was no small feat for them to come together for these gigs.  This writer lives in America and wasn't lucky enough to attend either of the Salford dates -- but I was lucky enough to be the one to write about them on these shores, a result of seeing that short piece in Uncut and then tracking the unassuming Mike Finney down online.  For this piece, I spoke with Finney, Perrin and Halliwell, all of whom were great interviews. 

(c) Dave Steinfeld, Blurt.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mancunian sons of pop

Another of the many reviews the new album has received this year.  This one is from AllGigs' Paul Pledger - a long-standing Distractions aficionado - at the FlipSideFlipSide Reviews site:

ALBUM REVIEW: The Distractions - The End of the Pier
CD/vinyl/download - Occultation

Post-punk's long-lost, but not forgotten, bittersweet Mancunian sons of pop herald triumphant return with first album in three decades


In 1979, The Distractions released a brace of memorably melodic, frenetic, frantic and unforgettable singles, before succeeding in obtaining a deal with Island Records and disappearing under a fug of critical adoration and poor sales.  Haven't we heard and read all of this before?  What makes singer Mike Finney's charges any more special, any more deserving of further praise and review?  In short, they were painfully ahead of the game. 

In the late '70s, being initially signed to indie-labels (or not signed, in the case of Factory) pretty much constituted a requirement to sound rough, ready and rebellious, even still mildly angry with what life dished out after punk.  The Distractions were gloriously detached from such notions - they were pure pop, with a gritty world-weary edge and a penchant for easily-hummed choruses that hid tear-jerking and self-effacement.  Those first few singles illustrate this description - listen to the original TJM version of "It Doesn't Bother Me" or the timeless beauty of their one Factory single, "Time Goes By So Slow" or their cover of Eden Kane's superlative '60s hit, "Boys Cry".  The latter is perhaps something of an unlikely template, a signature tune of sorts and helps to pinpoint just what this band were all about - hopeless romanticism, '50s and '60s pop a la Billy Fury or Buddy Holly and a pre-cursor of Pulp and ex-member Richard Hawley's splendid solo canon.

Time does indeed go so slow - it's been 32 years since a new Distractions album hit the shelves, a time when opening song "Waiting For Lorraine" heralded the beginning of a largely-ignored but priceless debut album.  2012 is an altogether colder era, but there is warmth aplenty heading out of Manchester once again - it's coming courtesy of the follow-up to "Nobody's Perfect", the aforementioned Island album.  Never mind the Dexys, here's the real bollocks.

"The End of the Pier" is the third chapter in the rebirth of the lovelorn outfit and the culmination of a rare batch of recording sessions with Occultation's label-guru and the man behind Granite Shore, Nick Halliwell.  Many of the songs hail from the mid-'90s and are steeped in the trademark fumbling adolescence and bitter adulthood that laced those older recordings.  Recently recorded, assembled and painstakingly given a hug and a kiss in Exeter, via Holmfirth and New Zealand (the key songwriters' chosen residencies these days), "The End of the Pier" is a beguiling cocktail of reflection, hardships and emotive tug-of-wars and a prospect so unlikely a few years back that its very existence should make you want to rush out and buy a copy and give it a good home.

There isn't a duff song on here - from the opening sparkle of "I Don't Have Time" (as opposed to that same time that used to go by so slow), the bottom-lip trembling "Wise" and the comparably jaunty "Girl of the Year", you have three stone-cold classic songs in the making after just ten minutes.  One track that stands out as a single is "Boots", mercifully not espousing the virtues of a nearby chemists but rather a three-minute blast about 'coming back' and 'finding a pair of boots to fill'. 

Finney's voice still sounds fragile, still sounds jaded, heartbroken and utterly woebegone while Perrin can still make the whole thing sound like a trip to the seaside with subtle hooks and riffs, seemingly from another age, yet with one foot in the present.  It's refreshing to hear all the raw nuances left in, rather than being auto-tuned or rejected - this album's strength is its spiky, spunky, sparky attitude, found on songs like "The Summer I Met You", "Boots" and "100 Times".  And then comes "The Last Song".  The fact it's called this already has appreciating admirers of The Distractions reaching for the Kleenex - this could be Finney and Perrin's last song, who knows?  My only grumble is the label couldn't squeeze any of the brilliant six songs that made up the previously-issued Occultation EPs, "Black Velvet" and "Come Home" - "Lost" and "Still It Doesn't Ring" would have fitted in perfectly here.  It's still glorious, with or without this pairing.

"The End of the Pier" is like finding a previously treasured scrap-book in the loft, blowing the dust of the covers, opening the pages once more and finding solace in the inclusions within, only to find photos and memorabilia you'd completely forgotten about.  It's a good feeling.  The same as dropping the needle back to the first track on both this and that debut album all those years ago. 

To buy "End of the Pier", head straight to Occultation here.  

For live shows (and archived reviews), head to Allgigs here or for related Factory gubbins, go to Cerysmatic here.

(c) Paul Pledger, FlipSideFlipSide.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

There'll be more

The second and final part of the interview with Occultation chief and Distractions guitarist-songwriter, Nick Halliwell, by John Clarkson at Penny Black.  The Distractions' reunion is explained and a DVD release is mooted...

Occultation Recordings: Interview With Nick Halliwell 

Author: John Clarkson

PB: Your main release for this year is The Distractions’ second album and first album in thirty-two years, ‘The End of the Pier’.  Apparently you first made contact with Mike Finney after he sent you a thank you email after you published an article about The Distractions online.  How did you go from that to being their label boss, guitarist, co-songwriter with Steve Perrin, producer and presumably the prime instigator in their reformation and comeback?

NH: I’d say "facilitator” rather than “instigator”, Steve was the prime mover behind the direction taken in the songwriting, I just played a supporting role.  It started in late 2009 with me bemoaning the fact that Mike, one of the finest singers this country’s ever produced, had made so few records.  Steve said "stick him in a studio when the label makes you a million” but I suggested doing it straight away.  Steve was living in New Zealand (though he’s now in Australia), so I asked if he’d fancy writing a song or two, but he spoke to Mike then e-mailed back saying “I’ll be in the UK in June,” so I booked a studio and wrote ‘Oil Painting’, though at that point I had no idea it’d be a Distractions record.

Steve’s version of the story is that I thought I was commissioning a Mike Finney solo record but even I’m not that daft.  I hadn’t got as far as thinking what name it might go under, that had to come from them, but ultimately The Distractions is what happens when you put Mike and Steve together so it made perfect sense.  An album was the logical next step and we needed a bassist at short notice.  I’d worked with Arash Torabi on Granite Shore and June Brides records and knew he’d be perfect, then a mutual friend put us in touch with Mike Kellie of the Only Ones who did an amazing job on drums and has become part of the family. 

PB: Ian Henderson, your counterpart at Fishrider Records in New Zealand, has said in an online essay that the critical ingredients for running a small label, even more than money, are time, expertise and passion. Would you agree with him?

NH: Ian and I agree on a lot of things, which is why we work together so well.  Obviously some money’s required, and you need to be prepared not to see it again, otherwise I’d change the order to 1) time 2) passion and 3) expertise – if you have 1) and 2) you can pick 3) up as you go along and if you have enough of 2) people will often offer you 3) anyway.  1) poses the biggest problem, I find.

PB: On the subject of Ian and Fishrider Records, you have recently co-released an album together, the self-titled debut album of New Zealand band Opposite Sex.  You’re also selling some of Fishrider’s other albums through the Occultation website.  You met online after discussing the merits of Scritti Politti’s first EP.  Why did you decide to go into partnership together for this album and will there be other co-releases?

NH: Fishrider have now released Factory Star’s ‘New Sacral’.  We’re making releases by the Puddle and the Shifting Sands available in the Northern Hemisphere with Fishrider doing the same for Occultation material South of the Equator.  There are also plans for a joint label compilation of some kind, though that’s only at the discussion stage so far.  I see this as a key part of our long-term strategy; we may not be huge but, between us, Occultation and Fishrider genuinely do span the whole wide world.

PB: You’re about to release a June Brides record, ‘Between the Moon and the Clouds’, in another collaboration, this time with Slumberland Records.  How did that collaboration come out?  That album includes both tracks from the recent June Brides/Occultation 7”, and various Phil Wilson demos and acoustic tracks.  Do you see it as a rarities compilation and did it take a long time to put together?  Why also has the Granite Shore’s second single ‘Flood of Fortune’ crept onto there? 

NH: We released the June Brides single, ‘Moon / Cloud’ in June (the press release almost wrote itself...) and we always try to do something extra for people who buy directly from the label, so Phil went through his archives and we came up with ‘Between the Moon and the Clouds'.  For now, that’s only available to buy together with the 7" from us or Slumberland. 

‘Flood of Fortune’ is there simply because Phil, Arash and Andy are all on it.  Occultation is a family, so a lot of the same people crop up: The June Brides’ new drummer, Steve Beswick, was in The Wild Swans and played on the first Granite Shore single, The Wild Swans' keyboard player Richard Turvey has engineered Distractions and Factory Star records, Arash plays with The Distractions, a lot of the sleeves use photos by Jim Donnelly and most are laid out by Andy Chambers... We all work together.  I’ve always loved labels where you get that sense of a family.

Slumberland had released Phil’s solo album, ‘God Bless Jim Kennedy’, in the States a couple of years back, so they’re his US label, simple as that.  Phil put me in touch with Mike Schulman who’s a gentleman and everything went very smoothly.  I’m convinced that the only way forward is to work with other like-minded labels; with Fishrider it’s an ongoing, long-term thing, in other cases much more ad hoc, but I’d like to find partners in other countries – if anyone’s out there I speak French, Catalan and Spanish fluently and my Italian’s not too bad so please get in touch.

PB: The Granite Shore have taken something of a back seat over the last two years, and since the release of the ‘Flood of Fortune’ single.  Is this because things with The Distractions and the rest of Occultation have taken off?  Have you got more Granite Shore releases planned for the future?

NH: Oddly enough, the longer the Granite Shore spend in the back seat the higher the profile seems to rise.  Both singles are still selling and we get more e-mails asking when the album’s coming out than about anything else, which is nice for my ego.  Trouble is something else always seems to come along and, with my label hat on, I’m constantly trying to juggle everyone’s interests and it all takes up a lot of time. 

I did a version of Martin Bramah’s ‘When Sleep Won’t Come’ for the B-side of Factory Star’s ‘Lucybel’ single at Christmas but this year I’ve focused on The Distractions and running the label in general, but I hope this’ll prove to have been the right decision as I’ve learned a huge amount from working on all these other records.  I want the Granite Shore album to be a coherent, fully-rounded record, with the packaging as part of the concept from the start, so the whole thing needs thinking out properly and I’m planning to take a bit of time to do that over the next few weeks.  I think I know what the album's about now.  Once it’s all properly written I’ll aim to record it quickly as usual and I’m hoping for contributions from various Occultation family members.

PB: This year has been Occultation’s busiest year.  What other plans have you got for the immediate future?  Have you got more releases planned for the next few months?

NH: Realistically there probably won’t be anything major before Christmas – though you never know, things do come up unexpectedly.  Aside from the Granite Shore album, there’s The Wild Swans reissue, a DVD of the ‘End of the Pier’ shows featuring the Distractions, Factory Star and the June Brides, and that joint Occultation-Fishrider compilation album I mentioned earlier, but these are all still in the early stages.  Occultation is now larger than it was, we’ve got various partners.  Each release is ultimately down to the artist so I’m talking to Paul about The Wild Swans reissue, to Phil about another June Brides record, we’ve just done new Factory Star and Distractions records but there’ll be more from them too, I hope.  

We’re at something of a crossroads.  We were badly let down last year, although I can’t actually discuss what happened for now, it was touch and go for a while but we pulled through and, as you say, 2012's been our busiest year, punching well above our weight with four albums in as many months.  That’s a big investment, a lot of money sitting in boxes dotted around the planet.  Sometimes I wonder how on earth we managed it but it’s largely been by building partnerships with like-minded people and organisations and by everyone involved – artists, partners, the various people who help out behind the scenes – all pulling together.  As Ian says, if you've got the passion and can make the time there’s always a way. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

White Dopes

Most compilations featuring The Distractions go for the brilliant but obvious FAC 12, Time Goes By So Slow.  Not 2005's White Dopes On Punk (Castle Music), though.  Compiler, David Wells, went for It Doesn't Bother Me from the debut EP, and it sits alongside the likes of The Damned, Sham 69 and JCC on side one of this fine collection of "50 punk nuggets and new wave rarities":

Back in Manchester, The Distractions, who first formed in 1975 but changed direction after hearing The Buzzcocks, included drummer Alec Sidebottom, who'd joined flower power jugband The Purple Gang (of 'Granny Takes A Trip' fame) as far back as 1969. 

The Distractions possessed a 60s-style Pop approach to songwriting that was evident on the EP You're Not Going Out Dressed like That, which featured the rather splendid 'It Doesn't Bother Me' - subsequently re-recorded and released as a single then the band signed to Island a year later.

7. The Distractions - It Doesn't Bother Me: 2.44
(Finney/Perrin) Island Music
from the EP You're Not Going Out Dressed Like That,
TJM2, released November 1978

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Occultation Interview (part 1)

There is a lengthy interview with Occultation boss and Distractions guitarist and songwriter, Nick Halliwell, by John Clarkson over at Penny Black.  In this first part Nick discusses the label's origins...

Occultation Recordings: Interview With Nick Halliwell 

Author: John Clarkson

Occultation Recordings is an Exeter-based label that puts a strong emphasis on both packaging and, while it also does CD and download editions of most of its releases, particularly vinyl.  It was established by the versatile Nick Halliwell, who as well as running the label, also doubles up as a producer, a musician-for-loan and fronts his own band, The Granite Shore.

Occultation Recordings, which Halliwell first established in 2008, includes on its roster The Wild Swans, whose first album in twenty one years, ‘The Coldest Winter For a Hundred Years’, came out last year; The June Brides whose recent single A January Moon/Clouds was their first in twenty-seven years, and The Distractions whose just released second album, ‘The End of the Pier’, follows on thirty-two years after their debut, ‘Nobody’s Perfect’.

Occultation’s other two main acts are Factory Star and the Granite Shore.  Factory Star is the band of Fall founding member and ex-Blue Orchids front man Martin Bramah, and have released both an album, ‘Enter Castle Perilous’, last year and a six song EP, ‘New Sacral’, this year through Occultation Recordings.  The Granite Shore have now had two releases, a 10” single, Tomorrow Morning 3a.m. in 2009 and a 7” single, Flood of Fortune, in 2010.

Nick Halliwell took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Pennyblackmusic about his label.

PB:  You have become quite well known in music circles over the last three years through Occultation Recordings.  What was your musical background before then?

NH:  I formed my first band in 1978 and have always been involved in one way or another, but I’m not sure I’m that well-known, not outside certain very limited circles, anyway.

PB:  Mick Middles has described you as being “the guitar playing, song writing, uber-enthusiast of great lost bands.”  Alongside being the boss of Occultation Records, you front your own band the Granite Shore; play guitar for The Distractions; have written songs for The June Brides and The Distractions and have also worked as a producer.  What do you see yourself as first-a label boss, a musician, a songwriter or a producer-and then what comes next?

NH:  Mick’s being very kind.  The answer is that if I weren’t a songwriter I wouldn’t do any of the other things.  Steve Perrin (Distractions guitarist and main songwriter-Ed) reckons The Distractions are one of the few bands in the world with a dual-rhythm guitar attack rather than two guitarists fighting over who takes the lead parts because we’re both songwriters who happen to play the guitar, rather than guitarists who also write songs.

If you look at the label’s output, it’s all about the writing in one way or another, although we’ve a range of very different songwriters.  The last four years have brought many rewards, but the moment that’ll stay with me was the first time I heard Mike Finney from The Distractions – one of the all-time great English vocalists – singing Oil Painting; before that I wasn’t even sure I was capable of writing for someone else.  Cloud was written for the Granite Shore, but I didn’t feel it worked.  Phil Wilson from The June Brides put a vocal on trying to persuade me to finish it so I said, “Why don’t we finish your version and put that out?” and I think the June Brides made a better job of it than I would have done.

As far as production goes, I always think that if the material’s strong enough and you’ve got the right people, recording ought to be straightforward.  All the records I’ve produced have been done very quickly, the Factory Star album in three days, the Distractions LP in four, while The June Brides and Granite Shore took a few hours.

PB:  Why did you form Occultation Recordings?  The first two releases on it in March 2009, which were the Wild Swans’ English Electric Lightning and the Granite Shore’s debut Tomorrow Morning, 3 a.m., were both on 10”.  Was it simply to provide a voice to both these acts or were there other factors?

NH:  I started the label in late summer 2008 as I found myself with a bit of money and no real responsibilities.  Paul Simpson had reactivated The Wild Swans, writing the best material of his life, and we’re friends so it made sense to join forces and we planned our initial assault together.  We went way over-budget, but those two insanely ambitious 10" singles set out our stall and we followed them with the Liquid Mercury (Wild Swans-Ed) and Flood of Fortune 7”s, both of which did well.  We’ve been building on that foundation ever since.

PB:  Pretty much all your releases since then have come out on vinyl, with only The Wild Swans’ album, ‘The Coldest Winter For a Hundred Years’, not receiving any sort of vinyl release.  You also make it the primary format for most releases, even with something like ‘The End of the Pier’ which was also given a CD release.  Vinyl is on the rise again, up 28% last year, but still very much a niche market with many even older fans not owning a record player now.  Does it worry you that you are releasing material in such a constricted format and how do you get around that?  Is that one of the reasons why you throw in a CD copy with most of your recent vinyl purchases? 

NH:  I don’t see vinyl as “constricted”, quite the reverse.  The CD’s 1980s technology, and it’s as though The Beatles had been forced to release their records on wax cylinders.  ‘The End Of The Pier’ was recorded at approximately three times the quality a CD can handle, whereas the vinyl’s cut from the original 24/96 masters.  It’s only in the mass market that “convenience” has become king, but the reverse is true in our niche.  Most of our audience tell us they want quality across the board, from recording through to packaging so that’s what we try to give them.

The vinyl + CD thing is an example of listening to our audience.  People told us that, although it’s the vinyl they really want, they like having a CD “for the car”.  A lot of thought goes into our CDs as well.  We use our own format of inner sleeve/outer wallet, and, although that costs a bit more (it’s “non-standard”), people like it.  The CD inner sleeve of ‘The End Of The Pier’ is different to the LP inner but people who buy the LP from us get the CD thrown in anyway.  A great piece of music with a thumbnail on a computer is still a great piece of music, but in a gorgeous, beautifully printed sleeve it’s more: it’s a great artefact.  For instance, ‘The End Of The Pier' is 180g vinyl in a heavy-duty sleeve, and. although the image is black-and-white, we used four-colour printing on the reverse of the board for the matt effect.  The LP inner sleeve has the lyrics plus some visual clues – it all feeds into the record.

For Factory Star’s ‘New Sacral’ we decided on a plain black disco bag for the 10” and the information on the CD outer wallet, then a CD inner which is again plain black... except for one sentence.  All quite deliberate, as it’s about designing the packaging to augment the record.  If you look at our records over the last four years, I hope they all look as though they belong on the same label.

It always bugged me not being able to do ‘Coldest Winter...’ on vinyl, so I’m thrilled there’s a reissue coming next year.  Current thinking is a 2x180g LP deluxe edition and maybe a seriously limited "super deluxe” version if enough people want it.

PB:  Three out of the five bands on your current roster – The Wild Swans, The Distractions and Factory Star – are from the North West and either Liverpool or Manchester.  You don’t, however, live in Manchester, but in Exeter.  Why have you gone for so many Northern acts?  Is that something which happened consciously or unconsciously?

NH:  Initially everyone assumed we were based in Liverpool because of The Wild Swans.  Now they think we’re from Manchester because of Factory Star and The Distractions.  I suppose we’ve probably gained a reputation for "reviving” post-punk bands but that makes it sound very backward-looking which it isn’t.  None of us made many records or had “careers” to revive, and I’d like to think we’re all writing about the here and now and still have something to prove.  I think the answer to your question is that Liverpool and Manchester are two cities with a strong sense of individual identity, but also with strong links not just to the rest of England but to the rest of the British Isles and the world.

I’m very proud so many people think ‘Coldest Winter...’ is the Swans’ best album; similarly reviews of ‘The End of the Pier’ compared it favourably to ‘Nobody’s Perfect (The Distractions' 1980 debut record-Ed), an album let down slightly by its production – though there’s no denying the quality of the songs and performances on it. 

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